Whose responsibility is graduate employability?

It’s no secret that the nature of the workplace is changing - and fast. Recent graduates have to work harder than ever to secure a job, and the competition is increasing. In just 10 years, the proportion of graduates that are employed full-time within four months of completing their degrees has dropped dramatically, from 85.5% in 2008 down to 72.9% in 2017 (source: jobs.gov.au).

In today’s job market you need to work hard, present well, have the right skills and experience, and the ability to hit the ground running. Oh, and did we mention that you also need to know where the jobs are?

How many times have you looked at a job on Seek and thought ‘I could totally do that!’ - only to find they want a minimum of 3 years experience? What’s more, even if it is truly a graduate role, your chances of being the successful applicant are, on average, 1 in 33 (source: GradAustralia). Sure, it’s better odds than winning Oz Lotto (1 in 2,521,090), but not all that much better than your odds of getting struck by lightning (1 in 3,000 across your lifetime).

Useless statistical comparisons aside, one fundamental question remains: when so many jobs require experience, how do you get that experience until you have a job?

As someone with a firsthand view of the graduate transition to work process, this question is particularly interesting to me. The candidates in Tappi’s career success program come from a diverse range of backgrounds and disciplines, but they have one thing in common: a wealth of incredible skills and ideas to offer. So how is it that they find themselves locked out of the job market: unable to get work because they have no experience, and - without work - unable to get experience?

Recent students working through industry projects

The answer is simple, you might say. When writing their resumes and cover letters, students should highlight their experience in casual retail/hospitality jobs, or talk about projects or placements they undertook as part of Work-Integrated Learning opportunities at University.

The first option is great when graduates are applying for a structured graduate program and all they have to demonstrate is that they are quick to learn, with good communication and problem solving skills. However (though it is hard to find concrete statistics) there appears to be a sharp decline in the number of companies offering graduate programs, in line with a general fragmentation of the workforce and a move towards casualisation of employment. For many of the organisations Tappi works with - from Not For Profits, to startups, to boutique consultancies and small to medium enterprises - there is no spare cash to invest in skilling up graduates over a period of one or more years. Budgets are tight and few have the luxury of waiting for new employees to hit their stride. There is an expectation that you will be a productive, contributing member of the team within a few weeks, if not days, and that you’ll contribute to the generation of revenue for the business, or get your hands dirty in project implementation without the need for constant monitoring and support.

As for Work-Integrated Learning opportunities, a recent survey conducted by Universities Australia determined that around one in three Australian university students undertook at least one Work-Integrated Learning experience in 2017 (most commonly a placement, but also industry projects and other activities). One in three students… it doesn’t sound too bad, right? What if we look at it another way though? If it was phrased as ‘66% of students had no direct engagement with industry through their course in 2017’, all of a sudden the struggle many graduates experience when trying to find work starts to make a lot more sense.

Of course, direct exposure to industry is not the panacea to every challenge currently faced by graduates in securing work, but it surely doesn’t hurt! On the positive side, the very fact that Universities Australia has commissioned a survey on the topic suggests that the sector as a whole has moved beyond the futile argument that universities have no responsibility for graduate employment outcomes. Of course we want unis to focus on more than just vocational training, but to equate employability development solely with vocational training (an argument that more than a few academics have made to me in the past) seems rather narrow-minded to begin with. The majority of employers I talk to are ultimately far more concerned with critical thinking and problem solving than they are with a candidate’s current level of technical skill.

So, back to the original question: whose responsibility is graduate employability? Surely the most basic answer is that the responsibility is shared between four key stakeholders: universities, who are paid to educate students; employers, who have a self-interest in better-skilled workers; government, to support economic competitiveness and overall productivity; and then the individuals themselves, who have an interest/responsibility in terms of their own employment.

What does this look like in practice then, when faced with the current reality for those stakeholder groups?

  • Universities are crying poor around government underfunding of tertiary education, but at the same time are using student fees to cross-subsidise research (in pursuit of global rankings increases), rather than investing in more industry experiences for students.

  • Governments are investing in a number of pilot programs, many of which result in a few years of a program that has no ongoing commercial sustainability, whilst at the same time constantly reducing funding for the university sector.

  • Many employers are cutting their graduate programs and outsourcing/offshoring/automating entry-level roles.

  • Individuals are not necessarily taking the initiative for their own future and promoting themselves through a variety of channels to get discovered; instead they are applying only for roles that are formally advertised on job boards.

In short, there is currently somewhat of a vacuum that, unsurprisingly, a number of enterprising private providers (such as Tappi) have moved into. There is no denying it is a difficult space, yet it is too important to ignore the challenge. The odds of getting rich doing it are about the same as throwing a wad of cash on red at Crown Casino, but for us at Tappi, the opportunity to create value for all stakeholders mentioned above - and hopefully create social capital in the process - is a challenge that excites us.

So are we a blight on the graduate employability landscape, or simply responding to a need? You be the judge.

- Tappi


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