Spare part

I see that the BBC’s iPM blog is asking for the human stories behind the current unemployment figures. Well, I am a human face of two recent news stories.

As readers are no doubt sick of reading by now, one of those stories was the loss of around 27,000 jobs at Woolworths. The other is the shortage of graduate-level jobs.

I graduated last summer. I didn’t have a job to walk into straight away because I wanted to take time to think about my future plans. Plus, the economy seemed bad enough at the time, and I thought maybe things would improve a bit later down the line. Now I have more or less decided what sort of work I would like to do, but of course the economy has deteriorated further and the jobs simply aren’t there.

The thing is, I’m not the only one. I can’t think of anyone who was in the same school year as me and has found a graduate-level job. I haven’t kept in touch with many people from university, but those I have heard from are either working in part-time retail jobs or more-or-less volunteering. I am still in touch with a lot of people from school, and no-one I know who was in the same year as me has found a job yet. I’m sure there are loads of people of my age who have found a decent job — I just don’t know any of them.

Many are doing five year courses anyway so are still studying. One or two have opted to go onto further study, while the rest of us are still searching for employment. And I’m not talking about people who got thirds from Shatsborough Poly by any means. I know someone who got a first at St Andrews University and is currently working in a shop.

A few months ago I still had the luxury of working in a shop. Of course, staying on at Woolies was never my long-term goal. It would have been useful as a back-up plan though. Not exactly a plan B, but maybe a plan C. As it stands, I’m still waiting for something to turn up in the realm of plan A, I need to wait and see with plan B, and plan C has totally fallen through already. For now, I’m onto plan D — D for “dole”.

So the news that there is a shortage of graduate places is not exactly news to me. I’ve experienced it myself and I’ve shared that experience with my acquaintances. What is really worrying is that a situation that was bad for the class of 2008 looks set to become even worse in 2009, with no sign of a recovery.

I had long feared that my degree wouldn’t be worth much. When I was at my lowest ebb, I thought that the whole higher education machine was a bit of a scam. When you are at school, you are pretty much told by everyone that going to university is the only option if you don’t want to spend your life being a street cleansing operative. Parents want you to go to university because of their pride. Schools want you to go to university, probably because of some kind of target, or league tables or something. And governments want you to go to university because of their peculiar obsession with having 50% of school leavers in higher education, and probably also to keep unemployment figures down as well.

Quite why I should have wanted to go to university is a bit of a mystery now. It was fairly clear early on that my degree wouldn’t be enough to set me apart, mostly because people began to tell us. There was that old joke about the university graduate who went on to become the best barman in town.

I could see why it was the case. The intellectual range of students is surprisingly large. I studied alongside many students who did not seem very bright (and spent much of their four years at university consuming alcohol), but were obviously quite good at exams. I think I am relatively smart and hard-working, but I don’t happen to perform so well at exams (my essay marks were always higher). Both types of student are likely to get a 2:1, but one of those types is surely the better for the employer. I have few ways of signalling to an employer which type I am.

The fact that employers do not value degrees very highly at all is evident in the fact that most blue chip companies will have job applicants sit their own exams, aptitude tests, diagrammatic reasoning tests and so on and so forth. Simply, there are too many degrees sloshing about in the system and the value of a degree is now so low that it tells you almost nothing about a person’s ability to do a job.

Maybe in the long run it will pay off and I will be pleased I put myself through four years of stress and horrible three hour round-trip commutes. In the meantime, I look at the people around me who have never been to university and think what I could be doing now had I taken their path. If I worked in a shop from the age of 16, I could be in management by now. If I left school at 16 and took up a trade such as plumbing, I would be perfectly comfortable and happy with my life already. I might even be running my own business. As things stand, I just feel a bit lost and I don’t know what my prospects are.

What I find notable is that the few opportunities I have had have arisen as a result of my blogging activities. No-one is interested in me because of my degree. There are plenty of people with one of them, and they’re all looking for jobs too.

The loss of my part time job last week came as a further blow to morale. Even though I was planning to leave my job at around this time anyway, there is nothing like being made redundant from a low-paid shelf-stacking job to make you feel like a spare part to the world. I need to remember that it’s not my fault.

Unemployment has affected me more than I thought it might. While I have never been unemployed in the official sense before, I have had periods of downtime before — summer breaks from university and the like. I thought it would feel like that. But it doesn’t. A whole lot of baggage comes with unemployment.

I have found myself being quite down at times. The scariest part is not the lack of income (for the time being) but the potential that I might end up isolated. You might not get along with all of your colleagues, but they are nonetheless like a second family. It’s a whole set of people who are there, prepared to listen to you and offer advice. Regular contact with people keeps you connected to society. With many of my friends either still studying or gallivanting somewhere else, I am a bit worried about becoming isolated.

Jennifer Tracey asks on the iPM blog if there is less of a stigma attached to being unemployed now that the economy is in such a bad state. I couldn’t help but feel rather self conscious as I took my first trip to the Jobcentre and I almost felt like the spotlight was on me as I walked up the steps to the entrance. I suppose that is quite silly really, because in this part of the world the Jobcentre’s steps are quite well used.

But what other people might think doesn’t bother me as much as what I think does. The prospect that I might be unable to positively contribute to society for the next while vexes me a lot.


  1. I came to the exact same conclusion at your age, that I wish I’d have taken a job straight from school, would probably be in senior management, have better business nouse etc., after the thousandth graduate training scheme rejection. And I had a masters degree!

    I only know two people who managed to get on graduate training schemes and they were both classically high achievers and dead-set on what they wanted to do, but have also been stuck with the same employer for years.

    My first job after graduating was making the reels for fruit machines for 12 hours a day. After that I worked (mainly temping for poor pay) in just about every industry under the sun just to make the rent; sometimes in 2 jobs at a time. It took me until I was almost 28 to land a job – my current job – for which I needed a degree, and by then I reckon that I could turn my hand to just about anything. The fact that my degrees are completely unrelated to my job doesn’t matter – to my employer it really just shows that I can work to a certain (arbitrary!) level.

    You will definitely get a job, but in the meantime it would be worth just signing up with a temp agency in town or in Edinburgh; it’ll give you some cash, look better on your CV than nowt, get you out of the house and most importantly – and shoot me now for saying this – networking. Hidden jobs market and all that.

    Good luck!

  2. The thing is though, I know people who haven’t gotten degrees and THAT has held them back – I think, because degrees have become the norm, if you don’t have one on your CV employers wonder why. But saying that, the grade doesn’t seem to be an issue – having a 2:2 has never held me back although I do have a Masters on top of that.

    This really is a shitty time to enter the job market, and I hope you have some success sooner rather than later. I’d echo what Vicky says above about temp work, and if you’re doing something that’s not a “career”/something you’re as emotionally invested in as a full-time job would be that will hopefully leave you enough time and energy to build on the opportunities you have earned though blogging – and hopefully seek out some new ones.

  3. Thanks Vicky and Lis.

    I think doing temp work for a bit wouldn’t do me much bad at all. Definitely something I’ll look at. And don’t worry about saying “networking” — I’m all for meeting as many people as possible just now!

    I had thought about the fact that having a degree might be seen as the bare minimum required to get on. It underlines how messed up the system seems to be at the moment, that it takes 7 years of primary school, at least 5 of high school and probably 4 of university and still find yourself more or less on the bottom rung.

    But I have to take the situation as it is and not as I’d like it to be, so there’s no use in me complaining any more! I’ve just got to get on with it. 🙂

  4. Counterpoint. I dropped out of my first degree course at 19, and went and got a shop job.

    I worked my way up to management level, and decided it wasn’t for me. 5 years for the same employer, and my only real ‘life’ skills were for them, I couldn’t figure out what I’d want to do instead.

    But a friend suggested an access course and I then did a degree as a mature student (aged 25, oh so mature). Best thing I ever did.

    The reason employers want aptitude tests and similar is because degrees now don’t differentiate enough between clever and stupid—do some work, you get a 2:1 or 2:2. They want to hire graduates, but want to make sure they get the good ones.

    The reason they want graduates is, genuinely, getting a degree, the research, the reading around the subject, the putting both sides of an argument, the rebuttal: those are essential skills that most no grads have difficulty with.

    Trying to explain to my grandmother why I couldn’t do my 8-hours-a-week-plus-reading degree course in one year was really hard—it wasn’t the knowledge I was learning that was important, it was the techniques and the ability to research that mattered.

    Duncan, you have a degree in economics. At a time when the economy is in a mess. Your recent posts on Woolworths should be a bloody good indicator to a decent employer that you’re a decent hire; you saw what was going wrong and can analyse it and explain it.

    Right now, the economy is in the shits, I’m down to bugger all paying clients. But the analytical skills you’ve picked up by doing your degree, heightened by your blogging, should put you in good, medium term, prospects.

    You want a job in marketing and product analysis. Not sales and marketing, but proper marketing—the type that spends time figuring out if the product you’re trying to sell is actually worth it at all in the first place.

    Without a degree, you might be happy in a practical job like plumbing. But would you be? You’d not be using the analytical skills you’ve picked up, the predictive skills that are useful.

    I loved working in my shop. But the job itself, after a few years doing it, just got to be very mundane. Find an employer that needs a brain—possibly a small(ish) struggling business that has potential but can’t see what’s wrong.

  5. Thanks so much for that comment Mat.

    I’m pretty confident that I have the skills and ability for my medium term prospects to be good. The marketing and product analysis suggestion is an interesting one. Is there anything apart from my recent posts on Woolworths that makes you think that? I think I have pretty good analytical skills in general, so any job that involved analysis or research would probably suit me well.

    “Not sales and marketing” is also an interesting one because I am seriously considering that area at the moment.

  6. The ‘not’ was there as a lot of people are put off marketing by thinking that that’s all marketing is.

    My job when I started blogging was effectively a marketing job, but I wasn’t selling any product at all, I was actually buying.

    But basically, across the board analysis, some of the by election stuff you wrote, etc. Not everyone can think around an issue in that way and figure out what’s going right/wrong without putting on blinkers.

    Friend of mine works in marketing for a well known manufacturer/retailer that I’m not naming. His job is basically to look at product sales figures for the last X period and work out how much of each they should be making for the next X period, and how a new product line will fit in with that, etc.

    Never meets a customer, never books an ad, but it’s marketing. If the idea of sales & doesn’t put you off (like it would me) then it’s definitely an avenue to look into, just don’t get bogged into the sales side, less directly suited to the analytical skill set.

  7. Hello. I’m afraid I only occasionally drop by your blog, but aside from the smaller details this post could have been written by me: I imagine I’m the same age, and like you I have no friends with graduate level jobs. Some have gone travelling, some are unemployed, some are taking further study (willingly or unwillingly), most are in jobs they do not particularly want to be in and back living with their parents. The only modestly successful people I can think of are the few in my school year that didn’t go on to university. Plus, of course, they don’t have up to ÂŁ10,000 worth of debt hanging over them.

    I too found myself unemployed after I had taken up a temporary job just after graduating last summer, which is the present situation.

    I’m afraid unlike others I cannot offer any advice, but sufficed to say I agree entirely, and feel that there are many, many out there in the same position.

  8. Hi Duncan – bit late on this one as I go through an RSS backlog. MatGB’s suggestions are really good. Alternatively in the marketing sector you could work on the agency side – yes agency budgets are dropping but social media aspect is holding steady as plenty of companies are getting involved more and more, particularly as the returns from advertising are dropping. The job role stretches from everything from approaching bloggers to writing and producing content; alternatively with your analytical skills you could work in the buzz monitoring and insight areas. I can give you the names of a few recruitment agencies who work in the sector if you like – just email.

    Other suggestions I would have – as well as signing up to as many job sites as you can, any with RSS feeds make sure you subscribe to in your feed reader so you’re up to date. If there’s too much information there then you can use Yahoo Pipes to do filtering and get rid of duplicates or unnecessary (I had one set up, the URL will probably break if I put it here but I can send via email). Oh, and if you’re not on LinkedIn then get on it and make sure you have a shiny turbo-charged CV on it & publicly available – several recruitment types have got in touch with me after reading my profile.

    In the meantime, stay positive, remember that though it is a recession the economy is still only shrinking by a percent or two, it’s not the end of the world. And as Mat says, definitely do temp work – as well as the money it will keep you in a work mindset.

  9. Hi, here via matgb’s livejournal. I’m a 2007 graduate and it took my friends a couple of years to find jobs they were interested in, so I wouldn’t start panicking yet.

  10. As of yesterday, I joined the dole queue, having had my contract terminated due to some extremely odd (and possibly lawsuit-inducing) behaviour on the part of an employer which should have known better.

    So far, I’ve found my degree to be an outright detriment in the career it was supposed to help in. Ironically, all my university friends found good jobs in areas where their skills but not their specific degree was needed before they officially graduated. The trouble was that the requirements to join my profession changed halfway through my degree. Before, a degree was essential. Afterwards, five GCSEs would do. So the time to be looking for a job was two years ago – anyone new to the area after that found it virtually impossible to get anything because the number of candidates was overwhelming.

    I eventually got a job after nearly a year of working, but between an employer who seemed to go out of their way to avoid complying with the contractual requirements they signed up for and getting differential treatment because of living away from the usual catchement area (due to having a disability, the recruiters weren’t allowed to remove me from the running on that basis), the enjoyment of the job itself got overshadowed.

    Now it’s looking really tough to get a job. Not only does my degree rule me out of most entry-level jobs in my sector because people assume I’ll get bored, and the old “experience” chestnut rule me out of the ones above, but I now have to tell people not to ask my previous employer for a reference because they told me they’d lie on the reference (yes, they really were that bad an employer). I don’t have the skills for most out-of-sector work and have learned the hard way that I can’t expect to acquire them in a worthwhile timeframe. Which makes me think that the relatively low number of advertised jobs is the least of my employment-related problems.

    As for your own employment situation, I think you’ll get something eventually. You’ve got a good analytical brain, have obviously got people skills and can communicate well. If you combine that with a knack for not rubbing employers up the wrong way (and I can’t tell either way from this side of the computer screen), you should have no trouble getting another job. Getting the one you want may take longer, but keep your hope up and work your way upwards and sideways to where you’d like to be and eventually you’ll get there 🙂

  11. Hi Alianora,

    Yeah, you got moderated, but I recovered the comment. Thanks for the comment.

    It sounds like you’ve had more than your fair share of raw deals in the world of work. I hope something works out for you soon.

  12. Look guys, it will work out sometime but I can see there will be significant changes on how we do work. I sit at the other end of the career scale many years after graduation and with no significant prospects because employers will prefer to take on cheaper younger staff. There are no safe jobs anymore, but seek to do something that you enjoy because then it will not be “hard” work. There have been recessions before and they will come and go again. I am taking my time to choose my next career path, and marketing sounds good !