Do graduates need a first-class degree to get a good job? (Daily Telegraph)

A combination of too many students, grade inflation and a stalled
economy have created a toxic combination for any new graduate seeking
paid employment.
High hopes: graduating students are about to discover that an average
of 73 students compete for each job

By Louisa Peacock

After a nail-biting few weeks, the results are in, the champagne
corks have popped and graduates up and down the country are breathing
a sigh of relief. The hard graft is over, and all that remains for
many of the class of 2012 is to attend their graduation ceremonies and
toss their mortar boards in the air with a sense of pride.

But after the celebrations have finished, mortar boards aren’t the
only things that will come crashing back down to earth this summer.
The hundreds of thousands of graduates entering the jobs market over
the next few months face increasingly bleak prospects, according to
new studies of graduate recruitment.

The latest report, published yesterday, suggests that the labour
market has become so competitive that top employers are screening out
graduates who fail to gain first-class degrees. Employers say they are
so swamped with applications that filtering candidates by the best
degree classifications is one of the easiest – and cheapest – ways to
reduce the shortlist, the report by the Association of Graduate
Recruiters (AGR) says.

A separate study out yesterday by High Fliers Research, a market
research company, shows that in 70 per cent of cases, graduate
employers demand at least a 2:1 degree. Application levels are now
some 25 per cent higher than three years ago, partly because of the
backlog of graduates still looking for work since the recession.

An average of 73 students compete for each job, although that number
rises to 154 in the retail industry and 142 for investment banking
posts. Meanwhile, the number of first-class graduates has more than
doubled over the past decade, figures show.
Martin Birchall, managing director of High Fliers Research, says that
the demand for first-class intellectual prowess is coming from the top
investment banks, consultancies, law firms and accountants in
particular.

“The number of first-class and 2:1 degrees has increased notably over
the past 10 years – it’s becoming an absolute minimum standard,” he
says. “If, during an interview, undergraduates say they might not get
a 2:1 after all, many have to withdraw their applications.”

Accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers, the biggest graduate employer,
received 33,000 student and graduate applications for around 2,500
jobs this year, although it does recruit on other factors besides
academic achievements. Other industries are experiencing the same
overload; oil giant BP received 7,000 applications for 244 jobs, while
Jaguar Land Rover saw the number of applicants for its scheme rise by
61 per cent over the year to 10,632.

“The volume of applications is so high that companies could fill their
places three or four times over with good candidates,” Mr Birchall
says. “They will regret that they can’t view all candidates – it’s
incredibly harsh, but many good ones slip through the net.”

Michael Barnard, product manager at Milkround, the graduate careers
advice site, says the problem stems from the height of the recession,
when many big employers froze their graduate schemes. “This created a
graduate jobs backlog, or debt, which we haven’t managed to clear yet.
It’s really tough for graduates to find work,” he says.

“Graduates can’t expect to just walk into a decent job any more. If
you want to work in London – God forbid, it’s the hardest place to
find a job in the world – you will have to accept that you probably
need to live in a house-share with five strangers, work in a café to
pay the bills and start at the bottom with a big employer.”

He agrees that the UK’s financial industry is driving the trend to
filter applications by academic achievement. Other sectors,
particularly the creative ones such as media, are less concerned about
grades and more interested in skills, extra-curricular activities and
experience, he says – something that universities often overlook.

“Universities should pay more attention to creative students, where
it’s more about what you’ve done at university, the clubs you’re part
of, and so on,” he says.

Those employers who sift applications based on academic achievement do
also use an online application form, aptitude tests, competency-based
interviews and telephone interviews, according to the High Fliers
report, based on interviews with the UK’s top 100 graduate employers.
Personality questionnaires and group exercises at selection centres
are also used to assess how well-rounded a candidate is, giving
applicants the chance to show off “softer” skills beyond academic
achievements, such as team-working, communication and presenting
skills.

But if the majority of employers specify a 2:1 minimum, many
candidates with 2:2 degrees or lower won’t get the chance to show off
how “rounded” they are if they cannot apply to start with, Mr Birchall
says.

Tanya de Grunwald, founder of GraduateFog, a careers website, and who
is leading a campaign against unpaid graduate internships, says the
balance of power has shifted dramatically to employers in recent
years. “Many graduates are having their self-esteem chipped away as
they don’t even get a rejection letter. It is a buyers’ market, with
graduates having to work harder and harder to get noticed,” she says.

She believes that the push under the previous Labour government to get
half of all young people to go to university has hoodwinked young
people into thinking that if they get a degree, a well-paid job and
high-flying career path will follow. But many of Britain’s top
employers still prefer to recruit Oxbridge graduates, she says,
meaning that applicants with lower grades, who went to a non-Russell
Group university, stand little chance of being seen.

Graduates who have worked hard at university feel they are being let
down by the system. More than a third are starting jobs at the
non-graduate level because they have no choice, official figures show.

Cait Reilly, a geology graduate from the University of Birmingham,
made headlines this year when she decided to take legal action against
the Government for being forced to stack shelves in a Poundland store.
She had been unable to find work in her subject area and was claiming
jobless benefits while volunteering in a museum. But the 22-year-old
was told to give up her placement to work at the high street retailer
under a government scheme designed to get the unemployed back to work.

Miss de Grunwald says that increasingly, graduates are being forced to
work for free with big employers just to get a foot on the career
ladder, but this limits opportunities for those from poorer or
disadvantaged backgrounds who cannot afford to carry out three-month
unpaid placements.

Mr Birchall suspects “grade inflation” is behind the huge increase in
the number of high achievers who have to lower their expectations when
they get to the real world of work; a trend that begins at school.
“The minute A-star grades were introduced at A-level was a sign that
the A-level system is broken as well,” he says. “It has led to a whole
generation of pupils applying to university because they want to, not
necessarily because they have earned it.”

But Miss de Grunwald is not convinced. “Companies just can’t be
bothered to think of a new way to sift applications. There are plenty
of reasons why people get 2:2s – perhaps they had family issues, or an
illness, or maybe they’re not academic. But they’re good at other
stuff, such as building networks or communicating with people, which
is essential in careers such as sales.”

Something the experts can agree on is that the grim surveys of recent
weeks revolve only around the biggest graduate employers and do not
reflect all companies who hire graduates. Plenty of small- to
medium-sized businesses (SMEs) are “crying out” for skills and
struggle to recruit graduates because they are less well-known, Miss
de Grunwald says.

Metaswitch Networks, a fast-growing technology company based in
Enfield, hires about 40 graduates a year but has no stringent
requirements on academic grades. James Madeley, graduate recruitment
manager, says: “Academic ability is an indicator of how clever someone
is, but for us it’s about how graduates can logically think through a
problem and solve it. We interview and test for that, as a specific
skill, rather than degree attainment.”

He thinks universities should forge better links with SMEs to help
open graduates’ eyes to the many opportunities that lie outside of the
big 100 companies. Mr Barnard agrees: “Candidates unlucky with the big
firms can find small- and medium-sized businesses close to the
experience they are looking for who are willing to recruit. You’d get
more responsibility, quicker,” he says.

For some, it may work out better to avoid the structure and
predictability of the large graduate recruitment schemes, Miss de
Grunwald argues.

“There are an awful lot of other jobs out there, where graduates can
get broad experience and pick up lots of skills. Those that don’t get
on to the big schemes have almost dodged a bullet.”