'Recruitment is on hold': the students graduating into the Covid-19 recession

Tess Reidy
Photograph: Prasit Rodphan/Alamy

Justine Tanomjit, a commercial law student at Aberystwyth University, was headhunted for a job as an insurance broker that would have begun in June. Two weeks ago she got a call saying the interview was cancelled. “I feel so sad and frustrated. I’d been nervous about leaving uni and getting an interview was really exciting,” she says.

Many are in similar positions. Alice Cole (not her real name) is in her final year at the University of Brighton and wanted to go into the NGO sector as a researcher. She was feeling confident about her prospects after graduation and there were jobs available, but the outlook has changed rapidly. “Because of coronavirus, funding for NGOs is getting smaller and there are fewer jobs at entry-level positions,” she says. “It won’t be possible anymore.”

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Students are starting to realise they will be graduating into a global recession. According to the Institute of Student Employers (ISE), many firms have scaled down their recruitment of entry-level staff and more than a quarter of businesses are reducing the number of graduates they hire this year.

While some firms are moving assessments and interviews online, the majority have cancelled them. “Thousands of young people are supposed to be entering the labour market from July and they could be left without work and nothing to do while coronavirus is sorted out,” says Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the ISE. “We need to make sure that a whole generation isn’t lost.”

One graduate recruiter says they have already retracted offers. “Firms are being realistic and most are putting recruitment on hold. No one wants to offer an opportunity which might not be there in three months’ time.”

Routes into graduate jobs have also been affected. Short-term work such as internships and placements will be reduced by almost a third, say the ISE, and 68% of firms have cancelled work experience and taster opportunities. As a result, almost 40% of students are now worried they won’t be able to get a job at all.

James Turner, CEO of the Sutton Trust, says although we don’t know the full extent of the virus on the graduate job market yet, shrinking opportunities tend to be bad for social mobility, with students unable to access internships and other work experience placements. He says: “Internships are increasingly necessary for many graduate jobs, and there is a risk that young people with professional connections may be able to find work experience while other, openly-advertised, opportunities cease to exist.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, says although most companies will feel the impact, there will be some big winners and some losers depending on the sector. “Even in this crisis, some employers are booming. Technology companies, the food sector and logistics firms are busier than ever,” he says. “You might not end up with the job you hoped for but you can get a job.”

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Students can also rely on their university careers’ services, and Kim Connor Streich, marketing director of the Debut Careers app, thinks it is vital that applicants practice video interviews and presenting on camera.

Others, however, think we will see more students deciding to take master’s degrees or further courses of study. In other times of recession, staying on at university has been a good alternative to struggling to get a job, with the hope that individuals will emerge not only with improved skills but into a recovering jobs market. Cole thinks this is her only option. “I live in a rural area of Wales so there are very few job opportunities around here. I’m currently looking into doing a master’s,” she says. “The easiest thing to do right now is to delay entering the job market by a year so things have a chance to get back to normal.”

James Catchpole, director of the legal practice course at the City Law School, thinks the end result may be a more highly skilled workforce. “We need to make sure we prepare them even better than we have done and turn them into even better candidates,” he says.

Hillman agrees. “You can get government-backed loans for postgraduate study, and unis will be falling over themselves to recruit home students as international numbers will be down significantly.”