Graduate employment rates are actually higher than you think
One night, a young man crouched down under a street-lamp feeling around as if he had lost something. An old man stopped and asked if he could help. The young man welcomed the assistance, explaining that he had lost a rare old coin. The old man crouched down a small distance from the young man and joined him in looking and feeling around. After they looked for some time, the old man said, ‘Maybe if you showed me exactly where you dropped the coin, we would have better luck in finding it.’ The young man pointed and said, ‘Good idea! I dropped it there across the street.’ The old man asked, ‘Then why are you looking over here?!’ The young man answered, ‘It’s too dark to find anything over there. Here, on this side, there’s a streetlamp to help me see.’
Graduate employment rates are a lot like looking under the streetlamp. Governments and universities are looking for quick finds (that can easily be reported). Graduate Careers Australia publishes annual reports indicating how many surveyed graduates said that they were in full-time employment four months after graduation. These reports allow readers to track trends over time, in this case indicating that employment outcomes are going down, down, down.
There are four main trouble spots with this approach to measuring graduate employment
1. Self-Selecting Survey Respondents
We only know the employment outcomes of the graduates who choose to complete the survey. How do we know that this sample is representative of the other graduates? Perhaps the graduates who did not check-in are so busy working in their new careers that they do not have time to answer surveys, or perhaps their attention has shifted from university to workplace, meaning that they have little interest in responding to university-related surveys
2. Four Months
Four months is not a long time. By the time graduates have celebrated through numerous events and recovered from what for many can be gruelling years of study, a month or more might have elapsed. Then graduates might choose a gap between university and career to travel. There are numerous graduates who report choosing to work in a restaurant or bar for some time to make quick cash and have some fun before buckling down to serious career work.
Furthermore, finding a career takes time. There are built-in delays between positions being advertised, interviews being scheduled and commencement dates. In other words, measuring employment four months after graduation might only catch a subset of those who are employed given a longer time frame.
3. Full-time Employment
There is an increasing trend away from full-time work for a single employer, particularly in some industries. For example, many graduates with computer programming, digital multi-media and website or social media design degrees and skills are increasingly working in ‘uber-ized’ contexts where they advertise skills or respond to calls for piece-work.
For example, if someone wants an infographic designed or has an idea for a practical game that they want designed, they will place an advertisement through a website or app designed to connect vendors and procurers. Many skilled graduates enjoy this type of work context because it pays the bills (often well) and offers flexibility and variety.
When you ask these graduates whether they are employed full-time, the answer is ‘no.’ However, are they suitably employed? The answer is often ‘yes.’ As another example, creative and performing arts, project management and many other disciplines tend to result in contracted work opportunities. Graduates often work multiple part-time contracts simultaneously, sequentially and/or seasonally. Again, these graduates are not employed full-time, but are often happily employed nevertheless.
4. Making rather than Taking Work
An increasing proportion of university graduates are creating start-ups rather than seeking employment with an established employer. Many of today’s students have social justice goals and aspirations. They want to make a difference and have ideas as to how.
They are starting-up their own businesses, enterprises and/or social media opportunities. These initiatives take time to get established. So again, these graduates would not respond affirmatively to being employed full-time, but are occupationally engaged and satisfied
Moving from the current approaches to future possibilities, four suggestions become apparent.
1. Consider triangulating the approaches to gathering employment outcome data. In addition to surveying graduates, external organisations (including governments) might consider polling employers, requesting university-created reports and facilitating graduate focus groups.
2. Longitudinal approaches to data collection (with multiple milestones and check-points) may reveal fuller outcomes than one-time cross-sectional surveys. Consider following graduates and collecting their stories to see how long it takes to obtain and sustain quality employment outcomes and to follow career changes along the way.
3. Actioning the previous two suggestions will allow a more complete graduate employability story, which will enable the third suggestion, which is – avoid restricting the data collection to only full-time employment.
4. Do not assume that all graduates are seeking full-time employment with an existing and established employer. In graduate employment reports, remember to include entrepreneurial endeavours (such as start-ups).
From this look at the challenges in current approaches to measuring university employment outcomes, it can reasonably be concluded that careers may be going better than we think. However, this is no reason to ease-back on a relentless campaign to increase and enhance student employability and university employment outcomes.