Are you superhuman enough to get a grad job?

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Photograph: Lancaster University Press Office

2014 is meant to be the best year for the newest generation of graduates since the economic downturn. Headlines shouting about a “seven-year high” of graduate jobs, however, only tell half the story. The reality is that almost four in ten graduate jobs amongst the top 100 employers will only be available to graduates with previous internships, industrial placements, or work experience at their company. 50% of opportunities at the top law firms are also only offering jobs to graduates with previous internships, as well as three quarters of such opportunities being available at City investment banks. That’s not even mentioning that the average starting salary is stuck at £29,000 for the fifth year in a row.

In an effort to brighten up the education headlines, most of the media have completely glossed over the issue at hand: that the majority of university students have very little chance of actually getting an internship at the company of their choice. Though the top 100 employers have a record 11,819 paid internships available during this academic year, there’s the small matter of elbowing your way past the other dozens of students to get onto the internship, and then trying to finance transport and accommodation during the internship itself – which will no doubt be located in either London or Manchester. All this is assuming, of course, that you’ve decided what you want to do and where you want to work well in advance of your graduation.

The life of an average graduate now consists of finding work experience to get an internship to get a job – three hurdles where we can all fall down at any stage. It’s no wonder that the number of students seeking counselling for mental health issues has soared in recent years; this nightmare is surely enough to make anyone crash and burn. We’re in an age where graduate employment is fast becoming elitist and damn near impossible, with worries that wealthy and well-connected students are taking up most internships, and therefore most graduate opportunities. Once again it’s the less well-off and poorly-connected students who are suffering and who are getting sucked to into an ever increasing black hole of unemployed young people.

How can any but the superhuman manage to get a decent job these days? So many companies have such rigorous application processes for internships as well as jobs that it’s gobsmacking that they actually want to take anyone on. It’s a sign of growing disenchantment between the world of academia and the world of work, one that is not going to lessen. It’s all very well for universities minister David Willetts to say that “a degree is still one of the best routes to a good job and a rewarding career,” but the fact is, as we all know, that companies would much rather hire someone with experience than a degree.

Instead of teaching us about the field we’re studying, it would be just as well for universities to help us map out our lives for the next few years as soon as we arrive: decide what you want to do regardless of the fact that you probably have no idea; find some work experience or do some voluntary work in that field even though gaining such opportunities are becoming increasingly saturated and difficult; then apply for an internship which is just as rigorous as applying for a job; and then do it all over again when it comes to October in your final undergraduate year to earn an average salary that hasn’t changed in five years.

Instead of being the time of your life and a time for studying, university is increasingly becoming a three-year stress-inducing worry for generations of people. Will there ever come a time again when students can walk into jobs because they are the right people to do it, rather than having to prove it by way of endless weeks of work experience, often unpaid? It would be nice to think so, but unless the economy suddenly starts booming again, it’s highly unlikely. The UK is churning out so many qualified, hardworking, and skilled graduates, as well as opening university doors for so many people, that the job market just cannot cope or differentiate between people. All we can do it is try our best, and simply hope that good fortune comes our way.