What happens to our students?

Thousands of university students will today receive an email telling them they are the chosen ones. Their responses will unlock the secrets of what benefits – if any – a university education provides.

New Zealand is getting more educated. Between 1986 and 2009 the number of Kiwis with a university degree rocketed from 100,000 to 538,000. But just what this means for the country is unclear.

As the recession took hold a couple of years ago, jobs for graduates dried up and more students opted to stay at university and gain post-graduate qualifications. There are signs that the fortunes of graduates leaving university now are improving, but many still struggle to find work.

However, the size of the problem, and what industries are worst hit, is somewhat of a mystery because of a lack of data. That’s why Professor Richie Poulton and his team at the National Centre for Life course Research, based at the University of Otago, are launching an ambitious new study to find out where a university qualification leads.

Researchers are inviting 14,000 final-year students from the eight universities around the country to take part, representing about a third of the 40,000 students currently in their last year of tertiary study.

Today’s email will go to students selected from the University of Auckland and Lincoln University. Students from the remaining six universities will be invited to join next month and in September.

“In truth, there’s not a lot known about where graduates end up after they’ve gone through a tertiary institution,” says Poulton.

“There is a lot of assumption that it adds value to people’s lives. The focus is usually on employment circumstance, whether they get a better job.

“Implicit in the thinking behind the tertiary sector is that people not only acquire skills they also acquire – by exposure to that milieu-a set of attitudes and values that down the track translate into civic mindedness.”

The longitudinal study replaces the Graduate Destinations survey previously carried out by the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors Committee, which quizzed graduates six months after they left university, missing data on long-term career progress.

The new study will revisit graduates in two, five and 10 years’ time, building up a picture of the impact of university on New Zealanders’ lives. Participants will fill in an online survey designed to reveal how their careers develop, when they begin to have families, where they live, their finances, health and social relationships. “We want to make this the most comprehensive examination of lives and careers of a graduate population in the world,” says Poulton.

Smaller-scale surveys have had some interesting insights. AUT has conducted its own graduate destination survey and when the recession hit, there was a notable increase in the number of graduates returning to study post-graduate courses.

In 2005, before the recession, 27 per cent of AUT students who had graduated went on to further study. In 2009, that increased slightly to 28 per centand last year 34 per cent of graduates stayed on for more study. AUT vice-chancellor Derek McCormack says this trend is in line with the rest of the country.

“One option, if you can’t get a job, is to do a bit more study and make yourself more competitive,” he says. The director of economic think-tank the New Zealand Institute, Rick Boven, says he has been worried about the lack of data on graduate employment for the past 15 years.

“We have insufficient mechanisms to understand what the future workforce needs will be and then alter our skills development to match those,” he says.

The New Zealand Institute report More Ladders, Fewer Snakes, released this month, states tertiary institutions chase bums on seats rather than provide education that will lead to long term economic benefit.

“Success depends on being able to offer courses that students find appealing, though there is no robust test to ensure that the courses offered will lead to work for the graduates.”

A key concern is skilled young workers disappearing overseas-the dreaded brain drain. Australia is the most popular destination for young New Zealanders. Figures released by Statistics New Zealand show the number of Kiwis aged 20-24 departing permanently for Australia has leapt 43 per cent to 8120 in the year to June this year, compared with 5688 last year.

This age group accounted for the largest number of permanent departures. In the past year, 14,842 New Zealanders aged in their early-20s left to live overseas. The number of people leaving in their late-20s, aged 25-29, was slightly lower at 14,496.

However, young people heading off in the hope of finding work may be in for a shock. Jobs for graduates in Australia are the scarcest they have been since 1994, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

The Graduate Careers Australia report, which surveys about 100,000 university graduates, found the number of graduates finding full-time work has fallen about 10 per cent from a high of 85.2 per cent in 2008. Only three-quarters of graduates hunting for employment found full-time positions after finishing their studies in 2009.

Graduates with a degree in medicine, dentistry, surveying and nursing have a good chance of finding work across the ditch. Pharmacy graduates are the most likely to land a job as 98 per cent of those graduates are in full-time work.

But those arriving in Australia with qualifications in visual and performing arts, social sciences, psychology and the humanities will find it a hard slog to find work. The second most popular destination for young Kiwis heading overseas is the UK. In the past year, 4977 New Zealanders aged in their 20s departed long term for Britain. The job climate there is also tough.

The number of graduates applying for each job has doubled since 2009, as three successive years of university leavers struggle with an over-saturated market. Although the number of available jobs is slowly increasing, the largest employers now receive an average of 83 CVs for a single vacancy.

Some top companies are inundated by as many as 150 applications for each job. It’s the highest response rate on record. BUT UK commentators say the graduate job market is showing signs of recovery.

The market has recorded a slight increase in average starting salaries and a small growth in the overall number of jobs. There are similar signs of improvement here. General manager of Hudson Recruitment, Roman Rogers, says the global financial crisis slowed down the departure of babyboomers worried about their nest eggs from the labour market, making it tougher for graduates to find their way in.

“The downturnwas an awakener for all generations,” says Rogers. “In 2007 and 2008 when the New Zealand economy was humming there were lots of opportunities and employees felt they were in a position of power. When the downturn came, people started to feel vulnerable very quickly.”

Rogers expects that tendency of older workers to cling to jobs to gradually ease, opening the way for more young graduates. Robert Milne, director of graduate employment website GradConnection, has already seen a positive shift as more graduate jobs have been available this year than last. ASB launched a new graduate programme in the past six months and is actively looking to recruit between 20 and 30 graduates a year.

BNZ and AIG have also introduced new graduate recruitment schemes. “There’s a need to bring youth into organisations for their different skills and experiences,” says Milne.

Big employers are going out on the hunt early to snaffle the best candidates before they have graduated. Ten years ago, law firms and banks would hold employment rounds in October for the following year. These days, new blood is recruited in March, to start the following March.

It is a competitive market for graduates seeking work, but also for firms. So what is the best course to guarantee a job? There is no such thing as a dud degree.

“Do something you love, but throw in something that shows you’ve given some thought to what you’re going to do afterwards,” says Milne. For example, round out a BA in Russian literature with an economics or statistics major. Milne says employers hire well rounded people so, although academic record is important, they will want to see evidence of part-time or volunteer work and extra-curricular activities.

The employer liaison manager at University of Auckland Careers Centre, Bonnie Jackson, agrees. “Employers seek not just the piece of paper and the highest grade, but how a graduate or student may culturally fit in the organisation.”

Breaking into the job market can be a hard slog but Milne says there are opportunities for graduates willing to look outside the main business hubs, particularly in regional areas such as Hawke’s Bay and Tauranga.

“It’s a matter of applying yourself, being determined to get that job,” says Milne. “Chances are most people will be rejected from multiple jobs before they get the right one. Fort hose who persevere they will find an entry-level role but they might have to adjust their expectations.”

Like Milne, Jackson has noticed more employers looking to hire graduates this year.

“In our day-to-day engagement with employers we observe a tipping point in the market. Graduate programmes and internships may have reduced or ceased during the recession but employers are again thinking of reviving these programmes.”

It appears the future for graduates is looking rosier. But it will take until the results of the new study filter through to know that for sure.

The lucky one

Owen Gibson is one of the lucky ones.

The 24-year-old finished a joint degree in law and accounting at Victoria University,Wellington, in June and already has a job lined up.

Early next year Gibson will start work in the tax audit department of KPMG as part of its graduate programme. It will be a long wait to put on his suit. The application process took place in March and he found out he had the role late April. Gibson’s CV impressed the firm enough to invite him to a meet-and-greet drinks evening with other candidates, employees and partners of the company.

It is a highly sought-after invitation. “The first thing they say is, ‘Congratulations you’ve made it this far. We’ve boiled you down from 1000 applicants’,” Gibson says.

Gibson enjoyed the opportunity to find out about the company in a relaxed way before launching into the formal interview process.

“You’re looking to see if you fit in there as much as they’re looking to see if they want you.”

Gibson got through to the interview round at a number of banks and accounting firms but only received one job offer. Most applicants had the same degree so it was extra-curricular activities that Gibson feels gave him an advantage.

He had relevant previous work experience for Audit New Zealand, had spent a semester studying in Victoria, Canada, plays squash, tennis and football and has done volunteer work tutoring high-school students in law.

“They want people who aren’t just bookworms and get out and do a couple of different things and have an idea of what society is like.”

Gibson says job-hunting has been a “mixed bag” for his graduating class.

“A lot have been successful in law and accounting firms but I’ve also heard of people disheartened by the process. They spend a lot of time filling in CVs and writing cover letters then get back four or five rejections.”