What do graduates want from employers?

Undergraduates sitting their finals this summer will enter one of the strongest jobs markets this decade. A cluster of new reports shows how graduate recruitment is changing.

Young man and woman stand in their new workplace smiling proudly to camera
The UK’s latest official employment data shows vacancies at a record high of 1.29 million – a rise of almost half a million compared to before the pandemic started two years ago. Employers continue to cite skills shortages as a key factor hampering growth. For 2022’s graduate cohort entering the labour market this year, this data translates into the number of graduate jobs increasing by more than a fifth (22%) in 2022 compared to 2021, according to figures from Universities UK's new report Busting Graduate Job Myths. Showing the scale of demand for future talent, graduate vacancies are now 20% higher than they were in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic.
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Refining graduate recruitment

“With employers consistently citing labour and skills shortages as a top factor having a negative impact on their business, investment in skills will be a crucial element of the UK’s continued recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic,” commented Alex Hall-Chen, Senior Policy Advisor at the Institute of Directors on publication of Universities UK's figures this week.“Demand for graduate skills among employers remains strong – particularly in transferable employability skills such as critical thinking, communication, and leadership – and the higher education sector will be an essential component in meeting the UK’s rapidly changing skills needs.”Looking in detail at the data from another new survey, the Institute of Student Employers' (ISE) Student Development Survey 2022, Nicola Thomas, ISE’s Head of Research, found that a third of employers reported the skills they look for in graduate hires had changed. Post-Covid-19, employers are seeking candidates who show resilience, self-motivation and adaptability.They are also finding potential recruits able to demonstrate these skills. Employers rated their early-career hires as being stronger in adaptability (+8%), resilience (+6%) and positive thinking (+8%) in 2022 in comparison to 2021.

What graduates want

Yet for employers already fighting to attract, recruit and retain employees in the wider labour market, engaging graduate skills is requiring a change of approach.As Relocate Global reported, companies responding to ISE’s Student Development Survey 2022 – including the UK’s largest graduate employers – highlighted how graduate turnover during the pandemic climbed to its highest level since the dataset started in 2011. Turnover rates for graduates have been on an upward trend since 2011. More young people are citing dissatisfaction with pay as a reason for moving on, increasing to 40% in 2022 compared to 28% in 2021 – an issue the cost-of-living squeeze is likely to exacerbate. Employer branding consultancy Universum Global concurs that pay and high future earnings are prioritised above all other employer attributes. The importance of job security also rose sharply for graduates in its most recent annual study, World’s Most Attractive Employers 2021, published in October and canvassing the views of over 221,800 students in business, engineering and IT from the ten largest economies between September 2020 and May 2021.Job security jumped in importance by as much as four ranking points for those with engineering degrees. In contrast, securing “a creative and dynamic work environment”, which Universum notes is often closely associated with start-up careers, dropped in priority for engineering and IT students.  Commenting, Universum’s Global Client Director, Richard Mosley, said: “A flight to security is typical during an economic downturn, as is the pivot away from higher risk, entrepreneurial companies. This is probably why more established innovators with a proven record of success like Amazon and IBM were the biggest winners in the rankings.” 

International and remote working for graduates

Among Universum Global’s other key findings – including around global mobility – in the context of improving graduate attraction, recruitment and retention, is that young people are re-evaluating what they want from an employer and a career. Its research shows long, gruelling schedules are out of synch with graduates’ aspirations.Closed international borders have also made global mobility more difficult and uncertain. According to Universum, this is playing out in the next generation of leaders showing, for now at least, a waning interest in foreign companies and multinational careers. “Across industries we see young people favouring companies headquartered in their home countries.”  The appeal of remote and hybrid working patterns is also different for younger employees. “Virtual and hybrid workforces are here to stay, but talent leaders must take care not to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach,” advises Universum, which found that “flexible work” is not a Top 10 priority for business, engineering or IT students. While opening up new talent pools is among the benefits, these new modes of work also come with challenges for graduate development, notes Nicola Thomas of the ISE. “Digital fatigue, blurred lines between work and home, and difficulty collaborating with colleagues are just some of the issues that graduates are faced with when working remotely.”

Developing new approaches to graduate recruitment

“There’s tremendous pressure on talent leaders right now to separate what are short-term reactions to Covid-19, versus long-term changes to workplace fundamentals,” observes Universum CEO, Mats Röjdmark. “While pundits may declare that virtual work is the future of employment, young talent doesn’t usually agree, according to our research. These kinds of signals are critical for talent leaders as they negotiate a way forward in 2022.” Universum suggests that employers should consider talent 'personas' as they build their employer branding efforts. Its new analysis shows five key talent personas for young talent. Some young people, for example, may be career ‘go-getters’ who prioritise individual performance and career success, while others are changemakers more focused on making a positive impact on the world. This approach can help graduate employers build a brand in a more nuanced way and address talent gaps.The ISE data shows graduate employers are already starting to move away from formal graduate programmes. While the majority of employers still run formal training programmes for all of their graduates, 2022 saw a shift away from more formal development programmes compared to 2021 and 2020. “In 2021, 80% of employers ran formal graduate development programmes while in 2022 that number was 69%,” says Nicola Thomas. “In previous years employers have heavily focused on structured development programmes for all graduate jobs, but in 2022 this is starting to shift towards a more flexible approach to training where organisations are starting to run formal development programmes for only some of their graduate roles.” 

The future of graduate recruitment

While a more bespoke approach to graduate training and development will likely appeal to Generation Z, that investment continues to be made is critical, says Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive at the Institute of Student Employers. “In both the short- and long-term the demand for skilled graduates is only going to increase. To ensure that employers can access the talent they require right across the UK economy, it is imperative that we continue to invest in graduate talent.”“Students quite rightly want to know that going to university is worthwhile and a good investment for the future,” adds Professor Steve West CBE, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of UWE Bristol on the publication of Busting Graduate Job Myths. “Despite some questioning the value of graduate skills this report shows that employer demand for UK graduates is significant – it has increased year-on-year and is likely to grow in the future.”
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