Don’t admit defeat: why perseverance pays for graduate job seekers

Professor Tony Chapman of Teesside University pointed out that despite media stereotypes of British youth as violent or celebrity-obsessed, their goals are in fact pretty traditional. “All the academic research seems to demonstrate that they want a secure living environment, they want a good relationship, and if they want children, they want the best possible opportunities for their kids and they want secure jobs.”

But how is this to be achieved in today’s climate? Those that received A-level results last month had to consider their options against a backdrop of 83 applications for every graduate job. There is ever increasing competition to get into university and then, having worked incredibly hard to get the grades to secure the place, students often find an unsatisfying and frustrating university experience awaiting them. Huge numbers are going on to take debt-incurring master’s degrees in the hope that this will set them apart from the other 400,000 graduating each year, but with no clear evidence that employers want, or even value, such qualifications. The exception, of course, is for those with science degrees who want to work in the science world when a master’s and PhD are essential and with some luck Glaxo Smith Kline will pick up their debt as a golden welcome.

So what can be said to those graduating this year? A good work ethic is key. It is also about skills but more than anything, as it has always been, it is about attitude, determination, self reliance and sheer guts and not being prepared to take no for an answer nor being deterred by setbacks.

The vast majority of graduate job application forms ask a referee to comment on “reaction to setbacks” – because potential employers want to know that potential employees are prepared to learn, take criticism and move forward. In the US someone running their own successful business has a number of stumbles on the way to its success. However failure is not viewed kindly in the UK on the basis “once a failure, always a failure”. So, how are young job seekers to learn and grow if they don’t try and maybe stumble on the way?

A young person with a dream of success, however they measure it, has every incentive to work towards it. Success has so many different permutations. Is success about making money? Is it about having a truly idyllic life/work balance? Is it about waking up each morning really looking forward to what you are going to be doing? Is it about making a difference to someone else’s life? Is it about happiness – that elusive, only ever felt in retrospect, state often confused with contentment?

Opportunities abound in our society for those with “get up and go”, often termed “entrepreneurial talent”. Wait tables for a couple of years, learn what makes it work, decide how it could work better, get your own place going. Do your apprenticeship, start a few private jobs on the side, start your own business. Got a new idea, a new IT application, an opportunity for providing a service that busy people will pay for – walk dogs, run an after school service, run holiday activity schemes, do stand-up comedy poking fun at the everyday condition. Just don’t say there are no jobs. Make opportunities, don’t harbour envy towards those who have landed a job. Look and see how they did it and do it better or differently.

Young job seekers have every opportunity to succeed but they have to get out there, kick parents and their adoring and unconditional support into touch and stand on their own two feet. Schools need to foster enterprise, uphold and applaud success in whatever way it is achieved and universities have to provide inspiration and engender a thoughtful approach that leaves young adults with confidence and self respect.

The media should stop peddling the worst news they can find and put the financial, political and social doom and gloom out of the picture and concentrate on can do and not on misery and defeat. Soaps should highlight success in relationships along with the bitter misery and failure – we need a whole change of approach at every level to a become a can do society.

But more than anything, at this time young people have time to find their way. They will be working until they are in their 70s so it is entirely reasonable for them to try things out for a time, move jobs regularly in the early years until they find their niche, and become that walking portfolio of skills and experiences that employers will value.

Jane Phelps has worked as head of higher education and careers at a leading independent school and is now director of external relations at the New College of the Humanities.

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