“I suppose the one time my degree has been useful in my job was when people were sitting around in the office wondering why the drink Rubicon is called Rubicon,” explains Bill, a History graduate from the class of 2012. “Someone said ‘it’s named after a band’ and I said proudly: ‘no it’s not; it’s named after a river in Italy. It’s the river Julius Caesar had to cross to invade Rome.’”
Nearly 15 percent of those students who graduated in 2011 today find themselves in low-skilled jobs. For those who left with degrees from humanities courses, particularly History and English, that percentage is even higher.
Having used up most of his overdraft over the summer, Bill took a temping job. Now he works as quality checker for a gas distribution network back home in Cardiff. “It’s boring, very boring,” he says.
Catie, another graduate – who left the University of Manchester with a first class Classics degree – was working at a leading human tissue research company until last week. “I’d sit at the computer and process the orders scientists gave to me,” she explains. “So I’d order mouse tissue, mouse bones, rat bones.”
So you were just ordering rodent body parts, I ask.
“I wasn’t even ordering it, I was just processing it,” she laughs. “Thankfully I was only there for a week.”
Research by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU) shows that 61.8 percent of students who graduated last year have a job.
Last year that figure stood at 62.2 percent. One in 12 students are without work six months after they graduate.
For one Linguistics graduate, work – despite having a first class degree and a CV packed full of extra-curricular activity – has been difficult to come by.
“I went for one interview and they were congratulating me on my degree. They said that my CV was really impressive, so I was quite optimistic about it,” she says. “And then they gave me this tour of the centre where I’d be working and it soon became clear that my job would be to set up meetings for people using the centre and to make tea and coffee for business meetings. It just seemed weird that that this was the job and they were saying ‘well done on your first’ as if that made me qualified to make coffee.”
For those who are either unable to find a job or are looking to make it in a particular industry, work experience can be another option – even though it won’t pay the rent.
One University of Manchester graduate who wants a career in journalism tells me that she worked 12 hours a day at a national newspaper and was not even offered travel expenses.
I ask Andrew Whitmore from the University of Manchester Careers Service whether he’s concerned by the number of students’ taking low-skilled jobs after they graduate.
“Obviously I’m always concerned about people who are either unemployed or are in low-skilled jobs, so that goes without saying.
“The fundamental thing is that there are a significant number of graduates going into low-paid work and there are a number of reasons for that. In big cities like Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool you find that people want to hang around in the city no matter what. We find a lot of students here who have worked part-time in a call centre in Manchester. Often, after their smorgasbord of experiences, students want to stay just to keep living the dream.
Mr Whitmore also acknowledges that even for low level jobs, including bar and restaurant work, degrees are seen as necessary. “I won’t mention any names but I know bars and restaurants in Manchester that I ask for degrees. Even though you don’t need a degree to do the job, there just looking for someone with a degree because they feel that they’d get on better with their customers; who are mainly students.”
I put it to Mr Whitmore that perhaps the real problem is that the majority of degrees, particularly humanities subjects, just don’t prepare students for the world of work.
“If you go and say to someone: ‘I deserve a job in your business because I have a degree in history’ you’d have the wrong approach,” he acknowledges. “But if you went to an organisation and said I’ve developed a whole range of skills particularly analytical skills, analysing data and information and communicating with people through writing essays and doing presentations, that’s the way to sell it. Certainly loads of historians from here have gone on to become significant players in large organisations.”
The view that a humanities degree gives you a number of excellent transferrable skills is shared by Catie, who now hopes to use her extensive volunteering and charity experience to do some more work in that sector.
Bill meanwhile is considering moving to Canada, if only to get away from Cardiff.