Looking for a job? A degree will help

Many college leavers believe the employment market is worse than it actually is, and are missing opportunities

Career path: first and foremost, it has to be something you love. Photograph: YinYang/Vetta/Getty Images

Career path: first and foremost, it has to be something you love. Photograph: YinYang/Vetta/Getty Images


This year’s graduates began college at the height of the recession, under pressure to pick subjects with safe jobs at the end. The points for courses in business, science and technology have risen sharply, but are students at risk of abandoning their real interests in pursuit of the “sensible” option?

Employment concerns were foremost in Regina Brady’s mind when she chose to study commerce at University College Dublin in 2009. “I wanted to do drama and Irish, or something crazy like that, but I’d never have got a job,” she says. “We were in the middle of the recession when I was trying to pick where to go and what to do. I had thought about something in the healthcare services, but then I thought [commerce] would be a better option”.

After graduating, last September, Brady was accepted on a graduate store-management programme by Boots, and hopes to manage her own shop by the end of the year. “I’ve ended up with a really great job that I’m happy in,” she says. “Even if I didn’t realise it at the time, it kind of worked out.”

Joanne Holland, a careers officer at Limerick Institute of Technology, worries that not all students might be as happy with their choices and stresses the importance of not letting the economy dictate their decisions. “We’re probably seeing more graduates doing things because they feel it is the sensible thing to do more than it being their passion,” she says. “People who would absolutely love to do art and design, but they’re thinking, No, I need a skill that will get me a secure job.

“There’s no point telling someone the best jobs out there at the moment are for software developers when not everyone has an aptitude for or an interest in sitting in front of a computer all day. When you’re career planning, first and foremost it has to be something you love.”

Taking your ideal course can be a risk, and graduates can find themselves pushed into areas they never would have imagined. Laura Daly, who has a BMus from Cork School of Music, works in banking. “I was working in a music school, which was paying me very poorly because it depended on the number of students enrolled. I was getting about €300 a month, so I had to get a job and decide what to do. Everyone in the bank wants to pursue their dreams. The work is fine, but this isn’t exactly where I saw myself when I started college.”

Emma Nash took a balanced approach to her interests when she decided to study business studies with tourism management at Limerick Institute of Technology. “My interest is in folklore and heritage, the myths and legends of Ireland, but at the end of the day I need to come out of college and have a job that will pay me.”

While still hoping to pursue a career in tourism and heritage, Nash felt she had to be practical. “Because it is split 60 per cent business, 40 per cent tourism, there was always the thought that if there weren’t any jobs in tourism I would still have a business-management degree.”

Cormac Duffy, who graduated with a BA in economics and politics from University College Dublin last year, considered his options carefully but didn’t sacrifice his interests. “I knew it was an area I wanted to go into, either writing about current affairs and journalism or using economics to go into a more professional business route.” Duffy was recruited by an international consultancy firm before graduating.

Trying to achieve a balance between passion and practicality is key, says Sean Gannon, director of the careers advisory service at Trinity College Dublin. “Our advice is always to identify a role, job or career where you’re using your passions and enthusiasms for something, but equally people have to compromise . . . and might have to look to other markets.”

“The current market is really about adaptability: we have to adapt to the conditions that are here, and as long as people keep an open mind about what they want to do . . . then I think the picture is reasonably optimistic for them.”

Holland fears students’ options for compromise and career change have become limited, putting more pressure on young people to choose correctly. “If, four years ago, you picked something and the economy has had a huge effect on that area, it has become more difficult to diversify. We used to have full grants available for people to do postgraduate study, but that’s gone, and that could have been the opportunity for someone to change direction easily. We have made it more restrictive for people to change their minds if they don’t make the right decision the first time.”

Although postgraduate enrolment rose at the beginning of the recession, from 29,780 students in full- or part-time postgraduate study in 2007 to 35,220 in 2009, those numbers have dropped since then, and with the scrapping of postgraduate grants last year it is expected to fall further.

Not all bad news
It may not all be bad news for graduates. Contrary to common perception, many people believe the economy is picking up. Richard Eardley, managing director of Hays, a recruitment company, is positive about the job market in Ireland. “It’s a lot better than it’s been at any point probably for five or possibly six years.”

Mairead Fleming of Brightwater Recruitment Specialists says, “We’re seeing growth in all of the sectors. We’re not talking about 100 per cent growth, but we’re seeing 25-30 per cent growth, which is really encouraging.”

Although it might be picking up somewhat across the board, the job market has really improved in certain sectors. Employers in IT firms struggle to find qualified people. “If you want a sure-fire route to employment, computer science is the thing to pursue,” says Eardley. “When I talk to my 13-year-old son I’m saying this is something you really should think about developing an interest in. The demand for technical skills has been pervasive and global, and almost without interruption for as long as I’ve been in recruitment, for 20-odd years.”

The financial sector is also growing. “Because a lot of the changes in the sector have happened already, and a lot of the reorganisation and organisational changes have happened, banks are recognising that they are probably going to need new talent, and have a demand for skills,” says Eardley.

Even though things may be tougher than they were in the Celtic Tiger years, the unemployment rate for graduates remains well below the national rate of 14 per cent. Unemployment in the last quarter of 2012 was 6.4 per cent among graduates with a level-eight degree or higher. Although this is a big jump from the 2006 low of 2.1 per cent, compared with the overall rise in unemployment from 4.2 per cent in that year, the career prospects for graduates are good and getting better.

But the message that the economy is picking up does not seem to have reached graduates. As a careers officer at LIT, Joanne Holland often sees students give up before they have started looking. “What we have is the opposite extreme to where we were five years ago, in that they’re kind of believing too much of the bad news,” she says.

“We’re seeing a definite trend in graduates just making the decision to go abroad before they’ve even looked to see if there are jobs here for them; even if they see a job advertised they give up on it before they give it a shot.”

The strategy both for graduates and for those choosing their courses seems to be moderation. There are possibilities in every sector, and the market is changing. A deep love of programming or accounting might be ideal, but, for most graduates, keeping an open mind to how you apply your skills will see you through.

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