Graduates: it’s not what you did, it’s what you can do

Positive economic trends reflected in employment growth and increased graduate recruitment

There's never been a better time for graduates to stay in Ireland. Job prospects at home, in both the private and public sectors, have not been this good for over a decade.

But it's also a great time to go overseas: graduates have excellent employment prospects in the traditional destinations for Irish emigrants, particularly Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Mark Mitchell, director of and, which produce careers publications and advice and also run career fairs, says that the trends in Ireland are generally positive, with a growth in the number of jobs and places on graduate recruitment programmes.

Not only this, says Mitchell, but graduates in Ireland or abroad can expect to enter dynamic workplaces, while employers are more open than ever to looking beyond the degree at the skills students have acquired throughout their time at third level.


“Most businesses know that there is generational change coming into the workplace. If they were in business before the recession, and survived, they have been through substantial change which necessitates an influx of new talent or ideas. And if they’re a newer company that has grown out of the recession or they’re in one of the newer sectors of the economy, they tend to be open to dynamic change.”

We’ve all heard about the “war for talent” and how companies want to get the best graduates but, on the other hand, recruiters will share anecdotes about getting anywhere between 30 and 80 applications for a single position. Surely only one of these stories can be true?

“A graduate will apply for loads of jobs,” Mitchell explains. “And they tend to apply for lots of different jobs across lots of different sectors.”

At the moment, retail, human resources and IT are among the sectors with a lot of job prospects. One of the big trends worth noting this year, however, is the revival of the public sector. “They are back in the market for graduate talent in a big way, especially in areas such as education and health – just look at the teacher shortage,” says Mitchell.

“Quite often, a student might be interested in teaching and would be weighing that up against the private sector; they might become a teacher, but equally they might be drawn to apply for a private sector graduate recruitment programme.”

But while certain sectors are experiencing shortages (see panel), sector-specific jobs are becoming increasingly less relevant, says Mitchell. “The big trend at the moment is that a degree is just one element in a company’s assessment of applicants, rather than the all-prevailing element it used to be. All companies hire across many different parts of the business and they’re aware that the jobs market will change significantly in Generation Z’s lifetime, so they’re looking at the skills and competencies that people have built in their education and career to date which will enable them to be agile and to adapt to business and social situations that we don’t even know about yet.”

These skills include many of the terms today's graduates will no doubt have heard ad nauseum over the past few years: critical thinking, problem-solving, analysis and research, writing, interpersonal abilities, being able to work as part of a team and more. It means that graduates need to take a close look at their CVs and see how what they have learned over the past few years – through their college course, being involved in clubs and societies, volunteer work and part-time jobs – can be of use to employers or, indeed, can help them start up their own business or offer their services as a self-employed person. Employers are increasingly taking on graduates from any discipline and then training them up through their own internal programmes, particularly in business and accounting areas.

“We need to move on from a discussion about which sectors are doing well,” says Mitchell. “Today you can be an engineer with good communication skills, or a journalist with good technical abilities or a lawyer who speaks French, and people with these skills are better placed to navigate the jobs market.”

Tony Donohoe, head of education, innovation and social policy at the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) concurs. "In more vocational subjects, an employer is buying a graduate's knowledge as well as a way of thinking. But from talking to our member companies, we are seeing that there are skills shortages across a broader range of jobs. A lot of the most exciting opportunities can now be found at the intersection of arts and science, or between science and social science, and many companies are now putting together inter-disciplinary teams for this purpose. They're looking, for instance, at how technology is used and new trends in design."

There’s no point in a graduate rueing their choice not to become a computer scientist, says Donohoe, because they have to choose a career they enjoy if they are going to be happy, and the changing nature of workplaces means that there are more opportunities than ever before.

Joe Casey, consultant in careers and education development at Casey Carers, advises students to use their last few years in college to engage with the college careers office which, he says, offer valuable and free advice. "They have excellent resources which can help people gain an insight into what work they might prefer, perhaps using tools such as questionnaires exploring their personality and strengths. It can be particularly useful if someone isn't clear what direction they're heading in – and a lot of people don't leave college with a particular career focus, so will accept a job and see where it takes them over the next few years – although they will need to come up with a longer-term plan at some stage."

This all sounds positive but are there any dark clouds on the horizon? “Most graduates know that there are jobs, but the cost of living and especially the cost of renting is a cause of concern for them,” says Mitchell. “Our surveys have generally shown that the salary expectations of graduates and the starting salaries offered by employers are pretty well aligned but lately those surveys are showing a divergence. “

Stats, jobs and salaries

Long-range studies have consistently shown that arts graduates have lower starting salaries, with 15 per cent on as little as €13,000, while ICT and tech graduates can expect to walk into a job on €33,000 or more. But these raw statistics don’t tell the full picture because we know that arts graduates will be on better salaries within a few years.

The most recent data from the Higher Education Authority and the Central Statistics Office looked at graduates between 2010 and 2014. It found that, among 2014 graduates, 76 per cent were in substantial employment in the first year after graduation, up from 66 per cent for 2010 graduates. Today, even more graduates are in work, and they're earning more too: median weekly earnings for level-eight graduates increased from €570 to €745 between 2010 and 2014.

Female graduates are more likely to be in employment than males, with figures of 71 and 60 per cent, respectively. One in four women were working in education five years after graduation compared to just under one in eight men, while 17.5 per cent of female graduates are employed in health and social work compared to 4.2 per cent of males. Men were more likely to work in science, technology, real estate, finance, industry and information & communication.

Men and women tend to start off on the same salary but, within five years, median earnings for men are €655 per week – €20 more than for women.

Sector specific jobs

Employers are looking for people to work across their businesses and graduates with general degrees in areas such as arts, commerce, social science, science or law have greater opportunities than ever before. But certain key industries are still reporting a skills shortage and a lack of qualified graduates to take up positions. These areas include:

ICT: the most in-demand graduates of the moment. Data analysts and computer software engineers are highly sought. But understanding the social application of areas such as machine-learning and artificial intelligence are also creating jobs for humanities graduates in this area, says Tony Donohoe of IBEC. "Demand is forecasted to grow even further but if it even continues to grow at its current pace, we will see an increase of 8 per cent per year," he adds. "ICT sounds very specialised and, yes, there are highly technical areas such as engineering and electronic engineering that people may not want to retrain in any time soon, but graduates of arts and social sciences can find opportunities in digital humanities or in areas such as marketing."

Construction: people with skills ranging from bricklaying to architecture and quantity surveying – many of whom went abroad for work during the recession in Ireland – will find opportunities throughout the country.

Languages: Tech and pharma are big employers in Ireland and these companies work across international boundaries, meaning people with language skills – particularly a modern European language, Chinese, Arabic or Japanese – are much sought after right now. "Language is particularly important where there is tech support or customer service operations," says Donohoe.

Finance and banking: There are significant shortages in these areas and many firms are looking for staff they can train up.

Pharmaceuticals and medical devices: One of the biggest sectors in Ireland; not enough qualified staff means that graduates from these disciplines have strong employment opportunities.

Teaching: There's an ongoing shortage of primary teachers and, at second-level, Irish, European languages, maths, biology and science teachers are in short supply.