My advice for new graduates and final-year students

Looking for graduate advice? You’ve come to the right place. We recently had confirmation that in 2020, the UK economy suffered its worst year since the Great Frost of 1709. How apt, because it has felt like the economy has been in a deep freeze all winter, with lockdowns particularly biting for young people and their job prospects.

So what can current final-year students and graduates expect? Is there cause for hope? And what can the class of 2020 and 2021 do to boost their employability and stay sane while working/studying from home? Iona has some graduate advice…

Here at Young Money Blog, we see no real reason to keep the economy on ice once all vulnerable and elderly people have been vaccinated. The development of successful jabs both here in the UK and across the world has been a magnificent achievement, and we should make full use of it by offering vaccines to everyone who wants one, and to start unthawing the economy so we can assess the damage and start the Big Rebuild.

Young people, not least graduates and current university students, will play a pivotal role in that rebuild. We know the class of 2020 and 2021 are likely to suffer economic scarring – that is, a marked reduction in job openings and lower starting salaries that will take longer to climb. My heart goes out to current students who have had a horrible shadow of a university experience but have still had to pay through the nose for remote teaching and crappy accommodation (which they may not even be living in).

Students are also at the bottom of the pile when it comes to benefits and access to redundancy pay. The crisis has exposed major shortcomings in our higher education system and how it’s funded – here’s hoping there’s now some real public AND political appetite to remedy those faults.

The big Covid hit to graduates

There is already evidence to suggest a big Covid hit to graduates. A survey of 179 members of the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) identified a 23% reduction in student and graduate recruitment ub 2020. We saw lots of big employers withdraw or defer graduate schemes last year, like KPMG and Deloitte. And while many big employers kept the faith throughout last year, there was always a huge risk that the second peak would kill off remaining schemes for the foreseeable future.

And longer-term, we keep hearing this scary word being thrown around – unviable. What exactly does that? That certain jobs and sectors will never come back? That the thing I have aimed and trained for throughout my whole young life simply won’t exist in six months? That I’ll have to completely rethink my future? That is a very depressing, unsettling thought – and perhaps scientific advisers to the government ought to recognise that careless speculation about future restrictions on the airwaves cost livelihoods and deprive young people of hope and basic certainties.

Then there is the potential ‘new normal’ of remote working. This lockdown has suited older, more senior workers with better housing arrangements much more than younger people, trapped in crowded house-shares or poky flats, forced to work, socialise, shop and have their frequent mental breakdowns pretty much all on their bed.

Now for the good news

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So where are we now? Well, there are still many unknowns, with a lot depending on when things reopen and how much support business gets over the medium-term (or rather, how quickly and methodically they’ll be expected to repay government loans). But the Kickstart Jobs scheme does, at least, provide some real paid incentives to employers to take on young recruits, even if it’s largely a statement of intent for shutdown businesses at the moment and may some unwanted bureaucracy – which should hopefully be ironed out in due course.

Plus, graduate recruitment may not have been as badly affected as we might have feared. For instance, there was only a 4% drop in graduate recruitment in the legal sector last year. And many employers recognise that if they cut back too much on recruitment now, they may face a big talent shortage when the economy bounces back – which may happen sooner and more impressively than we think, according to the Bank of England’s chief economist.

Also, the death of the physical workplace has been greatly exaggerated. For every Twitter or Schroders that announces a new permanent remote working policy, there are many more quietly making plans to return to the office as soon as possible. Bosses now recognise it’s so much easier to train, mentor and nurture young employees in a physical office. Even if some remote working stays in place post-lockdown, there would actually be some big upsides for young people in that arrangement: lower commuting costs, and perhaps the chance to live somewhere further away that’s much cheaper and more spacious.

My graduate advice for the class of 2020 and 2021

Everybody’s situation is different and I can’t offer one-size-fits-all graduate advice. But I know what it’s like to graduate after a huge economic crash, and I remember how difficult those early years were.

I wanted to pursue my dream of being a musician – and why not? For a year or so, I was very happy, even if I was hardly earning anything. But then the crushing insecurities started. Would I ever be financially independent? Would I ever make something of my life? Even having a good university degree gave me no comfort, as it didn’t seem to open many (indeed, any) doors. It was a time when none of my peers seemed to find getting and keeping a job easy. Free placements and internships seemed to be the only route into good jobs, and only viable for graduates from rich families who could support them. Living and housing costs seemed so high, but access to decent jobs so limited, that I struggled to see a way through.

But I found a way to turn my adversity intro strength – through this blog. It took many years, many more jobs, some dreadful workplace experiences (as well as some terrific ones!) and a whole lotta learning before I got to a place where I could make a decent, stable living from work I liked and enjoyed. So yea, I might know a thing or two by now!

Here’s my graduate advice on how to survive the Covid jobs market and WHF (or maybe WFB!) without losing your joie de vivre.

1. I know everybody says this but you GENUINELY you have to keep learning!

This is the best graduate advice I can offer. I can’t tell you how many skills I’ve had to go and acquire just to keep up with changes and trends in my field. Web design, contract law, public speaking, SEO, podcasting, photography, graphic design, the list goes on… One of the biggest mistakes I made in my twenties was waiting for other people to teach me certain skills, to give me that training, as I (understandably) thought that would be easier and cheaper than doing it myself. But honestly, if you wait for others to bless you with those skills, you’ll probably wait a bloody long time.

Sometimes, you will get an amazing opportunity to learn with or from someone far more experienced than you, and of course you need to be expanding your network so you come into contact with people who can give you a big leg-up. Otherwise, it’s on you kiddo. Luckily, it really is possible to teach yourself most things at home for free or very low cost. Yes, certain courses, software, programmes or equipment might require some money but if you pick the right tools, they will be the best investments you ever make.

2. Be socially proactive

No online network for graduates or new employees in your particular field or company? Set it up. One already exists? Become a really proactive member of it. It will boost your interpersonal skills no end, as well as put you easily in other people’s minds (including potential future bosses and colleagues). Reach out to other young professional networks connected to yours and ask if there’s scope for a joint enterprise. Many heads are better than one.

3. Practice asserting yourself and politely sticking up for your rights

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If you follow this piece of graduate advice right from the beginning, you’ll not only weed out those shitty employers who don’t respect boundaries and have a toxic workplace culture, you will impress the decent employers AND put your career on a sustainable footing. I will always remember a former colleague who took an hour-long lunch break outside the office every day, come rain or shine, even in the midst of a major crisis when it would otherwise be ‘all hands on deck’, and everybody simply accepted it.

Whereas once I set a precedent for eating al desko, or cutting down my lunchbreak, I felt it was hard to go back and reassert my rights. That’s a slippery slope towards staying late to impress the boss and answering emails/calls in the evenings and at weekends. Start as you mean to go on. It feels hard at first but it will get easier and eliminate so many problems and pressures further down the line.

4. Establishing a healthy work-life balance is key

graduate advice

What does this actually mean? For me, it’s having time away from screens as much as possible outside work, which is why I’m officially the world’s sloppiest responder on WhatsApp (which I hope everybody can forgive). It’s also about managing expectations – i.e. I only answer emails between X times – and having strategies that allow you to genuinely switch off from work. That’s why I am such a believer in having one big passion project outside your work. And I don’t mean working through the the whole wine aisle at Asda – that’s just a release valve: it’s not the whole solution. Which brings me onto my next piece of advice…

5. Try to cultivate a unique passion project that you want to share with others

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It could be a podcast, a personal blog, a hobby, a video diary, a challenge…just make sure it fires you up! And don’t be afraid to share it with your professional network and on your CV. Firstly, it will give you skills and confidence. Secondly, good employers will value someone who is driven, self-directed, organised, and passionate enough to do something like this. And thirdly, it could lead to opportunities, contacts and even a second career in its own right. After all, I started this blog ten years ago and it didn’t work out too badly for me.

6. Have solid routines…and get properly dressed!

graduate advice

Pre-lockdown, I had been purely working from home for four years, and had done so on-and-off for the previous five, so I know a thing or two about how to make it work. Firstly, never work with the old Wonder Woman PJs on. I even sometimes put a bit of make-up on, just to feel confident and ready to get out there (even if it’s on a Zoom call). Secondly, give yourself a bit of time first-thing. I do a bit of writing and maybe reading, get washed and dressed and have breakfast before I start anything. Thirdly, go for a walk everyday without your phone. Fourth, invest in a small table and proper desktop computer, as I did just before lockdown last year. Peering down at a laptop on your bed will cause poor sleep AND backache.

7. Be a first-rate version of yourself, not a second-rate version of someone else

graduate advice

This piece of graduate advice sounds cheesy, but Marilyn Monroe’s little quote actually becomes more profound to me as I get older. I spent a lot of my twenties trying to mold myself to what I thought people and wider society valued – firstly, a successful pop star, then a successful newspaper journalist!

Once I started listening to my instincts, working with what I had and making the absolute best of it, rather than chasing other people’s dreams, things started falling into place. This is a great time to take a step back and ask yourself: are these really my goals? Am I trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? If so, you’ve got the perfect opportunity – and excuse! – to switch tracks and pursue a life where, to paraphrase that Berocca advert, you can always be you but on a really good day.

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