A young worker's view: How it feels to graduate in 2017

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In a tough jobs market, graduates can end up feeling that getting work experience and starting their careers is a catch-22 scenario

It’s a Wednesday in early July and the weather is overcast. A large group of people assemble in a city square. Some are excited, others indifferent, and an unlucky few are suffering from a sickening anxiety. The square buzzes with the hum of chatter and the clicking of camera lenses. A bell rings and everyone walks inside. “Take your seats.” Applause, cheers, shaking hands. Then hugs, kisses and happy tears. Thousands of pictures and social media uploads.

3pm a graduand. 4pm a graduate.

I actually want to call it ‘gradu-WAIT’! Wait, wait, wait. Slow it right down and give me a second to think; 17 years of education over in the blink of an eye. I’m handed a certificate, tapped on the head, and off I go.

But go where? Do what? Live where? With whom? For the first time in my life, September doesn’t mean the beginning of a new academic year and it certainly no longer represents the security of education. May similarly no longer signifies months of summer fun. Real grown-up life is at the threshold.

When I do decide to take my first steps into the professional world, I’m aware that I’m going to be challenged in more ways than one. To begin with, it is becoming increasingly difficult for my generation to find a job. Partly to blame for this may be our numerous professional requirements: a healthy work/life balance, a job that we enjoy in an industry that we’re passionate about, and the possibility of career advancement. In other words, we want ‘the dream job.’

Another cause for concern is the fact that there’s increasing competition for jobs. With such fierce competition, candidates are being forced to differentiate themselves and stand out from the crowd. This ‘wow’ factor more often than not, comes in the form of work experience.

It’s typical of current graduate schemes to ask for ‘previous relevant work experience’ and a demonstrated interest in the given industry. In fact, a third of the UK’s top employers state that graduates without previous work experience will almost certainly be unsuccessful during the selection process (High Fliers Research, The Graduate Market in 2017). Is this an elitist attitude? Perhaps, for work experience programmes are largely unpaid and only a small fraction of the population can afford to work for free.

Additionally problematic is the fact that the programmes themselves often require previous experience. This means that young people get stuck in a catch-22 situation: to get experience, you need experience. It seems that if you haven't gained relevant work experience as a teenager, you'll inevitably struggle as a graduate. Neither option is desirable. Undergoing significant emotional and physical development, teenagers have enough on their plates. Indeed, with 50% of mental health problems established in individuals by age 14, it's perhaps counterproductive and unfair to add such pressures. Should we really push our young people towards uninformed, stressful and semi-concrete decisions before we (and they) really know where their strengths and interests lie?

I'm sure though, that encouraging a gradual teenage interest in employment can be a good thing. So let us encourage this natural curiosity as it arises and allow our young people to discover their strengths, weaknesses and professional desires in their own time. This seems to me much more beneficial than pressuring them into work experiences which may ultimately cause more anxiety than enjoyment.

Caolinn Douglas is a recent University of Edinburgh graduate and now work experience researcher at Corporate Research Forum (CRF)

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