Latest data shows 25% of 21-year-olds who left university with a degree in 2011 were unemployed compared with 26% of 16-year-olds with GCSEs
Graduates leaving university found it harder to get jobs in 2011 than students finishing A-level courses, as youth unemployment hit its highest level since the 1980s, official data shows.
In 2011, 20% of 18-year-olds who left school with A-levels were unemployed compared with 25% of 21-year-olds who left university with a degree, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. Graduate unemployment rates were almost on a par with those for people leaving school with just GCSEs, with 26% of 16-year-olds with these qualifications out of work.
But the ONS figures show it was easier for older graduates to find work: at age 24 only 5% of degree holders were unemployed compared with 7% of those who finished their education after A-levels and 13% of those with only GCSEs.
Charlie Ball, deputy director of research at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit, said the figures were “absolutely correct, but give a misleading impression”, as the cohort of people leaving with A-levels was smaller than the number graduating.
He said the graduate jobs market had “hardly returned to its state pre-recession”, but most of those leaving university were likely to get jobs within six months.
“Although the number of young people out of work is historically high, the graduate unemployment rate in this recession has not reached the levels it did in the 1980s or 1990s,” he said.
Research by investment firm Skandia suggests graduates still earn a high premium over the course of their career once they do find work. It says a graduate leaving university today should earn an average of £1.6m over a working career of 45 years compared to £1m for an 18-year-old entering the workforce and retiring 48 years later. A 16-year-old working 49.5 years will typically earn £783,964 over their career.
Although the prospects for graduates may not be as gloomy as they first appear, the ONS figures make grim reading for young job seekers.
The ONS said unemployment for those aged 16 to 24 stood at just over 1m in the last quarter of 2011, the highest number since 1986/87. This represented one in seven (or 14.2%) of this age group and is the highest rate of youth unemployment since 1984/85. Of these, 307,000 were full-time students actively looking for work alongside their studies.
London was the region with the highest youth unemployment rate, with 24% of economically active 16- to 24-year-olds unemployed from July 2010 to June 2011. However, the ONS said this was a result of the number of students in the capital, some of who were looking to work. When students are discounted, the highest proportion of youth unemployment was in the north-east at 15%.
The TUC’s general secretary, Brendan Barber, said the figures showed the importance of higher qualifications in helping young people into work. But he added: “With ministers putting up fresh barriers to higher education by hiking tuition fees and scrapping the EMA, the scar of mass joblessness that is hitting today’s youngsters could follow some of them into their late 20s or even 30s.
“The government’s cut-price work experience scheme is woefully ill-equipped to deal with the scale of our jobs crisis. Young people need tailored support and experience of proper paid jobs to give them the best possible chance of moving into work.”
Recently, some large firms have stepped up their recruitment of school leavers to attract bright students put off by the cost of going to university.
All of the UK’s “big four” accountancy firms, which between them recruit several thousand graduates each year, have established degree-equivalent school-leaver training programmes, including Ernst & Young which launches its programme in the autumn.
Stephen Isherwood, head of graduate recruitment at Ernst & Young, said the company had already recruited 30 of the 60 school leavers it planned to take on from hundreds of applications.
“There is a sense that the mantra of the last few years that everything is about university is not necessarily right, and that A-level students should really be thinking about what they want to do and whether that means going to university, and making sure they get the best deal for themselves.”