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The contemporary graduate labour market

A good starting point for understanding the current graduate labour market is the Seven Years On research project jointly funded by the ESRC and HECSU, and conducted by Kate Purcell (then of the Employment Studies Research Unit, UWE) and Peter Elias (Institute for Employment Research, Warwick). The project investigated graduate careers in a changing labour market, and has generated a great deal of interest. I would now like you to read Elias and Purcell’s Researching Graduate Careers Seven Years On: Research Paper (No.6) and:

  • Follow how the authors constructed their fivefold labour market typology consisting of: traditional graduate jobs, modern graduate jobs, new graduate jobs, niche graduate jobs and non-graduate jobs. To help you with this I have included a simplified version of the typology in a table.
  • Read the historical overview of the labour markets (pp.16-17).

I think you will agree this is a thought-provoking approach to understanding graduate labour markets. Many career services have adopted it in order to understand and present their destination statistics because it offers a medium-grained analysis of the graduate labour market that goes beyond a simple graduate job/non-graduate job classification. There are a number of issues that I would now like to consider about this research in more depth.

Growing graduate jobs
The typology indicates the ways in which labour markets change. Many of the jobs in the new and modern categories were once niche areas. The current niche sectors in particular illustrate the phenomenon of growing a graduate job i.e. entering a non-graduate job and broadening the skills, knowledge and responsibilities involved in the role. This highlights an important way in which individuals influence the structure of the labour market. It is worth considering the extent to which career services educate students about this phenomenon. Naturally, many CEIG activities centre on preparing students for entry into management or graduate level roles however this research seems to suggest that students need to learn more about growing a job once they are in it or how to leave an unsatisfying job. This takes us beyond initial selection and into a structural understanding of the labour market, and the career development that takes place within employment.

Doubling the graduate jobs market
Please turn to the graphs on pages 16 and 17. These illustrate change in the jobs market between 1975 and 2000. I hope you picked up on the fact that the proportion of traditional and modern graduate jobs has remained fairly static over the last 25 years. This suggests that, without the new categories that Elias and Purcell created, we would be looking at a very different picture of the labour market. In effect, the introduction of the ‘new’ and ‘niche’ categories more than doubles the overall size of the graduate labour market (from about 11% to 23% in 1975, and from about 13% to 34% in 2000).

Reflection questions
Despite the widespread popularity of the Elias and Purcell model, it is also worth considering some more critical questions.

  • Do you agree with the distinctions drawn between the different categories of graduate job? And how far do you think they represent genuine differences in graduate jobs or simply statistical convenience?
  • To what extent do you think certain individuals (non-graduates in the labour market) have always grown non-graduate jobs into more complex roles? And does this continue to happen?
  • Do you accept the overall classification of the jobs market, for instance, are there any problems associated with making distinctions between graduate and non-graduate jobs?
  • Kate Purcell has suggested that in the future there may be even further differentiation in the jobs market. How do you think this might take place?

Additional perspectives on the contemporary graduate employment
Once you are familiar with Elias and Purcell’s work on the graduate labour market, it will be helpful to explore some alternative perspectives through wider reading. There have been several critical contributions to the employability, skills and higher education debates. A selection is included in the wider reading list: see Atkins (1999), Brown and Hesketh (2004a), Moreau and Leathwood (2006) and Payne (1999). Note that Elias and Purcell (2013) have recently proposed a new fourfold classification consisting of: Experts; Strategists; Communicators; and Non-graduates.