Recent figures from the Association of Graduate Recruiters has revealed a sharp reduction in the number of jobs available to graduates, the first decline in the graduate labour market in four years. A steep decline in such a short time is highly worrying, but the issue is seemingly more complex than might first appear.
It is not all that long ago that employers were complaining about graduates not having the skills and experiences necessary to fill the roles that they were advertising. The problem extended to experienced professionals, with recruiters highlighting the need for MBA graduates to have substantial amounts of on-the-job training once they joined. Now however the picture is rather the reverse. It is those on the supply-side who are questioning where the opportunities are that can take their careers forward.
While the reduction in opportunities warrants concern, you can make an argument that the traditional graduate role is no longer meeting the aspirations of many people leaving university in 2016 and beyond. The millennial generation is looking for something different from the world of work, something less corporate and much more entrepreneurial in spirit.
The emerging popularity of the so-called portfolio career presents a direct challenge to the fixed nature of traditional graduate training schemes, which see employers invest in graduate talent to pipeline a loyal workforce who will add value to the company for years to come.
While the portfolio career is often described as a new trend, the idea itself has been around since the 1980s, when management thinker Charles Handy envisaged the workforce of the future comprising multi-skilled 'portfolio workers' who might be involved at different times with different organisations in different roles, including freelance/self-employed. With many corporates struggling to keep up with what graduates want from the world of work, have recruiters failed to heed Handy's predictions?
Graduate recruitment schemes tend to provide fixed workflows and hierarchies that run counter to the millennial mindset that prioritises innovation, flexibility and change.
Today's graduates are also quite happy to embrace a lifestyle where the line between work and life in general is blurred, and where being fleet of foot pays dividends in spotting opportunities for new markets, products and services. Flexibility of this nature is one of the building blocks of the entrepreneurial spirit that characterises this generation.
As this millennial mindset has been developing, universities have been gaining ground in getting their students ready for the world of work. Historically this has been the preserve of the graduate training scheme. Today, employability skills and entrepreneurship are championed from the student's first day of term.
In the climate of the current tuition fee regime, many students are now either in employment or starting and running their own businesses while at university. Here they can benefit from a huge range of business mentoring and start-up support on offer. For example, at GSM London we have a Formation Zone that provides a supportive and collaborative environment for people to develop their business ideas under the guidance of experienced enterprise professionals.
This is increasingly becoming a norm in higher education, with the entrepreneurial momentum developing a generation of graduate entrepreneurs. The enterprise experience and skills of this generation are certainly very attractive to graduate recruiters, but perhaps not in the same way as the past.
The challenge for employers is therefore to make their offerings more attractive to the more independent, innovative, flexible thinkers that are graduating in 2016 and beyond. Employers need to focus on providing opportunities within early-stage employment for entrepreneurship, leadership, and creativity.
On the other hand, the challenge for higher education institutes is to recognise the reality of portfolio careers (as well as portfolio entrepreneurship) and to adapt their employability and careers provision accordingly, so that the relevant cognitive, interpersonal, and technical skills can be developed in the most effective way.
While traditional graduate opportunities may be declining, the nature of work and education is also changing rapidly. The fact that doing your own thing, as opposed to getting a job on a corporate graduate scheme, is increasingly a viable career option, means that the future for well-skilled graduates continues to be bright.
Paul Moran, GSM London - Head of Formation Zone for Entrepreneurs and Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Enterprise