“Sitting at home applying for dead-end jobs every day and getting no response is a really difficult situation to be in,” said Craig Brown, a business graduate who has just left Loughborough University and is now relying on Universal Credit.
“I’m worried how I’ll get through the next few months financially.”
Craig, 23, is part of the class of 2020 – a group of graduates who have been thrust into the working world amid not only the worst global pandemic in a century, but the UK’s second recession in 12 years.
A number of graduates told HuffPost UK how this “perfect storm” in the employment market had not only forced them to give up dreams of finding their ideal job straight out of the university – but struggling to find any kind of job at all.
Instead, they have been forced to apply for Universal Credit – a situation many of them could not have imagined before the coronavirus crisis gripped the global economy.
Analysts have warned that the class of 2020 – the 800,000 young people leaving school, college and university this summer – face “huge unemployment risks”, as well as long-term damage to their careers.
Figures from the Department of Work and Pensions reveal that in July there were 71,208 16- to 24-year-olds receiving their first Universal Credit payment – 80% higher than the 39,655 starting on UC in July 2019.
All in all, there were 725,000 people aged 20 to 24 receiving Universal Credit – a year-on-year increase of almost 420,000.
“It’s really demoralising,” said Craig, who is relying on benefit payments to survive while he applies for “dozens of jobs a day”.
“Most of them aren’t jobs I would ever want to take under normal conditions. But despite all of my efforts to go above and beyond studying during the pandemic, I’m not even getting responses.
“What makes it harder to swallow is that I invested so much energy into setting up a business at university and doing internships in parliament to qualify myself for when I left university.”
He added: “I’m not the best candidate out there, but if somebody with a CV like mine, at my age, can’t even get an interview for low-skilled jobs, then how can anybody feel motivated after graduating?
“The few responses I have had called me overqualified, which really doesn’t help when there are almost zero jobs available in the graduate market.”
Craig, who helped set up the volunteer group Students Against Corona, said leaving university during a pandemic and being out of work had left him struggling with his mental health.
“I’m generally really motivated – I don’t like making excuses and my attitude is always to make the best out of a situation and carve out opportunities wherever I can.
“However, I have been brought to the point of tears because I feel as though everything is now out of my control. [...] I don’t know what graduates are expected to do.”
It’s a question that is also being asked by Heather Swain, who is currently finishing a Master’s degree in public history at the University of York.
But her attempts to line up a job – any kind of job – for when she leaves university next month have proved fruitless.
As a working class student, it’s a situation that means she’s almost guaranteed to have to rely on Universal Credit, the 22-year-old said. “Realistically it’s probably the first thing that I’ll be doing when my course officially ends and I’m permitted to apply,” she said.
“I’ve been applying for jobs in the heritage sector, but it’s been very clear that the sector is really struggling with closures and redundancies.”
Entry-level roles that would usually be reserved for graduates like Heather are now being snapped up by people with years of experience who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, she said.
“I’ve now taken to applying for whatever job I can get in my hometown – everything from admin to McDonalds – but I rarely hear back from anyone and, if I do, it’s a rejection.
“At this point, I’d be happy to get a job that didn’t even require basic qualifications and was as far removed from my degree subject as possible as long as it meant I had an income.”
Heather added: “I’ve been trying not to look back with hindsight. But there’s no way I would have been applying for a higher degree right now if I had taken a year out between my BA and MA because it would have been too much of a financial waste.”
Other students have taken a different approach. Matt, who did not want to share his last name, has recently finished a degree in politics and sociology at the University of Manchester.
He chose to study the subject because he wanted to work for refugee and housing charities, focusing on research and lobbying.
But the pandemic and subsequent recession have “completely changed” his expectations.
“Pretty much every entry-level position and graduate job scheme have stopped hiring,” the 21-year-old said. “Other places have been so flooded with applications that the chance of getting anything is incredibly slim.”
Currently relying on benefits to get by and worried about the state of the jobs market, Matt has now signed up to do a Master’s degree in political science.
“I could only do that because of a substantial bursary and fee reduction I got from the University of Manchester,” he said.
He’s worried that he could find himself in the same dilemma in a year’s time when his degree is finished. “But it gives me security for the next year and I guess that’s a problem to worry about when I come to it.
“I just know that if I am facing that situation again, I’ll theoretically be more likely to find something because of the additional qualifications.”
Matt added: “The most frustrating thing is seeing the difference in stress that working-class graduates have experienced compared to middle-class ones.
“Some more financially secure students were more upset about the loss of graduation ceremonies than the economic insecurity and unemployment.”
It feels like university leavers have been “thrown in the deep end”, said 21-year-old Niamh Claydon-Mullins.
She graduated with a degree in film studies from De Montfort University in July and had to claim Universal Credit “straight away”.
“There needs to be more support to deal with the crisis that 2020 graduates are facing,” Niamh said.
“This situation does make me think back to the recession in the late 2000s and how long it took for things to recover. I just don’t want the same thing happening when so many graduates want to start earning.”
A report from the think tank the Resolution Foundation in May warned that, without support from the government, the impact of the pandemic and recession on the class of 2020 could be “larger and longer-lasting” than those felt by graduates who left university during the economic crash of the late 2000s.
Although those leaving education with fewer qualifications were hardest hit, researchers found that unemployment among recent graduates jumped from 10% to 14% between 2008 and 2011.
Meanwhile, previous research showed that “for at least five to six years, average levels of pay remained lower for those who left during 2009 than for those who left during 2013”.
According to the report, one in five graduates usually find their first job out of university in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic – including bars, restaurants and retail.
Research and policy analyst Kathleen Henehan, who wrote the Resolution Foundation’s “Class of 2020” report said: “800,000 young people are leaving education this year amid an unprecedented economic crisis and a newly-confirmed recession.
“As well as huge immediate unemployment risks, these young people are also facing longer-term damage to their careers, with the prospect of years of reduced pay and limited job opportunities.”
The report called for a new package of support for under-25s, including a job guarantee scheme, which would see employers offer temporary paid jobs to unemployed young people.
The government would cover the cost of their wages, while the programme would offer “critical employment experience,” Henehan added.
The call for specialised support for graduates has been echoed by the National Union of Students (NUS) and poverty charity Turn2us.
Led by president Larissa Kennedy, the NUS has urged ministers to “step up and support young people and graduates right now”.
“They should look at creating long term, well-paid jobs for young people, and training grants to allow people to reskill,” Kennedy said.
Meanwhile, Turn2us campaigns officer Liam Evans added: “The Covid cohort who have graduated this summer face a perilous start to their adult life. High housing costs and a decade of austerity have been compounded by mass unemployment stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
“To make matters worse, we don’t currently have a social security system that will allow these young adults to thrive. Instead Universal Credit will give them an inadequate sum of money while waving the threat of sanctions over their heads.
“We urge the DWP to be ultra flexible with recent graduates and make decisions based on principles of justice, compassion and fairness.”
A government spokesperson told HuffPost UK that its new £2bn Kickstart scheme would help unemployed graduates from the autumn.
Ministers have promised that the programme will create hundreds of thousands of “high quality” six-month work placements for young people aged 16 to 24 on Universal Credit who are deemed to be “at risk of long-term unemployment”.
A government spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “We know this is a tough time for everyone, not least graduates who are looking to move into work.
“Starting this autumn, young people will be able to apply to our brand new £2bn Kickstart scheme, which will offer thousands of new, fully-subsidised, high-quality roles right across the UK.
“We’ve also introduced a package of support for businesses giving them the confidence to retain and recruit, while our nationwide network of work coaches are already matching jobseekers to new roles as we get Britain back working again.”