Covid-19 and the graduate job market
Updated: Apr 5, 2021
It’s odd to think that companies put so much effort into April Fool’s jokes. They already have
a careers page that tricks anyone into thinking they have a chance at being considered.
Maybe that’s a view born out of cynicism. Or, maybe, it’s realism. Covid-19 has made an
already competitive graduate market a bloodthirsty one. Graduate schemes being cancelled
in 2020 and university-leavers putting their life on hold for a year has meant that there are
more students than ever searching for entry-level roles in 2021.
The statistics support the notion that the graduate job market is a stark one, at best. According to High Fliers Research, on average, the country’s top employers have received 41
per cent more graduate job applications so far, compared with the equivalent period in the
2019-2020 recruitment round - the highest-ever annual increase recorded by the research.
Meanwhile, Milkround, a UK-based graduate jobs website, shows just 18 per cent of
graduates are securing jobs this year compared to the typical 60 per cent. Simultaneously,
US-based jobs website, ZipRecruiter, says the number of available stateside jobs popular
with university graduates is down 61 per cent on its pre-Covid-19 level.
In other words, more applicants and fewer places. Some employers recognise the problem.
Hywel Ball, UK chairman and managing partner of EY, the professional services firm, echoed
graduates’ fears when speaking to the Financial Times: “Many students are facing a really
tough jobs market.”
However, you could argue that firms are unaware, or simply they don’t care. The graduate
application process is becoming increasingly scrutinised; long-winded applications,
‘immersive’ online assessments, video interviews, assessment centres and final stage
interviews can be extremely overbearing for students trying to juggle dissertations and final-
Of course, firms want to ensure a process that selects the best talent and graduates most
equipped to excel in the role, but must that come at the expense of applicants’ free time,
morale, and mental health? Applying for grad roles can be incredibly time-consuming, and,
as Hayek puts it, from the saintly and single-minded idealist to the fanatic is often but a
step. Cumulatively spending 16 hours on an application and not seeing a human face or
having a single human interaction can be unsettling. What can be done do to make students
feel less like they’re wasting their time?
Firstly, feedback. To be told at the penultimate stage of the application process, “Due to the
high volume of applications we receive we are unable to offer individual feedback” is
demoralising (for reference, I searched ‘’high volume of applicants” in my inbox and got 46
responses – or 46 emails of rejection). A process that gives tailored feedback at each stage
to applicants fosters an environment concerned with improvement and personal
development rather than failure. This will require resources and increased costs. However,
firms such as PwC – who bought a 12-month subscription to a mindfulness app for all 22,000
staff across the UK - already leverage their focus on wellbeing and mental health as a competitive advantage to attract the best graduates. This should extend further into application and selection processes.
Secondly, I would advocate a shake-up of the university student employability landscape. We’ve all sat through dreary employability lectures expatiating outdated doctrines of ‘developing character traits’ and ‘brand building’. They’re boring, and they’re misinformed.
“Make sure your CV has no spelling errors and is up to date”; “Practice for verbal reasoning
and psychometric tests”; and “Rehearse interviews and presentations”. These are all necessary conditions for securing such a role – but me telling you that as if you didn’t
already know, it would be an insult to your intelligence. Instead, universities should focus on
helping students to find what job they’re passionate about before throwing all of their
weight into the application process. Connecting those in industry and especially those in
recruiting roles (now, not ten years ago), to students is paramount to increasing successful
Finally, growth industries in the wake of Covid-19 may help to create a healthier graduate
job market. According to Bank of England Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, latent (corporate
and household) cash reserves have created the potential for a demand-led and investment-
sustained return to prosperity. In aggregate, this may be wishful thinking, but some sectors
are clearly emerging as better bets than others. For example, sectors where digital
transformation is needed; logistics and operations; pharmaceuticals; and service/delivery
industries are all set to rally. The government, firms and universities can help students to
both be aware of these industries and acquire the necessary human capital to thrive in
them. For example, universities can do more to ensure students have technical skills like
computer programming and financial modelling, allowing them to compete with
older, more experienced applicants.
For those going down this route, it’s easy to think that graduate jobs are the be-all and end-
all, or more worryingly, that your ability to secure one is some dystopian proxy for your
worth. It's not. Taking time out of the process can be refreshing and much-needed. Beware
though, no amount of stoicism will make corporate April Fool’s gags the least bit funny.