If you’re a parent or guardian of someone graduating this year, a student coming to the end of their time at university, a university careers advisor, or anyone interacting with university students discussing their future, please keep reading - this article is for you…

It’s time for an honest conversation

It’s time for an honest conversation. You know, one that’s uncomfortable but deep down you know it’s necessary. It’s time we talk about the advice we give students about career choices after university. Because, truth be told, it’s rubbish. And it has been since I graduated in 2008. (I am of course speaking generally, the University of Essex Careers team do some incredible work with our students.)

And the reason for this is, for too long, the grad scheme has been held as the one outcome students should aim for. The beacon of hope that students must achieve for their time at university to have been a success. The graduate-level version of getting a gold star next to your name at primary school. 

But it’s not the be all and end all. It’s not what graduates should be pushed towards. And, in my humble opinion, it’s time for a change. 

I know what you’re thinking, this guy is focused on encouraging people to start their own businesses - of course he’s going to promote that. Well, yes and no. 

Yes, because I do believe entrepreneurship is a route (and risk) more people should take. No, because I will be the first person to say that starting a business is not for everyone. And that’s all I’m going to say on the matter in this article.

Grad schemes aren’t for everyone

Let’s get to the point: 

Grad schemes aren’t for everyone. They are, in fact, for a select minority. Here’s why… 

In 2021 People Management reported that there were 560,000 graduates leaving university. At the same time there were 13,000 graduate roles advertised. This means that there were 40+ potential applicants for each vacancy. 

Things get more complicated when you consider these roles can be applied for up to two years after a graduate has finished their studies. And there are instances, according to The Independent, where some roles have a 1 in 100 chance and some – you might want to take a seat for this – 1 in 1000!

Let’s consider that for a moment:

1 in 40 – Worth a shot
1 in 100 – In with a (small) chance…
1 in 1000 – What are we doing?!

Why? Why convince students to apply for jobs under these conditions? In some instances there are 999 <automated> rejection letters going out. And don’t get me started on the lack feedback - which is a separate problem. 

The worst part? Applicants are convinced they should dust themselves off and apply for the next one.

As well as this, application processes are drawn out, feature multiple stages, typically require a 2:1 or 1st, and – at the time of writing – is a smaller (and more competitive) market as a result of the pandemic. 

So why do we do it? What is it about grad schemes and roles that make them so sought after?

I’ve spoken with three people in my personal and professional network who landed these roles but soon realised things weren’t as they seemed. On paper, the schemes looked good, had attractive salaries, and deemed the “done thing” after uni.

But their experiences were somewhat different in reality to the dream that was sold to them. Here’s what they learned…

1. How much is enough?

Talking to Person X, we discussed their experience on a grad scheme with one of the big four consulting firms. When they applied they knew it would be tough, but they weren’t expecting to do as many extra hours as they did, despite a lucrative starting salary.

On reflection they noticed the ‘extras’ that sweetened the deal weren’t as good on paper. The company they worked for had a canteen/would provide meals for staff working late and pay for taxis home – seems pretty generous.

But when we calculated the meal would cost £5-6, and a taxi would be about £10, you realised the additional 4-6 hours work done each day was great value for the employer, not great for the employee. Now multiply that work by a week, month, year…what toll does this take? At whose expense?

And we finished on this thought: How much is enough? To quote Jimmy Carr – yes, I know, controversial – on the Diary of a CEO Podcast – “How much is enough to sell your happiness?”

2. Eat. Sleep. Clone. Repeat.

Person Y had left a grad scheme with a global aerospace player when we spoke. It was a major coup to get the role and the opportunities should have been endless. But, within months, they realised the scheme was poorly constructed and feedback was ignored. 

In their own words, they saw that the person mentoring the new intake of graduates was a “carbon copy of their line manager”. Worse than that – the mentor was attempting to mould the latest intake to be the next iteration of themselves.

This led to stifling ideas, minimising creativity, and regularly bringing in HR to manage basic differences of opinion as an intimidation tactic – not exactly an inspiring approach.

I’m happy that Person Y escaped and found an employer who utilises their skills. My concern for those staying in that corporate world is how long they will hold on to who they really are before they just become a clone of a clone of a clone… 

3. Am I making a difference?

Finally we get to Person Z. They landed a prestigious grad scheme for a world-renowned technology company and in their own disillusioned words told me: “All I was doing was making things for rich people.”

What they did didn’t matter. It didn’t make the world a better place. It didn’t matter to their end users or customers. And it didn’t matter to them personally. 

A lack of passion drove them to leave and explore their options. 

Now they are doing something wonderful in the world but how many persist, doing something they don’t like, for a company they don’t believe in, because they’ve always been told “It’s what you worked hard at uni for.”

Obviously three examples isn’t a lot, and I know that there are plenty of people who love their grad schemes and roles, but I’m confident that if you pulled this thread we’d find a lot more stories just like the three above.  

So, what do Person X, Y and Z all now have in common? 

One of them launched their own venture, one works for a small business, and one works for a start-up. They were willing to sacrifice the kudos, initial career opportunities – if you can call them that, and the initially lucrative salary, to be happy with what they did. And you know what – they are happy. 

Sure, life’s not without its challenges, and when I speak to them there are plenty, but they are truly happy to be out of the environment they naively assumed was the purpose of life after uni. 

And that’s the reason I wrote this article. To start the conversation of what we tell students about life after university and to encourage graduates to broaden their mind-sets to think beyond the convention of grad schemes and grad roles. 

What are the alternatives to the coveted Grad Scheme?

So, what are the alternatives?

In this instance, I’m talking about being employee number one to five. Either joining a start-up as the first hire, or joining a small business with big aspirations. 

I’m talking about doing something that matters, that makes a difference, and leaves graduates with a sense of purpose and accomplishment – not just a payroll number in a scheme where they’ll be replaced 12 months later by the latest intake.

So, why cash in a ‘golden ticket’ and go for something with higher risk? Well, if the odds are already against you, up to 1 in 1000 may I add, how big a risk is it really?

Here are six reasons to think beyond the traditional graduate employment route and consider being employee number one in a start-up or joining a small but emerging business:

1. You will work harder but with greater reward – It goes without saying that working in a start-up or smaller business means doing more and working harder. But the efforts you put in will lead to more obvious outcomes that benefit both you and the company you work for –giving you a stronger sense of purpose and achievement;

2. You will work in ways that are more creative – Not all businesses have the luxury of big budgets, which means learning how to do more with less. This truly gets you appreciating the value of what you invest your effort and money into, whether that’s bootstrapping ideas, low-cost marketing, sales development, etc., you’ll always be finding exciting ways to get more from your money;

3. You will learn what it means to change direction, fast – Big businesses are like cruise ships – if they want to change direction, it can take a long time. Smaller businesses are nimble and can react to market forces in a much better way, which keeps things interesting. The start-up/small business you join might look very different in 12 months’ time, which means you’ll constantly have new challenges to deal with;

4. You will build something from scratch – Isn’t it more rewarding to sit back and look at something you’ve worked on and say ‘I did that’. What you do could shape the future of that company. In a big business, ask how your contribution stands out. Chances are that after a few days, weeks, months, or years of whatever it is you toiled over will just be BAU – corporate jargon for business as usual. #souldestroying

5. You will learn more in less time – I’ve flapped around this notion that “You’ll learn more in six months with a start-up than you will in two years in a graduate job” and several people on both sides of the comment have said it’s true. You’ll be in the thick of it, just a few steps removed from the founder, so your learning curve will be steeper but also help you identify the areas you really enjoy working in;

6. You will have more responsibility – Smaller teams take on workloads that span different areas. You might go from customer service to marketing to finance to operations in the same day. In a big business, you’re probably just “XXX from HR…” – I know which one sounds more exciting to me…

There are many other reasons to consider joining a start-up or small business, Google them and you’ll see. I simply wanted to present a few different options because if any of those drew your attention, or pulled on your curiosity, that might be something worth exploring.

Final Thoughts

The eagle-eyed readers will also have noticed that I’ve flicked between graduate schemes and graduate roles – and there are differences – but my point remains the same - we need to divest the attention of graduates to look beyond these to bring their skills to new areas that might otherwise go unserved. 

And it’s not going to come as a surprise that I’m going to flip-flop a bit and say that not all grad schemes are bad. I’m also not going to say people shouldn’t apply for them. Instead, I’m going to say we should carefully evaluate how we advise university leavers to consider their futures.

We need to give real advice, dare I say - better advice. The kind that shows life beyond university is about more than a graduate level job or scheme. More than the name of a company you work for. More than the salary you earn. 

It’s about being happy. It’s about doing what challenges, rewards, excites and motivates you. At a very basic level - isn’t that what we want everyone graduating to experience? 

If you agree or disagree with what’s written above I want to know. Please add a comment, drop a like or share with people you think should take a look.

And if you got this far - thanks for reading.