Coronavirus / Job market

Practical experience and digital skills: how to navigate graduate employment in a recession

These are undoubtedly strange and challenging times to be a graduate, but with an open mind and a focus on gaining practical experience and digital skills, you can still chart a path to career success.

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic will be laying waste to best laid plans, with research by the Institute of Student Employers showing that graduate positions have already declined by 12%, and internships by 40%. Graduating in 2010 was a similar experience, with the recession that followed the financial crisis impacting my introduction to the world of work. Many sectors recruited fewer graduates and friends lost graduate positions when their future employers collapsed.  

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Yet, in today’s market, as in 2010, opportunities remain for graduates with a strong degree, an open mind and the curiosity to grasp opportunities they may not have previously considered. When I graduated, I became a teacher. This hadn’t been my plan but it resulted in the most formative years of my life, and with hindsight I would not change my path. It cemented my passion for education and helped me onto a career path that I find meaningful and fulfilling. 

In the modern world, graduate roles are not about finding your perfect job. Australian research has shown that we’re now likely to have 17+ jobs, across 5+ careers throughout our working lives. In other words, jobs for life are a thing of the past, and the thing you do first is very unlikely to be the thing you do last. So instead of worrying about a graduate role in your perfect career, focus on complimenting your existing academic achievements with sought after skills and valuable practical experience. 

Purpose Graph

A recession can also be a great time to find out what you’re really passionate about. You’re going to have to work harder for every role, so it’s worth thinking about what it is that you really want to do. Whilst teaching I realised that the things that were most important to me in work were the chance to continuously learn, the opportunity to make an impact, and the possibility of achieving real solutions to wicked problems. I’ve used them to guide my career decisions ever since.  

Develop your digital skillset to prepare for a post COVID-19 economy

My advice to graduates and early professionals for many years has been the same ‘gain digital skills to future proof your career’. In the UK in 2019, the digital technology sector’s GVA grew nearly six times as fast as that of the UK economy as a whole. UK tech employment grew by 40% in the last 2 years and there has been a +150% increase in demand for roles within the digital technology sector over the past 4 years. These pre-COVID trends are only being exacerbated by the pandemic, with digital companies most successfully weathering the storm and non-digital competitors rushing to catch-up. 

The increased likelihood of a coming recession makes this advice more salient than ever. ISE research shows that even in the 2009 downturn there remained high, unmet employer demand for graduates in particular sectors and early evidence suggests that this trend is holding true in the current climate:  

“In the slump of 2008/9, our annual survey at the Institute of Student Employers showed that many employers reported unfilled science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) and digital vacancies…. right now, many recruiters are still hiring graduates across a far broader range of industries. A quick search of the major graduate job boards throws up vacancies for trainee project managers, teachers, marketeers and software developers.” 

Alongside the strongest job growth, the digital sector also offers many of the best job opportunities. Digital companies are consistently voted the most innovative, they lead on investment in professional skills and development, and digital roles offer a wage differential of 29% over non-digital roles

And by digital, we are not just talking about coding, we mean tech and non-tech roles across the digital technology sector. Whether you are thinking about consulting, finance, marketing, education or healthcare, digital ways of working and digtially connecting with customers are the key drivers of innovation and growth in the modern economy. In fact, a UK government analysis found that digital skills are ‘essential prerequisites for 82% of all UK job vacancies’So you do not all need to learn to code, but if you can, use your time to engage with digital trends, hone your data analytics skills, learn about agile, customer experience, cloud computing or CRM. Think about how technology is impacting all aspects of the economy, just as it permeates all aspects of your personal and social life. Beyond Google, Facebook, Apple, become familiar with companies and technologies including AWS, Salesforce and Atlassian.  Where you spark an interest, take advantage of free online courses to learn more and be ready to talk about them in interviews. Graduate employers facing huge digital skills shortages will be all ears.  

A final thought…  lastly, be careful when listening to your parents. The world of work is changing rapidly and the economy in which they’ve found success may not reflect the economy you’ll need to navigate. I am sure they’ll give you some great advice, but make sure you find people that work in the digital sector, and learn as much from them as you can. 


Jack Hylands is the co-founder of FourthRev, an edtech company closing the digital skills gap by connecting industry and universities to enable the delivery of up-to-date, industry relevant programs that prepare students for the digital economy and connect them to leading employers.

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