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Do graduates feel ready for work?

September 2019

Employers often report that new graduates are unprepared for the workplace - but the vast majority of graduates themselves take a very different view

Most graduates attend university with the aim of securing a job when they leave. Much time has been spent analysing which graduates achieve this goal and what jobs they enter. Discussion has also turned to whether graduates possess the skills desired by employers.

However, graduates' self-perceptions about whether they are sufficiently prepared for the jobs they enter are less well studied.

The Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey asks respondents how well their recent course prepared them for employment. Of the 157,600 graduates who answered this question, 76% felt that they were either 'well' or 'very well' prepared.

Only 17% claimed to have been 'not very well', or 'not at all' prepared for work by their university course.

How well has your course prepared you for employment?,% of all who answered
Very well,30
Not very well,13
Not at all,5
Can't tell,7

DLHE 2016/17

Work-readiness by subject

Perhaps unsurprisingly, more vocational subjects tend to produce higher proportions of graduates who feel prepared to start employment. Nevertheless, traditionally non-vocational subjects such as those in the creative arts, humanities and social sciences are not too far behind.

Work-readiness by subject
Subject groupVery well preparedWell preparedNot very well preparedNot at all preparedCan't tell
Technology, engineering and maths24%44%11%3%5%
Business and finance24%43%11%3%5%
Creative arts19%37%15%6%6%
Social science20%41%15%6%7%

Most students in each subject group were satisfied with the extent to which their course prepared them for work.

Given that non-vocational subjects often do not feed into specific job roles, many graduates felt that these courses had prepared them for entering jobs in fields completely unrelated to their subject of study.

For example, 58% of history graduates working as sales, marketing and associate professionals thought that their course prepared them for this, as did 60% of those employed as business, finance and related associate professionals, and 53% of sales assistants and retail cashiers.

There is also evidence of this working the other way round: graduates feeling unprepared for jobs that closely relate to the course that they studied.

For example, 16% of economics graduates working as business, research and administrative professionals felt that their course either did not prepare them well, or did not prepare them at all, for this role. 17% felt the same about their jobs as business, finance and related associate professionals.

The same is true of 10% of mechanical engineering graduates working as engineering professionals, 14% of computer science graduates working as IT technicians, and 25% of fine art graduates employed in artistic, literary and media occupations.

The proportion of graduates who feel unprepared for roles related to their courses tends to only be small. DLHE offers no insights as to why individuals feel this way, and therefore these figures, although interesting, shouldn't be considered cause for concern without further research.

Institution and employment location

There are no significant trends regarding institutions or locations of employment and graduates' perceptions of work-readiness.

Work-readiness by region of institution
Region of HE provider% who feel prepared for work% who feel unprepared for work
South East73%18%
North West78%15%
West Midlands79%15%
South West77%18%
Yorkshire and The Humber77%17%
East Midlands79%17%
East of England77%18%
North East77%17%
Northern Ireland79%17%

Graduates from universities in London were least likely to feel prepared for work, whereas those from institutions in Northern Ireland were most likely (73.6% vs 79.3%).

Interestingly, graduates working in London were also the least likely to claim that their degrees prepared them 'well' or 'very well' for their jobs - possibly because graduates tend to lack mobility and therefore most of those working in London also studied there.

Work-readiness by region of employment
Region of employment% of grads prepared% of grads unpreparedCan't tell
North East77%17%7%
North West78%17%6%
Yorkshire and The Humber77%17%6%
East Midlands78%16%6%
West Midlands78%15%7%
East of England77%17%6%
South East77%17%7%
South West76%17%7%
Northern Ireland79%16%5%

Gender, ethnicity, and disability

Perceptions of work-readiness do not alter greatly by gender, ethnicity or socio-economic background. However, graduates with disabilities are less likely to feel prepared than their non-disabled counterparts.

,% of graduates who felt prepared,% who did not feel prepared
With disability,72.9,19.9

DLHE 2016/17

This is concerning and more effort must be applied to ensuring that students with disabilities receive - and can make the most of - the same opportunities as non-disabled students. However, it is worth noting that the vast majority of graduates with disabilities - almost three quarters - still felt either well or very well prepared.

Age group

The youngest age group (18 to 20-year-olds) had the lowest proportion who felt prepared and the highest who felt unprepared at 73.1% and 20.9% respectively.

Graduate age,% who felt prepared,% who felt unprepared,% can't tell
40 years and over,74.8,12.8,12.4

DLHE 2016/17

Perceived preparedness increases then for each age group up until 30 to 39-year-olds where it begins to decrease again - though not below those of the youngest graduates. It is likely that the extra life experience possessed by older students contributes to their heightened feelings of work-readiness.

Also significant is that the 'can't tells' make up a larger proportion of the age group, the older you get. They are also more likely to be studying part time.

Mode of study,% of graduates prepared for work,% of grads not prepared for work,% can't tell

DLHE 2016/17

Part-time students tend to be older than full-time counterparts, often completing their degree in order to further advance in their career, while also working. 'Can't tells' perhaps don't know whether their course prepared them for their work because they already had their job.

Furthermore, many retired students complete degrees for pleasure with no intention of entering employment afterwards, which may partly explain the higher proportion of 'Can't tells' among older and part time students.

However, not all part-time students are older. Many choose this mode of study because they are juggling a range of responsibilities - for example caring for families. That a smaller proportion of part-time students feel prepared for work by their university course than do full-time students might point to an inability to engage with their institution's careers and employability activities. Careers services must ensure that they provide for such individuals, perhaps offering online activities that can be done at a time and place convenient for the student, to help address this.

Employers disagree on graduate work-readiness

Despite all of this graduate optimism about the extent to which their courses prepared them for work, employers seem to be making opposing claims. Whether complaining about graduates who lack specific expertise, or more general soft skills, as many as 50% of UK employers claim that graduates are unprepared for entering the workforce.1

The data outlined here is intriguing, but this topic is under-researched and these particular figures from DLHE seldom analysed. More research is needed to explore students' reasons for claiming work-readiness, or not, as a result of their degree course, and to explore why these perceptions seem so at odds with those of employers.


  1. Graduates aren't skilled enough, say employers, BBC, 2017.

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