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My Hometown: challenges for graduates who return home

November 2019

Graduates who move away to university but then return to their home region have distinct characteristics and face a very particular set of challenges, writes Charlie Ball

Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more
They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back
To your hometown.

Bruce Springsteen - My Hometown

Lots of students arrive at university having grown up in parts of the country with difficult jobs markets. Many of them will then graduate and return home when they have completed their studies. Place is a crucial part of individual identities - when you ask many people how they see themselves, they will usually declare 'I am from…' very early in their self-description.1

This affects how people experience their careers. In particular, the majority of graduates will start their careers in the same area in which they were living prior to university. Many of these graduates have never moved - in fact, 45% of graduates from 2016/17 went to a local university and stayed local to work. But fully one quarter of all graduates move away to university and then come home after graduation. What happens to them?

They are not more likely to be from a BME background than other graduates, but they are significantly more likely to be from a background of low participation in higher education

As Prospects is based in Manchester let's look at graduates from the North West who return home after graduation as an example. In 2016/17, this was 4,020 graduates, or 20.2% of all graduates working in the region. (Meanwhile over half of all graduates starting their career in the region have never left it for work or study, slightly higher than the national average).

The 20.2% of graduates returning home - Returners, as we call them - have certain distinct characteristics. They tend to be younger on average than graduates working in the region as a whole. 85% were under 24 when they started work. They are not more likely to be from a BME background than other graduates, but they are significantly more likely to be from a background of low participation in higher education. Indeed, 33% of North West Returners were from neighbourhoods in the bottom 20% of higher education participation nationally, and this suggests strongly that many are from some of the region's difficult jobs markets.

This is borne out when we look at the jobs that Returners do. They are far more likely than any other group to be in jobs below professional level and are particularly overrepresented in non-graduate jobs in retail and the service industry - roles such as checkout attendants, kitchen assistants and bar staff - as well as non-graduate office administration and receptionist jobs. They're also underrepresented in roles such as nursing and medicine.

North West Returners are the most likely graduates working in the region to have specifically chosen a job because of its location

If we look at the motivation of Returners for choosing their jobs, they're much more likely than other graduates to say they chose their job because it was the only offer they got, or simply just to make a living - and less likely to say the job was just what they wanted. They are most likely to have got their jobs through a recruitment agency and are far less likely than any other group to have got their job through a university careers service, reinforcing the message that for one reason or another they are not accessing much support.

Not all the news is negative. Two thirds of North West Returners were in graduate jobs after six months, and they're well represented in some professions, particularly IT and engineering and in business services - a clear narrative of individuals training elsewhere to get good jobs back home is evident in these examples. Interestingly, North West Returners are the most likely graduates working in the region to have specifically chosen a job because of its location (although not much more likely than the Stayers, who moved to the region to study and remain to work). So we must be careful not to imagine all Returners are trapped in their home regions for lack of options and so to help them we must help them 'escape' - many do want to work there.

What it does show is a group of graduates with less desirable work outcomes than other groups and who are particularly unlikely to have used university support to start their careers. As a sector, we need to find an effective way to help this pool of talented individuals use their skills more effectively.

Notes

  1. The author is, for the record, from Wigan.

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