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Three weeks into lockdown: a graduate labour market update

April 2020

Prospects' head of higher education intelligence, Charlie Ball, gives his latest insight into the impact of COVID-19 on the labour market and points readers towards some of the most valuable research so far

We have spent much of the last three weeks talking to people all across careers and recruitment, trying to make sense of what is going on out there so we can form some kind of view of the state of the graduate labour market.

At the moment there are a lot of ostensibly conflicting views out there and it is not always easy to synthesise those voices into a coherent narrative. Here are some of the more consistent messages that we're hearing at the moment:

  1. Recruitment, obviously, is severely affected.
  2. It has not stopped though.
  3. There is a clear divide between large employers and SMEs.
  4. Large employers are still, in some cases, carrying on - or if not, they are often pausing with the intention of restarting some activity later when working restrictions are eased.
  5. SMEs are in survival mode right now and as the British Chambers of Commerce Business Impact Tracker shows, a lot are running out of money.
  6. However, things are changing rapidly. For example, I'm starting to hear reports of offers to graduates not being fulfilled.
  7. We're also anticipating significant increase in demand for postgraduate study, but institutions have a challenge to ensure provision can match that.
  8. We have a way to go yet, and things could be very different in a month's time.

'A very challenging time'

The OBR today released some very eye-opening projections of the effects of a three-month lockdown (in other words, nine more weeks of it), with a very steep rise in unemployment that could take three or four years to dissipate. That's sharpened the focus on the economic effects of the pandemic.

But there are some other very interesting analyses out that are well worth examining. For instance, the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) has been making sterling efforts to find out what is going on and you probably already read what ISE chief research officer Tristram Hooley writes. He's been doing a great job trying to keep people informed.

At the start of April the ISE found that only 31% of employers had cancelled assessment centres and 23% face-to-face interviews, but a fortnight is a very, very long time right now and I'm sure we'll find out more before long.

Meanwhile, a number of organisations have done interesting work analysing vacancies. EMSI have been doing some very interesting work here. A couple of weeks ago they started noting falls in job postings in graduate-level roles in sales, software development, business project managers and financial analysts (as well as nurses). This was then updated today finding that the stock of job ads today was down 29% on this time last year, with some initial hiring flurries in shelf-fillers, lorry drivers, hospital porters and undertakers having calmed down and horticulture and manufacturing roles starting to pick up a little. They are also suggesting the unsurprising but still noteworthy finding that the professional-level jobs market may have been hit a little less seriously than the non-professional market.

Indeed's US-centric (but still relevant) take shows a fall in internship opportunities that bears out the ISE's own findings and strongly suggests that the graduate market is already likely to be affected as internships dry up over the next few months.

LinkedIn are also monitoring the effects on job postings and hiring. They split industries into three categories:

  • Ones that are 'responding' - which includes transport and logistics (although it must be noted that some parts of this industry, particularly public transport, have been very seriously affected), hardware and networking (I think all of us who are still working can see the impact of the networking sector) and healthcare.
  • Those that are 'weathering' - not having a great time of it but coping. LinkedIn have finance and IT in this section, noting that many roles have gone virtual and that there may be a pickup if virtual hiring takes hold. They also include retail but note the very significant divergence between supermarkets and the high street, which are faring very differently.
  • Those that are 'adversely impacted' - including hospitality and leisure, entertainment and corporate services, the latter in line with ISE and EMSI's findings and of significance to the graduate labour market.

Overall it is clearly a very challenging time for the graduate labour market but it has not (and will not) all evaporated and, although some of the data seems quite confusing, there are a number of groups trying to get a handle on it. What we seem to be seeing therefore is that:

  • demand is holding up well for healthcare, some forms of logistics, some forms of supermarket retail, and hardware/networking roles
  • demand for roles in finance and IT looks to be down a bit but activity is currently going on
  • hospitality, entertainment, public transport, some sales, and some business services has been hit significantly.

We'll keep monitoring and keep reporting back as and when we find out more.

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