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What do graduates expect from their first job?

October 2019

Julie Vincent and Hope Dade from TSR Insight, a market research and insight agency which is part of The Student Room Group, examine how employers can meet and manage the expectations that graduates have as they move into work after university

Occupational shortages have caused great concern for many businesses since the last recession, and the market for attracting the best and the brightest is ever more competitive.

Therefore, it is vital for employers to understand what graduates expect and desire from their first graduate job. Feeling well informed and supported is important for an employee's wellbeing, their success within a company, and how likely they are to stick around.

The Student Room prides itself on putting students first. We have ten million monthly users of which five million are registered, and we get to know them on a personal level. We listen to what students have to say every day and provide the support and advice they need to make decisions about pathways, life, their future, and around learning and study help.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of our community, we conduct research annually in our Options report to understand their views on topics including:

  • perceptions of the pathway options available to them after school, college or university
  • influences on decision making
  • graduate careers.

For Options 2018 we collected responses from more than 10,000 16 to 20-year-old UK citizens, living in the UK.1 The findings reveal some interesting insights into their expectations of graduate careers.

In it for the short haul

Many respondents, 35%, thought they would have moved on from their first full-time graduate job within two years of joining, with only 12% expecting to still be there after five years. This is an important finding for employers who want to retain their best graduate employees.

How do employers best communicate the value of sticking around? What matters to those graduates and what would shift their perceptions?

Male respondents were more likely to say they expected to receive an annual pay rise than females and were more likely to prioritise a high salary

Show me the way

Perhaps the solutions to being able to retain graduates for longer lies in understanding and managing their expectations of their first graduate job.

Two-thirds of prospective and current undergraduate respondents expected their first full-time graduate job to provide them with formal training when they first started, although expectations of this had decreased since 2017 (67% in 2018 compared to 73% in 2017).

Over half of respondents (58% in 2018 compared with 50% in 2017) expected to be shown a clear career path for them to progress within the organisation.

Furthermore, the largest proportion of prospective and current undergraduate respondents said having a clear idea of career progression would be the single most important factor for them when looking for their first full-time graduate job (31%). This differed from 2017 when a sense of fulfilment was the highest priority (34% in 2017, compared to 25% in 2018).

Or show me the money

Males and females valued training, personal development and a good salary, but there were some interesting differences by gender. Female respondents tended to be slightly more future focused, prioritising training and personal development. Males were more likely to be expecting a good financial return than females.

Female respondents were more likely to say they expected to receive formal training when they first started work (69% compared to male respondents at 63%) and for there to be a keen interest in their personal development (51% compared with male respondents at 46%).

When searching for their first job after graduating, female respondents were more likely to say a sense of fulfilment would be the single most important factor to them (28%) than male respondents (23%). Male respondents were more likely to say they expected to receive an annual pay rise (33%) than females (25%) and were more likely to prioritise a high salary (23%) than females (15%).

In April 2018, the UK introduced mandatory gender pay gap reporting for larger organisations, raising greater awareness and deeper understanding of the issue. The Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data showed that the gender pay gap for graduates and, 'for all subjects except Mass Communication and Documentation, male median earnings exceed female median earnings at more than 50% of institutions'.2

The influence of expectations on the gender pay gap often focuses on females being increasingly more demanding about financial returns, but the responsibility also lies with the employer to inspire all genders to understand their value throughout their careers, and what they can do to maintain and increase this.

What do employers do to manage the differing expectations? Does gender influence perceptions of career value in the short and long term? How can this be managed so that different genders and ways of thinking about careers are more balanced?

Respondents whose parents had not been to university expected more from their first graduate job than those whose parents had both been to university

Trailblazers may have higher expectations

HESA data indicates that first-in-family graduates are slightly more likely to go into employment after studying, compared with those whose parents went to university. In 2016/17, 67% of first-in-family higher education leavers were working in the UK compared with 64% of graduates whose parents had gone to university.3

Interestingly our research indicated that respondents whose parents had not been to university expected more from their first graduate job than those whose parents had both been to university.

Respondents were more likely to say that they expected there to be a keen interest in their personal development when their parents had not been to university (51%), compared to when both had been (46%). Those whose parents had not been to university were also slightly more likely to prioritise training and development schemes (13%) than those with both parents having been (10%).

Respondents who had received free school meals were more likely to say they expected to receive an annual pay rise (31%) and to be able to work flexible hours (30%) than non-free school meals respondents (27% and 23%).

Additionally, respondents whose parents had not been to university were more likely to expect to be able to work flexible hours (27%) compared to respondents whose both parents had been to university (21%).

But, respondents whose parents had both been to university were aware of the many routes to a graduate career and felt slightly freer to prioritise how they felt about their jobs.

This included being more likely to say they expected to do a lot of basic admin tasks in order to prove themselves (30%) than when either one or neither had been to university (25% each).

Respondents were slightly more likely to say a sense of fulfilment would be their single most important factor when looking for a job, when both their parents had been to university (28%) than when neither had been (24%).

So, what do graduates need from employers?

  • Inspire them. Getting and training the right people takes time and money - give them the reasons they need to stay and thrive. Give them a clear career development path and help them understand how to get on, earn more and be satisfied in their roles. A little segmentation might also go a long way.
  • Gender matters. It isn't that females aren't interested in the money, but delivering value to them could be more complex. It isn't that males were only interested in the money, but the relationship between their investment in their career progression and salary might need to be communicated more clearly. It might be that employers need to order their messages differently, making sure that communications with their graduate employees are more segmented and resonate well.
  • Tell them what a range of graduate careers can look like. If you're first in family, you might expect more because you don't know how a wide range of graduate careers behave. Your knowledge isn't tempered by the stories you have from your parents of hardships and climbing the graduate employment ladder. This audience may be more susceptible to marketing messages which can focus on the best-case scenarios and blue-chip graduate schemes because they don't have personal narratives to counter them. They were more likely to expect to be invested in by their employer, in terms of thought and time.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects

Notes

  1. Annual Report: Options 2018, The Student Room.
    Graduate Outcomes (LEO): Subject by Provider, 2015 to 2016, Department for Education, 2018.
  2. Higher Education Leavers Statistics: UK, 2016/17 - Leaver activities and characteristics, HESA, 2018.

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