By Tom Garmeson
The start of another academic year at Durham signals the arrival of the annual graduate scheme circus. Every October, the same bunch of acronymed corporates do the rounds at campuses up and down the country, vying to recruit Britain’s best and brightest. Walk through the science site on a weekday morning and you’ll no doubt see a throng of hoodied campus ambassadors sheltering under a pop-up gazebo; stray too close and they might just lure you in. Come for the free smoothies and bicycle tune-up, stay for the competitive starting salary and generous benefits package.
If it’s always been your dream to work for a multinational corporate accountancy firm, I wish you every success, but I would hazard a guess that most Durham graduates didn’t grow up with that future in mind. So why is it that our graduate recruitment season has such a narrow scope? Out of almost 80 exhibitors at this year’s University Careers Fair, nearly half came under the umbrella of either finance or consulting, whereas there were only five public sector organisations listed (two if discounting the armed forces), and just two not-for-profits. Scroll through the University Careers Centre’s weekly events email and you’ll mostly find schmoozing events run by investment banks.
It’s often a question of convenience. For a finalist, unsure of which career path to take, and with graduation looming, the prospect of a ready-made career in a respected company must be a tempting one. Indeed, students I’ve spoken to say they will probably apply for these schemes because “it’s a well-trodden path”, and “it’s what’s on offer”. My evidence may be anecdotal, but it seems that a fair chunk of the student population is to some extent unaware of the other opportunities out there, and is influenced by the mind-set of their fellow students. After all, when everyone around you is discussing online selection test strategies, and comparing how many telephone interviews they’ve had, it’s easy to start worrying that you should be doing the same.
Money is a factor, too, with banks and large companies promising eye-boggling salaries in return for a young graduate’s signature. Another is the fear of ending up sitting around in your parents’ living room come September, trawling through online jobs listings while your friends go off to work. In my opinion, the prospect of being left on the graduate scrapheap is a key reason for many applications; in many cases more so than a genuine interest in the area of work.
In our university culture, the prestige and cachet ascribed to these corporate graduate schemes leads to students treating them as some kind of Holy Grail. The reality, however, is that there is a much broader world of work out there. Perhaps some banks and large multinationals are able to recruit more graduates than other employers, and there is no doubt that they are making a concerted effort to get our attention. But there are many more opportunities in the public sector, NGOs and mid-size companies than Durham’s career’s fair would have us believe. We need to put the world of big business and finance on an equal footing with other sectors, allowing uncertain students a chance to properly evaluate which career path best suits them.
Over the coming months, after the corporate circus has rolled back out of town, and all the branded mugs have been handed out, aptitude tests will test, interviewers will interview and assessment centres will assess. I only hope that, when the dust settles, we’ll know we got what we really wanted.
Photograph: Durham University