Closing the digital divide and improving graduate recruitment for the long term

With digital career fairs and advice being likely to continue post-pandemic, unless HE careers systems are overhauled, they are likely to remain a barrier to students and employers connecting

It’s an inescapable fact that COVID-19 has impacted almost every aspect of our lives – and for final-year university students and recent graduates, it means entering the jobs market is likely to be harder and more competitive than ever.

In order to secure employment, graduates may be faced with the decision of taking a position at a lower pay or level, or a job where they need to adapt to an industry they hadn’t planned to work in.

It’s not all bad news, though. We know that graduates are the entrepreneurs of the future and they can learn a lot from this pandemic experience, helping to build an economy that can better withstand events like COVID-19. Indeed, by fuelling the world of work with new ideas and approaches, graduates can be at the forefront of pervasive change.

But how do we shore up the graduate recruitment market – in order to fuel the economy with this transformational talent? And how do we harness the best of technology to help graduates from all backgrounds, employers and universities forge better and more fruitful connections?

Exploring the digital divide

Our new report, Handshake: Bringing Humanity Back to Graduate Recruitment, reveals a pervasive digital divide, where not all students and graduates have the same access to opportunities.

Digitally disadvantaged students from working class backgrounds, with less consistent access to careers services remotely and who may lack the established professional online networks of family and friends that link them to employers, are more likely to be left behind. This can decrease their chances of quality employment and put a handbrake on social mobility.

“And it’s not just students who are suffering; digital exclusion has also hit employers, with smaller businesses lacking access to tools such as applicant tracking systems, email marketing tools and video conferencing licenses”

Traditional professional networking sites are often geared towards people already in careers, leaving students and young graduates feeling disconnected. What’s more, the dissemination of opportunities across multiple, fragmented university career management systems inhibits graduate recruitment as a whole, and is especially problematic for smaller businesses with limited resources.

And it’s not just students who are suffering; digital exclusion has also hit employers, with smaller businesses lacking access to tools such as applicant tracking systems, email marketing tools and video conferencing licenses. This is despite SMEs playing a key role in economic recovery, making up 34% of all open roles and 48% of all job postings in 2020.

Harnessing technology for better connections

To tackle these issues, our report recommends an urgent review of existing university systems, which in failing to evolve, have created barriers to students’ and employers’ connection.

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The facilitation of peer-to-peer communication and improved access for digitally disadvantaged students all need to be taken into consideration when helping graduates unravel their career prospects.

The changing role of careers fairs could prove to be a key component too. In-person careers fairs have almost entirely been replaced in the past year, and were heavily bound by geographical and budget constraints prior to that.

Online fairs during the pandemic have too often tried to replicate on-campus events, with Sims-style virtual booths, PDFs of marketing materials and back-to-back recorded webinars. But this misses the fact that careers fairs form part of a bigger experience for students and employers, focused on exploration and connection.

The future of careers fairs should be a digital experience, purpose-built to meet that need, using insight on a student’s background, and information on the employers attending to create meaningful connections. This will require organisers to think bigger than ‘vanity metrics’ such as the number of students who visited a virtual booth or downloaded a PDF.

“The key to tackling social injustice and levelling the playing field is improving social capital, or in other words, helping young people from all backgrounds forge meaningful connections, driven by tech they can easily access and use”

Technology has a key role and responsibility in boosting the graduate jobs market, driving more efficient and effective ways to form connections with employers and allowing career services to direct resources towards the areas of work that matter most for their institution, their students and strategic partners.

So, the current uncertain economic climate means that professional connections and career support are more important than ever for students and graduates. The key to tackling social injustice and levelling the playing field is improving social capital, or in other words, helping young people from all backgrounds forge meaningful connections, driven by tech they can easily access and use.

And, while the list of issues presented by the pandemic is a long one, it really should be a priority for the early careers sector to engage head on with the obstacles being faced by recent graduates and students about to enter the jobs market. The scale of these challenges mean technology must be a cornerstone of the university response. The outcome otherwise will be a further increase in the divide between social groups and more young people left behind.

Ultimately, by levelling the playing field, we all stand to benefit – as the country’s economic recovery is fuelled by an influx of skilled graduates, able to make an immediate impact in the workplace.


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