Student careers engagement fluctuated in 2022. Graham Philpott, Head of Careers Consultancy at University of Reading, explains what this means for employers planning activity in 2023.
We’ve just had our first autumn term without lockdowns and other restrictions since 2019, so a lot of people, not least early careers recruiters, are keen to understand what it’s like. More importantly, what can this teach us about student careers engagement for our spring term and 2023/24 planning?
At the University of Reading, on campus life has definitely returned. The enrolment numbers of new students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, has been good, so we have lots of students. The cafes, and the weekly street food market, are buzzing – the bars and clubs might be too, I wouldn’t know.
Our careers registration data is showing that more students than ever before are working part-time, and engagement in career thinking is consistent with previous years.
In line with other universities, we are seeing increasing numbers of students reporting mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression, leading to increasing demands on our welfare, disability and counselling services.
What about engagement with careers activities?
It’s fair to say that, throughout the term, there’s been demand for one-to-one career support, with the vast majority of students choosing to come into the careers centre and talk face-to-face. Beyond appointments though, well, it’s definitely been a game of two halves.
September and October saw a 25% increase in attendance at career workshops and employer events, year-on-year, with both in person and online events benefitting.
The footfall at our jobs and careers fairs was around record levels, and employers were reporting how engaged, prepared and communicative the students were too. The students weren’t just spinning around the fair to pick up merch and sate their parent’s nagging – they were taking it seriously and acting professionally. And it was the first and second year undergraduates that were the most engaged, boding well for the future.
Then November started and the dip in engagement began, in fact attendance at our career workshops and employer engagement events are about 50% lower than last year. Partially this is due to us offering fewer activities to simplify our services, but even taking that into account, attendance has significantly dropped.
It’s important to say that it’s attendance that’s dropped, as bookings have remained relatively healthy, so it’s between the booking and the actual turning up/logging on that the drop off is happening.
The average drop off is largest for online events, but beyond that it’s really difficult to see trends. Some online and in-person events have had more people turn up than booked, and some others have had less than a quarter of those booked attend.
Even events featuring big name employers have suffered, and some of those where we were worried that a lack of a marquee employer might lead to a low engagement have flourished.
And we aren’t alone; careers colleagues across the land are reporting similar tales. Academics and other support teams are reporting the same with respect to their lectures, seminars and events.
Let’s hypothesise. The second half of autumn term is when the deadlines start to hit, nothing new there, but perhaps what is new is the preparedness of the students for the deluge of competing priorities.
These are students who were used to deadlines happening during lockdowns, where a lack of opportunities meant that maybe they could get away with muddling through. Now there’s so many more competing priorities – not just social, but all that part-time work too – that muddling through isn’t sufficient.
This means that students have to learn about time management, personal organisation and prioritising in real time, and of course something has got to give. Bear in mind too that a number of students have anxiety, which can also affect the individual’s ability to prioritise and organise.
We all thought that the pandemic was going to have an effect on a generation. I, with many others, was really worried about the impact on confidence and interpersonal skills. What I hadn’t factored in were the other knock on effects, such as the hypothesised impact on personal organisation.
What does this mean for early careers recruitment?
Well, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and one autumn term doesn’t make a trend, but I’d say that it’s worth assuming more than ever that careers engagement with most students will be easier in the first half of their term/semester than the second.
Students really value seeing employers in real life, and they are more confident and assured than you might be expecting. However, set expectations carefully with whoever is representing you on campus, as the booking sheet is no indicator of the attendance levels.
It’s also important that, however well known your brand, you have a contingency plan in your back pocket, as plan A may not work the same as it did either pre-covid, or over the last two years.
Also, build in additional support for time management skills into your graduate development programmes, and prepare your managers for the need to nurture the graduates through their first rotation.
The students’ potential hasn’t changed, and they are still as career orientated as ever, it’s just their experiences to date that have been different.
Read more insight from and about careers services and student careers engagement