Using data to support graduate careers

May 23, 2019 | Sector & policy

In July the ISE is running a one day workshop for careers and employability professionals entitled Making effective use of labour market data to support graduate careers and employability. Tristram Hooley, who will be leading the workshop, explains why it is so important that people working with students have the skills to read and interrogate labour market data.

Would you fancy a career as a moulder, core maker and die caster? What about an electroplater or coal mine operative? And who wouldn’t want to pursue a career as a weaver or knitter? If so, or if you are advising students about any careers, you might be interested to know that these are some of the smallest occupations recognised by the Office for National Statistics. So small in fact they can’t collect reliable information about them in the Labour Force Survey.

On the other hand you might be interested to know that there are around a million people employed as sales and retail assistants and over three quarters of a million employed as administrators and the same as care workers. If we look at graduate professions there are over half a million nurses and slightly less early years and primary school teachers. There are also hundreds of thousands of secondary school teachers, software developers, project management professionals, medical practitioners, marketing and sales directors and a similar number of marketing professionals, people working in human resources, IT, accountancy and as management consultants.


Stop chasing rainbows

If you work with students to help them to think about their careers, this is the kind of information that you should know, or at least know how to find out about. The labour market is the hard reality within which the careers of young people are pursued. If we don’t recognise the way in which the labour market shapes the opportunities that are available to young people, we run the risk of encouraging people to chase rainbows and perpetuating a banal ‘if you can dream it you can do it’ mentality.

This is not to say that careers and employability work should be about crushing people’s dreams and telling them that something isn’t possible. Someone does pursue a successful career as a moulder, core maker and die caster. Someone else will successfully become a striker at Manchester United, win a Nobel Prize or walk on the moon. These careers are not impossible and having a strong aspiration to achieve your dreams certainly won’t hurt. Good careers work will help you to investigate these possibilities, balance the risks with the rewards and make meaningful steps forward.


Understanding the labour market

Careers professionals need to have a high level of labour market literacy. You don’t need to know how many fish mongers and poultry dressers there are in the UK off the top of your head (it is about 7000 since you ask). But, you do need to know where you can get this information, as well as information on what your typical fish monger earns, what qualifications she normally has and what kind of recruitment processes the employers of fish mongers use. You might be even more interested if you can find information on how all of these issues play out in the area where you live and work.

In the UK this kind of information isn’t always easy to find. At the Institute of Student Employers we bring together a lot of research relating to entry-level and early career employees, but this kind of data becomes even more powerful when you combine it with other data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, Department for Education, Office for National Statistics, academic research and a host of other useful sources.


Mastering the dark arts

When you are confronted with a sea of data, it can be easy to be overwhelmed. I’ve heard careers professionals complain, ‘why can’t someone just tell me the answer or organise all of this in a simple form’. The reason this isn’t possible is because the labour market is a constantly moving, complex system. No one, not employers, not academics, not the government and especially not me, fully understands it.

The labour market is like an enormous gelatinous blog. It is constantly moving and looks different depending on how you look at it. If we look at salary data we get one picture, if we look at employment rates, trends or recruitment processes we get another. Careers professionals have to get good at managing this complexity, at sneaking up on the labour market and making informed guesses about what is going on.

Thankfully this is not as difficult as it sounds. As careers professionals we don’t need to become labour market economists. We just need to be able to help young people to understand the context within which they are pursuing their careers. We can do this with some simple techniques for analysing the labour market.

For example, always be suspicious of a single number. 7000 fish mongers sounds like a lot of jobs until you learn that there are a million sales and retail assistants. These number become even more meaningful if you ask how big they were last year. And you can be more certain about what you’ve learnt if you can find the same thing measured in two different ways. Building up a checklist of good questions to ask of all data will take you a long way.


So what next?

As a careers professional you should make sure that you commit to engaging with and using labour market information. Most importantly this is about putting some time aside to read, learn and ask good questions about the information that you see.

If you want some starting points visit:

And start asking some good questions.

If you want to find out more, join us for our workshop on Making effective use of labour market data to support graduate careers and employability.

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