What a difference a year makes: the impact of Covid 19 on graduate careers[i], published in July by the University of Warwick’s Institute for Employment Research and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, captures the impact of the pandemic on a national sample of graduate workers in their early thirties, the majority of whom had by 2019 achieved reasonable job security, and many of whom were balancing work and parenting or other caring roles before the pandemic hit. These graduates had entered the labour market in the wake of the banking crisis-generated ‘Great Recession’, and although many reported that this had made them more resilient to the challenges of Covid, others were still felt bore the scars of early career difficulties.  Their experience has implications for graduates now leaving higher education, and for policymakers and employers.

Respondents were surveyed and interviews conducted in 2019 and again, in 2020.  In 2019, the relationship between their higher education and career development, was the main focus of the research, but then Covid struck.  How had the Covid-19 restrictions and the immediate economic impact on demand for products and services had affected their material circumstances, employment and financial security?

Almost all respondents reported dramatic change in their work, whether they were furloughed, worked from home, or continued in frontline roles. Many participants working on-site reported ‘frontline fatigue’ while those working remotely often reported exhaustion caused by the breakdown of boundaries between work and non-work time and space, and the difficulties of managing these boundaries. Others had found the change in work-life balance liberating and life-changing.

The main findings were:

  • Income: 16 per cent of participants said they had seen their personal incomes decline between March 2020 and December 2020. Some highly-paid graduates experienced pay reductions, but those most affected were mainly among the lowest paid graduates, the self-employed, and those holding jobs in the hardest hit sectors (marketed services such as transport and tourism, performance arts, hotels and catering, and in construction).
  • Job security: Only a third of self-employed respondents had been able to rely on government compensation for lost income. Those operating in sectors characterised by erratic work opportunities and high competition had become more insecure and vulnerable during the pandemic, but those in traditional graduate professions and those using and developing new technology mainly reported continued, secure, and even increasing demand for their expertise. Overall, between 2019 and 2020, 8 per cent fewer participants agreed with the statement ‘I am optimistic about my long-term career.
  • Rapid rise of remote working: The Covid restrictions amplified development of new ways of working already being established in many organisations: virtual team-working, online meetings, reduction of non-essential work-related travel, use of technology in production and administration. Highly-profitable global and national multi-site organisations which tended to be better-equipped and more able to take account of the changed circumstances in which they were required to operate coped well, but so did charities committed to employee participation in decision-making and environmental sustainability, and small companies accustomed to working collaboratively across occupational boundaries.
  • Potential loss of collaborative opportunities and risk to innovation: graduates working in scientific and creative professions and those requiring advanced interpersonal and communication expertise reported that without face-to-face collaborative working, innovation may proceed more slowly and the labour market for the graduates working in the relevant fields will be diminished.
  • New potential for discrimination: face-to-face working facilitates informal consultation, collaborative working and recognition of effort and ability. Likelihood of for promotion may be reduced and the potential for discrimination increased for those working remotely.
  • Changed views about work/life balance: living through the pandemic and working at home led many of the graduates to question their previous career-centred lives. In particular, although restrictions about household mixing, and the closure of schools and childcare services had created huge difficulties for parents, there was evidence of both men and women adapting their work patterns to accommodate this challenge – and reassessing their work/life balance as a result.
  • Changed aspirations: a substantial proportion of respondents said their career plans, values and aspirations had been affected by their experiences during the pandemic and they had re-evaluated what was important to them in their career.

Professor Kate Purcell commented

“Looking at the long-term impact of the pandemic on the rise of remote working, the pandemic has accelerated changes that were already beginning to be made by many organisations and demonstrated in one year the feasibility of changes that might otherwise have taken considerably longer to gain wide acceptance.

“Many graduates commented positively on employers who had reacted proactively, positively, and reassuringly to preserve their highly qualified labour, but there was disenchantment among those where their organisations had simply made use of furlough money and waited for things to get better, with little planning for the post pandemic period.”

A key finding common to both the 2019 and 2020 research was the persistence of the gender pay gap.

Professor Peter Elias said:

“We were surprised to discover that the gender pay gap for these mid-career graduates (the difference in average annual pay for between men and women) remains almost the same as the gap measured for similar national sample of mid-career graduates in 2002.  We are urging employers to tackle the gender pay gap and take care to ensure that increased reliance on remote working doesn’t discriminate against certain categories of employee.”

[i] This short report summarises the findings from two more detailed reports covering the progress of this cohort of graduates from 2012 to 2020:

Covid 19 and graduate careers (Purcell, K., Elias, P., Atfield, G, Krispeter, E., Day, R. and S.Poole) (2021) Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick.

Ten Years On – the Futuretrack Graduates ( Elias, P., K. Purcell, G. Atfield, E. Kispeter, R. Day and S. Poole ) (2021) Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick.

All three reports can be accessed at https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ier/futuretrack/ along with reports and previous details of the Futuretrack longitudinal project, which  tracked UCAS applicants through six stages from 2005/6 – 2020, though higher education and subsequently.