The latest ISE data shows the detrimental impact the corona crisis is having on entry-level jobs.

CEO of Gradcore and ISE board member, Martin Edmondson, considers what can be done to support young people about to enter the labour market as well as those who employ them.

One of the small positives of this current situation is having time to think and catch up with people. I’ve made a point of doing my best to speak to employers and universities and policy makers every week of this crisis so far, to try and triangulate what is going on and get a sense of what needs to happen next.

A common conversation has been to hark back to the last financial crisis and try and see what lessons we can learn. As I’ve mulled over these conversations, I thought it might be useful to try and pick out the common threads and suggest some possible ways forward, rooted in some of my experiences back then, and now.

What did we do back then?

Firstly, this crisis is not the same as 2008. Arguments continue about whether this is a structural or external shock based recession, but regardless we know it has already changed all our lives and will continue to do so for a considerable time to come. However, we can perhaps still draw some useful parallels.

In 2008/9 a number of initiatives were developed to support young people, graduates, SMES, regions and universities including the Future Jobs Fund and the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, which saw approximately 8,000 internships filled in SMEs across the country, at a cost of around £1,600 each. They were a mixed bag in terms of success, but they felt like seismic activities to Gradcore as we were contributing to some of them whilst just beginning life as a social enterprise.

What are the challenges now?

We know that hiring intentions over the summer of 2020 and into the autumn have dropped significantly – in large and small companies. Job board data from CV-Library saw April vacancies drop 60% compared with March. Whilst there are some sectors and organisations doing well in Covid times (Pharma, food retail etc) there are more sectors suffering considerably. Large graduate schemes, perhaps best represented by the membership of the ISE, are holding their nerve to a point, with overall graduate hiring intention down 12%, but their hiring of apprentices and interns is down further - 32% and 40% respectively.

SMEs face particular acute challenges around cash flow, and then adaptation of products and services to thrive in whatever the new normal looks like.

Existing inequalities have been highlighted and exacerbated by the crisis – whether that is the disproportionate number of deaths from people in minorities or poorer areas, or the embedding of existing inequalities in our education and work systems. As the Sutton Trust reported in its Social Mobility and Covid-19 report:

“Recessions are also known to have considerable impacts on educational aspirations and opportunities, with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to have their educational decisions influenced by labour market conditions, while those from better-off backgrounds often stay in education even if the economic benefit is less certain.”

Universities are staring at their revenue models with great uncertainty, almost certainly facing losing international student revenue, unsure about recruitment levels for UK undergrads in September, and wrestling with how to deliver their offer remotely whilst retaining a sense that students are still getting a meaningful student experience, and value for their £9,250 per year.

What might we do?

The main thing we should not do is delay. Every week that goes by without a coherent approach to supporting the class of 2020 will further entrench the issues set out above. Justine Greening was speaking on Radio 4’s World at One, and made the point that it would be ‘a scandalous waste of talent to wait until the autumn to address this issue’. It is vital that we learn the lessons of 2008/9 where many graduates experienced long-term wage detriment, with knock on consequences for the economy that last to this day.

Universities are already acting, with many increasing their support offer for the class of 2020 – both in terms of skills development, funded virtual internships and reduced fees and bursaries to encourage final year students to stay on and complete postgraduate study. However, these are not happening at great scale, and are limited by the parallel pressure on university budgets.

I’ve heard a range of solutions put forward, but some are unrealistic in terms of their ‘asks’ of government – given the enormous pressure on the Treasury already, and others are too light touch to really make a difference. Below I have tried to crystallise two approaches, which don’t place huge demands on central government funds, but would benefit from central government impetus:

1. Create a Covid Challenge Investment Fund (C-CIF) model

This would involve grants of around £1,500-2,000 to incentivise SMEs to take on graduates (virtually or in person). Fund this nationally, but allow local groupings of universities to take the lead on administering and delivering it. Fund this by bringing forward the promised additional HEIF money, and as such not adding any additional lines of spending to treasury budgets. This would be positive for regions (anyone remember levelling up?), positive for diversity (last time there was disproportionately more ethnic minority students who gained internships), positive civic activity for universities, and good for kick starting economic recovery in SMEs.

2. Support employers to protect existing opportunities

The larger graduate employers have already learned the lessons from 2008/9, and not rushed to rashly cut their graduate schemes. However, that pressure to cut could (and probably will) grow further, so it will be important to incentivise the retention of these schemes through the crisis. This could be done with NI tax breaks for employers hiring young people – or increased flexibility in the use of apprenticeship levy budgets.

These ideas are very much a starter for ten, rather than the finished article. They are there to be shot at or improved. Whilst this situation is not the same as the financial crisis, there are lessons we can learn from that time and we should look to learn them quickly.