Sometimes, it can seem like if you’re a student at a top university, it’s either a grad scheme or the gutter…
At careers fairs and on campus you’re seduced by big companies with free chocolates and promises of a high-flying executive life. Your friends are frantically filling in 20-page application forms as soon as their final year starts. Meanwhile, the student debt is mounting up and those grad scheme salaries can look mighty tempting.
But a grad scheme really isn’t for everyone, and certainly isn’t the only way to be successful in your career.
In fact, only a fraction of the graduate level jobs gained by university-levers are via the big grad schemes (something like 16%). Many more grads find great jobs and exciting careers through other means. Graduate training programmes are also mainly focused around certain (corporate) industries, like banking or management consultancies, so if you want to get into, say, publishing, PR or the not-for-profit sector, you’re unlikely to find many structured schemes.
So, what to do if the grad scheme steam train has passed you by? Here are a few thoughts…
- Size isn’t everything… While regimented grad schemes are usually offered by large organisations, the majority of graduate level jobs are found within smaller companies, which make up 99.3% of all private-sector businesses in the UK. Joining a small to medium-sized business (SME) could bring a lot of advantage, including the chance to take more responsibility and get involved in more varied work early on than being in a larger and more structured, hierarchical environment. Sometimes these companies will advertise on job sites, but many opportunities are never advertised – the so-called ‘hidden job market’– and are secured instead through speculative applications and networking.
- But if big is what you’re after… There are other ways to get in with the larger firms if that’s where you’ve set your sights. Many start in entry level jobs or through temping and then work their way up. You may start on lower pay and the progression may be slower, but if you can prove yourself on the job, you could rise through the ranks quicker than you’d imagine. If you’ve missed out on the grades for a grad scheme, this could be a good option.
- A chance to experiment… One of the problems with joining a structured grad scheme is that you’re tied in – at least for a year or two. There are real benefits, especially at the start of your working life when you may have fewer responsibilities and before you go too far down one route, to taking a ‘try-it-and-see’ approach. One of the ways to do this is to find a paid internship – there are many advertised on the Careers Group’s JobOnline website from a whole range of different sectors. As well as giving you the chance to test your assumptions about what a particular job role or working environment might be like, internships canhelp you pick up new skills and very often lead to a job offer. Many grads also find fantastic permanent jobs after temping at an organisation.
- Giving something back… Another way to gain skills and experience is to volunteer. If you are keen to break into the charity or NGO sector, they’ll probably want to see some evidence of voluntary work – both to show your commitment to the sector and potentially to the cause. And if you lack work experience, volunteering is a great way to build and demonstrate skills to private companies too. Volunteering doesn’t have to mean breaking the bank to support yourself either. There are many schemes, both here and abroad, that offer a stipend and even, in some cases, accommodation while you volunteer. Check out The Idealist, the European Voluntary Service and also Year Here, a great scheme that provides a year-long UK programme, where you get the chance to be involved in innovative social projects and public sector consulting. They offer a travel stipend and a limited number of £5k bursaries.
The main message is DON’T PANIC. You don’t have to have it all figured out yet, and you certainly don’t have to get on a grad scheme to be successful.
A grad scheme might mean a fast-track to a more senior role, but if it doesn’t end up being the kind of work that motivates you, do you really want to get stuck on that track? It could be better to try a few things out and then find out what routes you want to pursue. And if you do want to apply to grad schemes a little further down the line, you’ll have lots of interesting evidence for your CV.
If you’re graduating this Summer and don’t know what's next, make an appointment with your university careers service to explore your options.