Where do we go from here?

19 June 2008

Jonathan Laurence

Investigations Editor

With the credit crunch and fears of a recession dominating the news in recent months, reports of the shrinking job market have featured prominently in the media. Traditional graduate destinations such as banking, the media and further education have been some of the industries worst affected.

The most prominent headlines have been dedicated to sackings in the City, favoured by economists in particular and students from a variety of other disciplines. Investment bank Citigroup has said that 9000 jobs will go worldwide as a result of the downturn in the market, while competitors Merrill Lynch and UBS will lay off 4000 and 5500 people respectively.

The media, which holds some of the jobs most highly coveted by arts students, has become increasingly difficult to enter. But media organisations in the UK and elsewhere have been finding things difficult for several years now (before anyone had started to worry about Northern Rock). Over the past two decades, newspaper groups, broadcast organisations and news agencies have all been consistently making staff redundant as advertising revenues decline and latterly readers have turned to the web.

BBC News is shedding 450 news posts in what has been described as a “savage cost cutting plan”, whilst Thomson Reuters, one of the world’s largest newsgathering services, has said just this month that 70 journalists’ jobs will go in the London bureau, whilst its graduate training scheme will not run next year.

As we reported earlier in this edition, times are tough for arts students looking to go into academia as well. Once seen as a safe option, postgraduate study in the humanities has become an incredibly competitive field thanks to sharp reductions in the amount of government subsidies available. Whereas prior to 2007 roughly 1500 studentships would have been available, now only 1000 are up for grabs nationwide; markedly fewer undergraduates and MPhil students have even been put forward for consideration by their universities.

However, Gordon Chesterman, Director of Cambridge Careers service, said that undergraduates here are less likely to be affected than those elsewhere. He downplayed fears that Cambridge students will be unable to find graduate level employment, saying: “This university still enjoys pole position in terms of employability. In the last crunch at the end of the nineties, students here were still finding graduate level employment, though they maybe have to work that little bit harder.”

“The careers service has been in business for 107 years: this must be the 13th slump we’ve been through, and we’re doing a number of additional things instead,” he added.

In an exclusive interview with The Cambridge Student (TCS), the Careers Service head said that employers are still eager to employ Cambridge despite fears of a recession.

“The reality is that there are still many employers targeting this university” he revealed. “And if they’re cutting on recruitment you’d find they’re visiting ten places rather than 20. We still tend to be in that shorter list.”

According to Chesterman, the Banking event in Michaelmas is already fully booked, although firms have become considerably more uncertain. “I think the problem that firms have is that they don’t know what things are going to be like, but they’ll still want to come to Cambridge if they’re recruiting at all.”

However, he also said that some students who had previously secured City jobs had had their offers withdrawn.

“They’ve come to us with a cheque for their notice period, and they’re back to square one”, he said, “although it’s only a handful of students.”

The downturn in the financial sector, which he described as “worst affected” by the potential recession, has had a knock on effect on other industries.

“You need to remind yourself that it’s banking and the property sector that have been affected by the credit crunch”, he said. “But many other industries out there like accountancy and retail that are still recruiting madly.”

“The problem is that some of the large businesses who haven’t been affected are filling their vacancies much quicker and much easier than they have in the past. There’s fewer opportunities around.”

He also said that fewer students were looking to go into banking as a result of the credit crunch. “Big banks may find that, although they are still recruiting, there’s a downturn in interest from students, though. Someone who had thought about a career in finance has more reservations now.”

Despite these difficulties, several people interviewed by The Cambridge Student said that the economic slump had hit employees at higher levels harder than those in entry level positions. Luke Layfield, who graduated from Cambridge in 2004 and was formerly a reporter on The News of the World, said that job cuts in the media mainly affected more senior journalists. “The lack of job security is more of a problem for senior and better paid journalists”, he told TCS, “because that’s where newspapers can save the most money.”

And the Careers Service Director confirmed that this was similar to the situation in the City, claiming that more senior employees had been laid off from banks than junior staff.

“For students going into graduate level positions, there won’t be as much of an effect as on those going into more senior positions”, he commented.

“In the banks in particular, when you see the headline news about so many hundred people sacked at such and such a bank, it tends to be people at higher levels. It’s not a case of the first ones in being the first out.”

In relation to recent difficulties with AHRC funding, as covered earlier in the paper, Chesterman said: “Not all of our students go into what you or I would call a proper job. 42-43% of first degree students will go on to do postgraduate study, so the credit crunch doesn’t really matter to them.”

When asked about increasing competition for studentships for humanities students, he added: “I’d like to think that we’re doing fairly well in that race for funding, though. Still, the year out option might prove more popular if people’s plans fall through. About 7% of students are taking a break after Cambridge.”

In terms of advice to current students looking to enter an area hit by diminishing job prospects, he concluded: “We always advise students to have a plan B or a plan C in a neighbouring career that is very similar, that doesn’t share the same name but that to all intents and purposes is the same job with a similar salary.

“We also encourage students to do postgraduate research and then enter that difficult sector three or four years out of Cambridge later on. There’s a number of different strategies. In fact, there are many careers that you can’t go into straight from Cambridge.”

The Careers’ Service Summer Event is on Wednesday June 25 2pm to 5pm in Mill Lane.