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Graduates' experiences of the workplace


Martin Gresty, of Graduate Prospects, summarises two reports that analysed graduates’ experiences and expectations of the workplace, and advised employers on the steps they needed to take to attract and retain graduates.

  • Happiness, career development, challenging work, training and development, and a good relationship with their manager were the most important aspects of a job for graduates.
  • Poor promotional opportunities, unfriendly colleagues, poor starting salaries, uninteresting work tasks and poor management style were among the reasons graduates gave for leaving their first job.
  • Employers needed to adjust their recruitment strategies to take account of the different ways that graduates enter the labour market.


In December 2006, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) published the report Graduates in the workplace: Does a degree add value? (referred to as the CIPD study hereafter) [1]. Two cohorts of graduates – 331 from the class of 2000 and 545 graduates from 2005 – were surveyed in 2006 about their experiences of the workplace; it also provided guidance on what employers needed to do to recruit and retain graduates.

December 2006 also saw the publication of a survey of over 10,000 students and graduates and 395 organisations by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) [2]. The study identified a high number of graduates, which it defined as the ‘hidden graduate pool’, who did not begin a permanent career or graduate training scheme immediately after graduation. It noted how employers were missing out on a significant pool of graduate talent and suggested various steps employers needed to take to ensure this graduate talent was not lost to them.

This article summarises the key findings of these two reports, concentrating on the speed with which graduates secured their first job, length of time they stayed with employers, reasons for leaving their first job and experiences of those on graduate training schemes compared with those who were not. Key messages for employers are also discussed.

Activities after graduation and reasons for accepting first job

The CIPD study noted that 29% of the 2000 cohort and 31% of the 2005 cohort started work immediately after graduation, although the number of graduates taking longer than six months to start a permanent job rose from 9% in 2000 to 14% in 2005.

Graduates in the 2005 cohort accepted their first job for various reasons:

  • Career development opportunities (49%).
  • To get on the career ladder (29%).
  • Money issues (17%).
  • Location (5%).

Graduates surveyed in the AGR study who did not join a formal graduate scheme undertook various activities after graduation:

  • 34% were in a temporary job unrelated to their career;
  • 12% were employed in a temporary job related to career;
  • 12% were working in a permanent career in a non-graduate job;
  • 10% in a permanent graduate job that is not part of a graduate training scheme;
  • 6% were in postgraduate study;
  • 5% undertook a gap year to travel;
  • 5% undertook a gap year to work, took up temporary work or charity work;
  • 4% were unemployed;
  • 4% other.

This survey, in addition, analysed the reasons this ‘hidden pool’ did not apply for graduate training schemes:

  • 53% of graduates surveyed believed they could only get on to a training scheme straight after university.
  • A number of graduates were unsure what they wanted to do after graduation, with 15% feeling that this uncertainty prevented them from applying for a training scheme.
  • A lack of targeting on employers’ part, especially because of the emphasis on campus-based activities.
  • Anecdotal suggestions that debt could drive graduates into temporary work or stop-gap jobs.

Looking for a second job

43% of graduates not on training schemes surveyed for the AGR study saw their first job as a stop gap. An additional 9% left due to poor promotional opportunities, while other reasons included unfriendly colleagues and poor starting salaries. The principal reasons given by graduates for leaving their training scheme were uninteresting work tasks, regarding their first job as a stop gap, a lack of promotional opportunities, and poor management style.

When looking for their second job, those graduates not on training schemes wanted higher starting salaries, greater promotional opportunities and better training. For graduates on training schemes, their second job needed to be more interesting, pay more and offer greater responsibility. All graduates surveyed for the AGR study, regardless of type, were most likely to use recruitment agencies when searching for their second job (35% of all graduate respondents).

Retention of graduates

The CIPD study found that 81% of respondents graduating in 2005 were still working with their first permanent employer one year after graduation, with 12% of these having been promoted. Lower proportions of graduates from 2000 were satisfied with their career development, happy with training, development, coaching and mentoring opportunities than those from the class of 2005. The study suggested that attitudes change once individuals have been in the workplace for a few years and satisfaction levels may drop over time.

The CIPD study considered whether or not graduates were likely to change jobs for less money. It found that graduates, regardless of their year of graduation, were most likely to consider a lower salary if they found a job with better career prospects, while other popular reasons included better training opportunities, and better work/life balance.


The CIPD study found that around a quarter of both cohorts (24% for 2000 and 27% for 2005) felt that a lack of specialised skills restricted their career progression. The study argued that this finding emphasised the need for schools and colleges to better inform pupils about the career implications of subject choices. The AGR report concluded that those graduates not on training schemes regarded leadership as one of their weaker skills, while graduate trainees rated themselves slightly higher for analysing and interpreting, interacting and presentation, and leading and deciding. Graduates in temporary work or jobs unrelated to their career aims rated themselves slightly higher for adapting and coping.

Experiences of work: those on training schemes compared with those who were not

The CIPD study found that those on a graduate training scheme were more likely to start on a better salary, and earned more after a few years in the workplace, than those not on a training programme. Graduates on training schemes valued them for their training and development opportunities. They also viewed them as offering more career opportunities and quicker career progression. Graduates on training schemes also deemed their employers to be meeting their needs more so than graduates who were not on training programmes, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Response to question ‘How good are organisations at fulfilling graduates’ needs’
% all graduates not on a training scheme% all graduates on a training scheme
Career development5479
Challenging work 64 73
Coaching or mentoring 35 54
Training and development opportunities 56 76
Supportive management structures 5563
(Base: All respondents answering: 352 on a training scheme and 491 who were not. Source: CIPD)

The study also concluded, however, that around a quarter of respondents in both cohorts that had been recruited onto a training scheme saw graduate training programmes as divisive, and recommended that employers should monitor this finding, given the potential reverberations on teamwork and performance.

Perhaps surprisingly, the AGR’s study found that graduates not on training schemes were more likely than those who were to have risen to levels of responsibility such as training others or managing a business function. Those not on training schemes were more likely to have been promoted to junior management level, developing faster and were being assigned more responsibility. The study thus concluded that this hidden pool of graduate talent is developing a valuable skill set.

What graduates look for in a job

The CIPD study explored aspects of a job that graduates regarded as being important to them. At least 90% of the cohort from the class of 2005 cited happiness, career development, challenging work, training and development, a good relationship with their manager, and company culture as the most important aspects of a job. Table 2 gives a full breakdown of the results.

Table 2. Aspects of a job that graduates from 2005 rated as important
% of graduates from 2005
Happiness 97%
Career development 97%
Challenging work 95%
Training and development opportunities 94%
Good relationship with manager 92%
Company culture 90%
Salary and bonus 86%
Work-life balance 85%
Supportive management structures 85%
Job security 78%
Company’s overall reputation 72%
Flexible working opportunities 65%
Location of organisation 63%
Company’s ethical and environmental stance 63%
Financial support for further study/qualification 61%
Additional benefits 59%
Coaching or mentoring 57%
(Base: 543 graduates. Source: CIPD)

Messages for employers

Both the CIPD and AGR studies provided recommendations on what employers needed to do to recruit and retain their graduate workforce. According to the CIPD study, organisations were most likely to fulfil graduates’ needs by creating a good company culture and facilitating good relationships between employees and managers. It also suggested that employers could do more to improve management of graduates.

The AGR’s report argued that the hidden graduate pool was a high-quality source of talent but difficult to access. In accessing this talent, the study urged employers to:

  • adjust their recruitment strategies;
  • focus more on job boards and online activities;
  • look towards exploiting the potential of social networking, which could be a very effective way to reach a wider range of candidates;
  • broaden marketing strategies;
  • review selection methods and criteria;
  • think beyond traditional graduate recruitment methods, for example, by establishing relationships with recruitment agencies that have large numbers of graduates registered with them.


1 Graduates in the workplace: Does a degree add value?, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, December 2006.

2 Reaching the hidden graduate pool. Association of Graduate Recruiters/Hobsons, December 2006.

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