Overqualified, under experienced unemployed young people: what’s really happening to our university graduates?
My name is Lilli, I work at Oxygen Youth Services as a Youth Program Officer, facilitating activities in their Drop-In Space. I want to talk about the struggle young people can face transitioning from entry-level work to a desired career pathway after completing university.
My experience at university, studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Psychology and Criminology at the University of Melbourne, was mainly positive. I was fully aware entering the course that, in this day-and-age, a Bachelor’s degree is rarely enough to afford you your dream job. I did, however, believe that through three years of higher education, I would gain appropriate skills to enable me to be employable in my chosen field in some capacity.
The content I learnt at university definitely broadened my horizons, giving me the ability to critically analyse statistics and academic reports, and a strong understanding of psychological and criminological theories. It didn’t, however, provide me with any practical skills, nor understanding of how the social services sector works.
Instead of conversations around potential career pathways and the service providers that exist in our community, two options were offered to us post graduation: further education at university or a career in academia.
Somewhat feeling lost, I turned to my university’s student services to seek guidance on what pathways were available to me. I was looking for partnerships or industry connections the university had with social services; where students could volunteer to gain experience. If that wasn’t available, at least a career counsellor would do. In honesty, after completing this degree, I wasn’t even sure what I was qualified to do.
But I came to a stark realisation at this point: to the university, I was nothing more than a customer, a number who, after completing their degree, they had no responsibility to support.
So I set out on my own, and started applying for both paid and volunteer roles; anything I could find. I lost track of the number of applications I wrote. I poured every piece of information I knew into these applications, trying in vain to manipulate my extensive academic knowledge into practical examples, searching to be the candidate they were looking for, all whilst working up to 40 hours a week in my hospitality job.
I began to question the relevance of university as a whole. If I couldn’t even get interviewed for a volunteer position after completing my Bachelor’s, how could I ever expect to work in the field I was passionate about?
I didn’t hear back from anyone for nine months. 90% of the time, my applications were never even acknowledged by the organisations. I applied for admin positions in courts, admin roles at psychologists, data entry positions at charities; anything that would get me closer to my field.
I finally got an interview with a reputable not-for-profit organisation. The interviewers said my application was the best they’d seen. I had strong academic performance and approached the questions in the key selection criteria better than most experienced applicants. But, they said, there was no way they could offer me a job without practical experience. They wouldn’t have bothered to interview me, but wanted to commend me on my application.
When I asked if there was a chance I could volunteer with them in any capacity, they said they rarely provided volunteer roles any more. This was due to a change in legislation surrounding organisations’ responsibilities over their volunteers – it had just become too risky to accept them.
Although I understand the hesitation in having volunteers in the social services field, especially around young people, I thought my Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and Criminology, my Working With Children’s Check, and my extensive applications would be sufficient in proving my commitment to the field. If there were no opportunities for me to gain a volunteer position, and no organisation could hire my without having this experience, I couldn’t see a way out of my entry-level hospitality job, where I was overworked and underpaid.
And I was not alone in this. At the café I worked at, my colleagues had Bachelors in Chemistry, Fine Arts and Humanities. Some are even completing their PhDs.
Then, I got lucky. I live down the road from Oxygen Youth Centre, and although I’d previously applied there to no avail, I sent every person at the organisation the same email. I explained my situation, my willingness and eagerness to learn, and eventually Liam Walsh, the Community Development Officer at Oxygen, replied and set up a meeting with me.
He told me, as a youth centre, Oxygen had a responsibility to help young people like me get ahead. He gave me a volunteer role there, just three hours a week, where I would come and do some data entry, and eventually, I ended up helping with their music program. Then, after three months of volunteering, a position came up. I applied, and I got it.
Now that I am in the field, and have experience, I can understand why I was unsuccessful in my other applications. Real life experience provides you with so many more opportunities than academia ever could.
However, if there aren’t avenues for young people to gain this experience, how can they ever break into the field?
More and more our society expects young people to be overqualified for jobs; having a Bachelors is presumed necessary for positions that never used to require further education, and post-graduate qualifications are desired for many roles.
Young people are encouraged to obtain the highest level of education they can, instead of working from the ground-up within organisations. However, once they achieve this education, they are told they don’t have the experience to participate in the very jobs they required the education for.
More and more young people are discouraged from obtaining vocational degrees, instead encouraged to engage with qualifications that don’t box them in and open more doors from them. In reality, these degrees result in a cohort of overqualified, under experienced unemployed young people with no support networks to connect them to potential employment opportunities.
The real take away from this story, however, isn’t about me at all. I was privileged enough to grow up in inner-city Moreland, with emotionally supportive parents. I am a white Australian who had the accessibility in their life to complete an undergraduate degree.
Newly arrived migrants, people from CALD backgrounds, people who have a disability, people who can’t afford to stop working, even to complete an undergraduate degree part-time – these people have even more barriers to meaningful employment. People who didn’t have emotional support from their family. People whose parents hadn’t worked in similar fields so could help them network with appropriate people. These are the people who stay in entry-level jobs, when their capabilities reach far beyond that. And the irony is this diverse cohort of people are the exact group of people we need the most in the social services field.
My mum always told me, workplaces hire for attitude and train for skills. If this is true, there need to be greater resources awarded to organisations that actively attempt to hire newly graduated employees to provide them with experience.
Furthermore, there needs to be a stronger link between university and grass-roots employment. If university qualifications are becoming a necessity for employment, they need to bear the responsibility of preparing young people for the workplace environment. There need to be more graduate programs, placement opportunities that are flexible with part-time employment, and far more volunteer opportunities.
Universities should be influenced by, and influence, the community around them. Degrees do not exist without the context and demand of the employment gaps they are trying to fill. If we require young people to up-skill academically we need there to be positions for them to enter when they have upskilled, but instead, they are burnt out and in severe debt from the very institutions who claim to help them.
This article is adapted from a speech Lilli Dunn gave at the National Youth Commission public hearings on the 26th of March, 2019 at Victoria University Sunshine Campus.