Enhancing the employability of Economics students

Vitalia Kinakh, Bolton Business School
Published November 2012

This case study contributes to wider debates about the ways of enhancing employability of graduates and in particular economics graduates. It draws on research from a one-year project conducted by the author and funded by the Economics Network.

The case study makes links to previous research as to the employability of economics graduates conducted by other researchers and institutions. It furthermore demonstrates that the majority of graduates feel prepared for their first professional job. However the transition out of economics courses could be made more seamless through greater engagement with employers through insight days and work experience.

Introduction

In the summer of 2008, just before the ‘credit crunch’ played havoc with our economy, around 5,400 Economics graduates left UK universities. A similar number of Economics graduates were graduating in 2009 and 2010. The class of economics graduates in 2011 is even larger – circa 6,800![1]

According to the UK Graduate Careers Survey 2009 “overall only a third of this year’s new graduates expect to find work after university”. In 2010 46% of finalists were ‘not very confident’ and 11% ‘not at all confident’ of finding a graduate job. 83% of graduates indicated that they are ‘very’ or ‘quite concerned’ about their career prospects. (The Graduate Market in 2010, p.30)

The recent survey by the Prince’s Trust (2010) reveals that one in five jobless 18- to 24-year-olds have a degree and the unemployment rate for this age group has shot up to 18 per cent from just 5.8 per cent before the recession started.

The recession affected individual career destinations. “Almost half of students said that investment banking was now less appealing and up to a quarter had been deterred from considering a career in accountancy” (The Graduate Market in 2010, p.31). In addition in 2010 the public sector saw a cut in the number of entry-level vacancies by 4.3%. (The Graduate Market in 2010, p.13) These are the main areas where economics graduates look for graduate jobs.

Some universities / departments endeavour to understand just how successfully graduates transition out of Economics courses. This study has collected the views of economics graduates and attempts to establish whether or not they feel they have the necessary skill-set required by today’s employers. The study also looked into employers' perceptions.

My study had an exploratory stance and recent economics graduates[2] were my key informants.

The research aim

  1. To determine to what extent Economics graduates feel they are prepared for their first professional post;
  2. To find out how university departments of Economics could assist their graduates in enhancing their employability in current turbulent economic situations by evaluating the curriculum of current Economics programmes;

Methodology

University departments of Economics should expand the ways students engage with the world of work both within and outside of the curriculum

The study was started in September 2010 by contacting several Alumni Associations located in the North-West and asking if they would be able to assist in the dissemination of questionnaires.  An on-line questionnaire was created and the web link was included in the body of the introductory letter, which Alumni Associations e-mailed to their recent economics graduates.

The bulk of the desk research was undertaken between September 2010 and January 2011.

The questionnaire was available on-line from November 2010 until March 2011 and captured the perceptions of recent economics graduates who studied in the North-West.

The on-line questionnaire consisted of 20 questions, which related to a number of issues, including graduates’ views on:

  • Having a chance to do an internship
  • The value of work experience
  • Course content in relation to the use of real examples, data, doing presentations in front of an audience
  • The value of subject modules in preparation for employment
  • Comparative evaluation of skills directly upon completion of the course and now
  • Least useful aspects of study
  • Levels of satisfaction with the university economics course

The majority of questions were tick-box questions, but it was decided to include some open questions with free-text commentary to allow participants to provide their opinions on certain matters. A considerable number of participants provided substantial written answers.

Employer’s views were collected from publications and guidance to graduates available on their websites.

This research project has been undertaken with a view to highlight any aspects of economics programmes that could be introduced or modified to ease the transition of graduates into the tough labour market.

Results

The response rate was much lower than anticipated. However, an acceptable number of questionnaires have been completed: 82 completed fully, with another 11 discarded as they were incomplete.

There are a number of findings which emerged from this study of recent economics graduates from two universities based in the North-West, and from reviewing various published survey reports on employability of economics graduates.

To what extent do Economics graduates feel they are prepared for their first professional post?

70.7% of participants stated that they felt prepared to start their professional carrier (They ticked 70% or more on a scale from 10% to 100%).

However 14.6% indicated that they have felt half-ready to commence their first professional job. (They ticked 50% or less on a scale from 10% to 100%)

Graduates who had undertaken a placement

Of alumni who responded to the questionnaire, 66% were not offered any work experience/ internship[3] and 34% did internships. This finding mirrors a wider situation - “Humanities and Social Sciences were less likely to provide placements for students” (Lowden et al, 2011).

A majority (64%) of alumni who did internships indicated that they found internship useful (rated 80% and above) when looking for a first professional position.

Work placement improved graduates’ understanding how an organisation works and how to behave in a workplace. “I learned how to be professional, how to talk to clients and others.

Employers of economics graduates look favourably towards graduates with work experience. “Candidates can also help themselves to stand out from the crowd and by having work experience on their CVs. [ ] Work experience is a great way of showing potential employers that you have initiative and are equipped with skills for the workplace. We’re aiming to recruit over 50 per cent of our graduate trainees from our work experience and internship programmes, so it can also provide a real foot in the door.”
Ernst & Young[4]

Engagement with real world examples

73.2% of participants were given data taken from real-life scenarios as a basis for an assignment or a project. This survey reconfirmed findings of the National Economics Students Survey 2010 that “the number of students, who found the content of the degree to be largely relevant to the real world, has been increasing during 2006-2008-2010: 66.8%-69.3%-71.7%” (National Economics Students Survey 2010 Report, Economics Network, p.6). This suggests that departments of economics are endeavouring to embed employability within economics degree courses. Examples include use of more “real world” examples in teaching, introduction of problem-solving scenarios faced by companies and more projects in year 2 and 3, which are intended to develop independent learning skills.

However, a small number of alumni indicated that there was too little engagement with real world examples.

Individual presentations of papers

An ability to communicate clearly in speech is high on a list of essential/ important skills required by the employers of economics graduates. (The Skills and Knowledge of the Graduate Economist, Economics Network, 2007, p.9)

48.78% of alumni have self-assessed their presentation skills after graduation as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, whilst now 87.8% of graduates have graded their presentation skills as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. It shows that graduates had to work on their presentation skills on the job. The reason for initial low rating lies in the following.

Of alumni who responded to the questionnaire, 48.8% said that they ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ had an opportunity to present to their peers. 39.0% did presentations ‘most of the time’ in front of their fellow students. Only 12.2% of participants indicated that they ‘always’ had opportunities to present to their fellow students.

The same respondents, who had a lot of opportunities to present to their peers also had opportunities ‘most of the time’ or ‘rarely’ to present to a panel of lecturers. Only five participants indicated having presentations in front of professionals from industries invited to take part in workshops.

Ability to work effectively with others

Of the graduates who responded to the questionnaire, 48.78% assessed their ability to work effectively with others as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ upon graduation. 1 to 3 years down the line 90.24% of alumni graded their ability to work with others as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.

These findings confirm the theme that students could do with “... much more team working, much more lectures by professional people, who are actually doing their jobs in companies, and things like that.” (National Economics Students Survey 2010 Report, Economics Network, p.23)

Subject modules

Alumni indicated that the following subjects helped them the most to prepare for employment: Econometrics, Micro and Macro Economics, Development Economics and Financial markets and institutions.

This correlates with what employers want – Macro, Micro and Econometrics. (The Skills and Knowledge of the Graduate Economist, Economics Network, 2007, p.22)

Such modules as Philosophical themes in economics, Contemporary issues in economic policies, The EU economics environment, Public enterprises and regulations, Transport economics, The British welfare state, Industrial economics and Organisational behaviour and the sociology of work were of of very limited use.

Conclusions / Recommendations

Enhancing the curriculum for employability

  • The 2nd and 3rd year curriculum should include guest lectures by professionals with a question-and-answer session to follow. If possible professionals should be involved in workshops and tutorials. This should raise awareness in undergraduates regarding the expectations of future employers.
  • The 3rd year curriculum should include interview practice sessions run by employers[5] prior to the university career fairs.

There is still a scope for improvement in terms of creating opportunities for economics students to develop their oral presentation and communication skills while studying.

What could be done to ease transition of economics graduates into employment?

At faculty/departmental level students should be actively encouraged to undertake internships/ work placements. Internships generally take place during the summer months, therefore would not encroach on the traditional academic modules. It is understood that students who had work experience not only gain the employable skills they need, but become more receptive to the theoretical content. This approach is identified by Yorke (2004) as “work-based or work-related learning in parallel with curriculum.”

University departments of Economics should expand the ways students engage with the world of work both within and outside of the curriculum:

  1. visits to workplaces, e.g. HQ of banks, accounting companies, consulting firms[6], local chambers of commerce, stock exchanges and government departments;
  2. community projects and voluntary activities, e.g. The Manchester Leadership Programme[7];
  3. promote student entrepreneurship like FLUX[8].

Pastoral care for students about developing personal and employable skills

As undergraduate students mature at a different pace, some of them may simply not ready to go into a work placement. I fully agree with D. Rae (2008, p.758) that “... in many cases students themselves have not taken up opportunities which were available to them”. Even though recent graduates (Graduate Market Trends – Summer 2010, UCLan) started to appreciate the weight of having personal and employable skills, however students need continuous pastoral support regarding the ways of developing these skills during their time at university.

Finally, there is a need to outline and share the best practice on how the university departments of economics underpin the employability of their graduates as part of their programme of study. This can be achieved by launching a new additional field on the Economics Network website.

The author hopes that colleagues will find it helpful to share their experiences and would welcome the debate about employability of Economics graduates.

References

1.         Andrews, J. and Higson, H. ‘Graduate Employability, “Soft Skills” versus “Hard” Business Knowledge: A European Study’, Higher Education in Europe, 33: 4, 411—422 DOI 10.1080/03797720802522627

2.         Bowcott (2010) ‘Recession will lead to ‘lost generation’ of young people’, The Guardian, 04.01.2010
http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/jan/04/princes-trust-survey-unemployment-young-people

3.         Higson, H. and Parkes, E., ‘Preparing Aston Business School students for Placements, in enhancing graduate employability’, Becket, N. and Kemp, P. (editors), Threshold Press.

4.         Lowden, K et al (2011) ‘Employers’ perceptions of the employability skills of new graduates’ Published by Edge Foundation

5.          The HEA Economics Network ‘How economics students are prepared for employment’ http://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/projects/stud_survey2010_employment.pdf

6.         The HEA Economics Network National Economics Students Survey 2010 Report
http://economicsnetwork.ac.uk/files/Ashley/Survey%20report%202012.pdf

7.         The HEA Economics Network ‘The Skills and Knowledge of the Graduate Economist’, June 2007
http://economicsnetwork.ac.uk/projects/employability2007full.pdf

8.         D Rae (2008) ‘Riding out the storm: graduates, enterprise and careers in turbulent economic times’, Education +Training, vol. 50, issue 8/9, pp. 748-763 DOI: 10.1108/00400910810917118

9.         L Semedo et al (2010) ‘HoneyBee: Evaluating Glamorgan’s Work-Based Learning Initiative’, University of Glamorgan http://www.engsc.ac.uk/downloads/scholarart/100126-honeybee-final-report.pdf

10.      The Graduate Market in 2008, 2009, 2010. High Fliers Research

11.      Walkerand F and Bowerman M ‘Graduate Market Trends – Summer 2010’ http://www.hecsu.ac.uk/graduate_market_trends_summer_2010_beyond_placement_extinction.htm

12.      Yorke M, Learning, Teaching Support Network. Generic, C & Enhancing Student Employability Co-ordination, T. (2004) ‘Employability in Higher Education: what it is, what it is not’ (York: LTSN Generic Centre)


[1] UCAS statistics regarding the number of applicants accepted on the Economics courses by the UK HE in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. It is assumed that the number of Economics graduates equals the number of accepted applicants and there were no drop outs in each cohort over the three years of study.

[2] During the initial meeting, which took place in July 2010, it has been suggested by the Economics Network staff and other researchers, that graduates from 2005 onwards could be classed as “recent”.

[3] The terms ‘internship’ and ‘work placement’ are used interchangeably within this report. An internship is a time limited work experience placement, which is usually includes an element of training. (Graduate Talent Poll, http://graduatetalentpool.direct.gov.uk accessed 27/05/11)