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The Pitfalls of an Unpaid Graduate Programme

Last year, job vacancies in the UK hit the highest levels since records began – across all business sizes and industries. Almost nine in 10 managers (89%) say their business currently has vacancies and more than half (55%) state finding new staff is harder now than before the pandemic.

Workers are leveraging the current hiring crisis to secure better positions and make deliberate choices on the future of their careers. Many workers are moving to the in-demand sectors such as software and IT services to fill the digital skills gap. Graduates too are keen to build their careers in these areas, with grad programmes a sought-after way for students to get their foot in the door of many businesses. However, with many of those schemes offering minimal to no compensation, do these programmes still have a place in today’s job market?

The current state of graduate programmes

The pandemic’s unprecedented impact changed the way we conduct business into a virtual and now hybrid world. The hiring process also shifted, resulting in a cobbling together of various technologies in a haste to establish new hiring norms. Even now, in a mostly hybrid working environment, these processes have been kept but can be inconvenient, adding unnecessary time and costs to the process. As a result, businesses are inadvertently missing or not even attracting the right talent in the first place.

It can be a hard process for both parties – the company may struggle to gauge an individual’s character or ability, whereas the graduate must undergo countless tests and interviews before they are even considered for the programme. Even so, graduate scheme applications are at an all-time high with 91 applications per graduate vacancy in 2021, the highest on record. To put this in perspective, that is on average 41% more graduate job applications, compared to the previous year. However, the number of graduates being recruited is only 12.3%, considerably lower than in 2019 and the largest annual fall for 11 years. Such a difference in statistics shows a significant inconsistency in graduate programme outcomes.

Unpaid programmes are not suitable for today’s market

In a time of mass inflation, rising rent costs, and increasing transport prices, it’s hard to argue the value of unpaid programmes. However, it is not a simple fix, as the debate remains ongoing and the UK Government is yet to outlaw them completely. Smaller businesses may find use in unpaid programmes if they don’t have the financial means to support a temporary employee, but want to provide a career steppingstone that benefits both their business and the graduate. In contrast, large-scale graduate schemes need to consider the value they are adding if they are not compensating their graduate workers.  Some of these schemes market themselves as ‘free training’ attracting vulnerable, naïve, and often desperate graduates and undergraduates to train for free in the hope of finding employment.

The fact remains that there are fewer graduates and school leavers in full-time work, in comparison to pre-pandemic, but also significantly more in laborious, menial jobs. This indicates graduates dedicate three to four years of their life to studying their chosen subject, only to undertake unskilled jobs to ensure financial means upon leaving university instead of being faced with a lack of paid positions. Alternatives are required so graduates can enhance their skillsets, ensuring they are properly trained in paid positions – especially in the technology sector.

Alternative entry points for graduates

Obtaining a paid position after graduating is not just an issue of competition. Significant skill gaps between the university and one’s intended industry prevent many from achieving their potential. In fact, The Software Institute exists because of a realisation that thousands of extremely bright graduates leave university without the training required to go into particularly skilled sectors such as IT.

Companies must invest in schemes and curriculum to improve the situation, whilst also incentivising graduates to take the time to learn new information. Such schemes are good alternatives to the unpaid programmes offered and are important to ensure the current digital skills gap does not widen further, with graduates offered continuous professional development (CPD) opportunities once in a role.

The Software Institute offers a global technology programme that seeks to give graduates a fast-track entry to IT roles through multi-disciplined diplomas. With a provision of support beyond their programme, it goes one step further than traditional academy models and free training schemes. Essentially, we offer job opportunities and a unique development structure for graduates through our partnerships with some of the biggest consulting and software companies, globally.

In a world where graduate competition is at its highest and unpaid programmes still exist, the pitfalls for university leavers will remain. The time is now for large corporates to review their approach and provide viable opportunities and paid alternatives to engage, upskill, and retain the workforce of tomorrow.



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