As one of about 400,000 students completing their degree this summer, you will be met with tough competition for jobs, as the coronavirus pandemic has led to job cuts and recruitment freezes. Following the banking crisis of 2008, graduates faced similar anxieties then, entering the labour market during a global recession. What can their experiences teach the class of 2020? Over a decade on, we have caught up with LJMU Alumni who graduated during this last major economic downturn. They shared their reflections on what it was like to graduate into a contracting job market, gave tips for staying motivated and resilient, and ultimately provided a message of positivity and reassurance of turning a time of crisis into opportunity.
Given that the construction and property industry is usually amongst the worst-affected sectors during a recession, it is perhaps not surprising that many of the LJMU alumni who answered our call for advice graduated with a degree related to the built environment. Building Surveying graduate Chris Marsh’s initial positivity after completing his degree quickly turned to nervousness when he realised that there were very few jobs available and that many entry-level jobs were being taken by more experienced professionals who had been made redundant. After a part-time job as a shop assistant and an internship with a chartered building surveyor in Liverpool, Chris secured a nine-month contract job carrying out bulk surveys for a large energy company.
‘Work hard and take any opportunity that arises’
He finally landed his first ‘real’ graduate job with a UK-wide firm of chartered surveyors in their Birmingham office after months of sending mainly speculative applications to surveying firms, and now works as a chartered building surveyor at Legat Owen in Chester. Chris credits his success in securing a graduate role in a competitive labour market to his internship, as it showed potential employers that he was committed to the profession. His advice for 2020 graduates is to stand out from the crowd by working hard and taking any opportunity that arises, and to tailor your CV to the company you are applying for in order to show them that you have researched their business and are enthusiastic about the work they are doing.
Quantity Surveying graduate Sinead O’Hare had a tough start to her career when even her offers to work on an unpaid basis were rejected by construction firms. After around six months of working in a call centre and no luck in finding a job in her chosen sector, she decided she would have to go to greater lengths to change things for herself, saved up her wages and travelled to Australia on her own. Unfortunately, without any previous experience, she had no success in gaining a position in construction there either and worked in retail to get by. After two years in Australia, she heard an appeal from Christchurch in New Zealand to help with the rebuild following an earthquake, so Sinead upped sticks and moved again, finally getting her foot on the construction career ladder in 2013.
‘Never give up and have the confidence to put yourself out there’
She is now happily settled in New Zealand, working as a quantity surveyor for what she says is ‘the most amazing company’ in Christchurch, and has just finished renovating her own home where she lives with the partner she met in New Zealand. When asked for her tips for the class of 2020, Sinead offered this helpful advice: ‘Never give up and have confidence to put yourself out there – whether it’s getting on a plane and going somewhere where construction is prospering or whether it’s calling into a company in person to introduce yourself. It may take time, but don’t settle for less than what you’ve worked for!’
Moving abroad, or even moving far from home within the UK, is not for everyone though, and if you’re committed to staying local, 2009 MA Commercial Property Management graduate Sophie Attwood has some tips for you. Having received several job offers while still studying, she was naturally disappointed when they were retracted due to the changing economic conditions. Graduate jobs were few and far between, and regional placements were extremely limited – everything was restricted to London. Whilst many of Sophie’s friends decided to move or change career paths, she was determined to stay local and focused on being proactive. Approaching the managing director of a relatively new firm, Dunlop Heywood, she landed an interview, got a job in their Leeds office and was able to begin her APC journey (for any non-property experts, the APC or assessment of professional competence is a graduate training scheme to qualify as a chartered surveyor).
‘Don’t be defeatist!’
Seven years later in 2016, Sophie joined Colliers International’s Liverpool office as part of its national rating division and was promoted to head that office in 2019, becoming the first female head of a Colliers office in the UK. Sophie’s advice to anyone entering the industry now is to be patient and not be defeatist. She firmly believes that having to use your initiative and thinking outside the box when starting out in difficult market conditions actually has significant benefits for your future career.
Staying local has also worked out well for Building Surveying graduate Andrew Roberts. When he started his degree in 2005, demand for building surveyors was so strong that his lecturers reassured them they would be guaranteed a job regardless of their degree classification. By the time he graduated in 2008, those positive job prospects has disappeared, and Andrew could not find a job anywhere. Luckily – although not ideal – he was able to carry on working as a draughtsman in a role he had first started as a summer job and then continued alongside his university studies. The savings he built up from this regular income enabled him to eventually set up his own business with a few colleagues in 2013, now turning over between £6m and £10m a year and employing about 40 staff. Although lockdown has obviously impacted on their work, Andrew retains a positive outlook, both for their own business and for the class of 2020: ‘The country is starting to get building again. Don’t worry, there is work out there. Keep your chin up and stay strong.’
Watch Andrew’s full video...
If setting up your own business doesn’t sound like you, thinking creatively about opportunities in different sectors can be another option if you have seen your plan A scuppered. Completing a yearlong placement with a company usually puts you in pole position for their graduate scheme, so Information Systems graduate Matt Burns was disappointed to see his placement provider Vauxhall Motors reducing their trainee intake in his field to zero when he graduated in 2009. Matt, who has forged a successful career at BAE Systems, recommends 2020 graduates consider all sectors: ‘Within the economic downturn we are likely to find ourselves in, some sectors will grow and some will stabilise. For me it was defence, which stabilised, then grew, so I am obviously going to plug that (we are hiring at our shipyard in Barrow in Furness!).’
‘It’s clear who has done their preparation and who hasn’t’
Throughout the first few months of his final year at LJMU, Matt applied for several graduate schemes and was offered a role in BAE Systems Maritime-Submarines at the first assessment centre he attended. The allure of moving back to his home town of Barrow in Furness (and the prospect of paying board only rather than city centre rent on a full-time salary!) meant he accepted the position. Looking back now, he realises he has been lucky to progress at pace through the organisation and to be in interesting roles that provided great development opportunities. They included an international placement in Sweden, pricing up contracts to build whole submarines, negotiating with the Ministry of Defence, and being promoted to senior management. Having been on recruitment panels himself, Matt has some useful advice for all applicants: ‘Ensure prior to any interview you have several examples/scenarios planned out which demonstrate what you have done, what you learned, and how that would apply to the role. I know there are some great LJMU resources – please use them to prepare, as they really do help. On assessment decision panels, it is clear who has done their preparation and who hasn’t. Try and separate yourself from the crowd. What is your unique selling point? What extracurricular elements can you bring into your application to demonstrate your potential?’
Whilst Matt had heeded advice on starting to apply for jobs well before completing his degree, 2008 Accounting and Finance graduate Liam Knowles left it until he had finished his exams, which he says made starting out all the more difficult. Alongside his initial job, a temporary contract with a local insurance provider, it took him around six months to find a permanent role as a Finance Assistant with a company that would fund his further studies. Unfortunately, not long into the job, the company ceased operations at its Liverpool site. Liam was made redundant, and at his most productive, was applying for over 100 finance roles per week through multiple jobsites, newspapers (still a thing back then!), agencies and directly approaching employers. He finally obtained a role through a recruitment agency at a social housing provider: ‘Despite them being a large organisation with a huge local presence, I had never heard of them and had little appreciation of the sector. However, I managed to do my research before the interview and secured the Finance Assistant role. This turned out to be a really positive move for me, as the employer invested in the development of their workforce, and I was able to not only progress my professional skills but also softer skills like communication, conflict resolution, coaching and managerial skills.’
‘Be persistent. Go where the work is.’
Liam spent eleven years in social housing for various employers, fulfilling a number of roles from project accountant, internal audit, technical accountant and finance manager, and progressed to the position of Finance Director for a start-up housing company by the age of 33. His new role as Director of Finance and Operations at Learning Leaders Multi Academy Trust is again something he had never envisaged but he’s looking forward to learning about a new sector and overcoming different challenges.
Liam doesn’t believe that the global economic difficulties experienced early in his career impeded his progress: ‘Indeed it probably aided me in building resilience and persistence as qualities. Having been in the market for a new job recently, I really appreciate how tough it is at the moment. My advice to new graduates is to be flexible – go where the work is. It may not be exactly what you want but it will help you get there in the end. The wider you cast your net, the more likely you are to find something. Be persistent – you will get rejections, but just because somebody doesn’t see your value doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Be positive and approach every opportunity as a chance to develop your skills – you’ll be surprised at how transferable they are! At this difficult time, it is important to retain perspective when things aren’t going quite as planned. From my own experience, the uncertain and disruptive start to my career hasn’t hindered my progress and has provided me with valuable skills I utilise whenever I encounter difficult situations.’
A big THANK YOU to all the LJMU alumni who shared their experiences with the class of 2020! You can read their full stories and detailed tips and advice on our blog. We hope that seeing how they have all gone on to have great careers - despite the initial struggles and challenges they faced as new graduates – has given you positivity and lots of fresh ideas for your own next steps.