Gen why: the jobless generation

Uni leavers are over-educated and underemployed, but whose fault is it? asks Tony Featherstone.

Uni leavers are over-educated and underemployed, but whose fault is it? asks Tony Featherstone.

A group of journalism students took my undergraduate university course on entrepreneurship and innovation. They were bright, creative, fun to teach and strong communicators. What a pity most will never work in a newsroom, such is the pressure on media companies to cut costs.

How many other university disciplines educate far more students than needed? Will there be a point where the supply of university graduates exceeds demand by so much that students no longer see sufficient value in spending years at university, racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student debt and finding their degrees count for less upon graduation?

Thankfully, Australia's labour market is stronger than most. But even here the number of males aged 15 to 19 looking for full-time work was 23.9 per cent in March 2013, up from 21.8 per cent a year earlier, the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show. It was 29.8 per cent for females.

The graduate recruitment market has also deteriorated slightly. Earlier in 2013, Graduate Careers Australia reported that 12.5 per cent of employers it surveyed recruited no graduates in 2012, up from 10 per cent a year earlier. About one in four students with bachelor's degrees and available for full-time employment had not found work within four months of graduation.

Heaven help our teenage and graduate recruitment markets if economic growth deteriorates, companies cut costs more aggressively, or new technology leads to some graduate jobs disappearing.

You can't blame universities alone for the soft graduate market, as it's companies that cut costs. If there is a strong demand for university courses such as journalism, universities should supply that education. Nobody forces students to take university courses for fields that have uncertain job prospects.

We have conditioned students to believe a full-time university degree course is the best pathway to career success. Media professionals with longer memories will recall some of the industry's best were cadets with no formal university training. Many started doing basic admin, learnt on the job, worked their way up and became great editors.

I like how trades combine on-the-job and formal training. Yet so many professions have "outsourced" the training of young people to universities, expecting the higher-education sector to provide ready-made graduates who can step straight into corporate jobs.

Corporate Australia must become more involved if it wants universities to produce the right volume of graduates, with the right skills, to cope with huge structural change in some industries. Better still, our largest companies could deliver to staff formal training and qualifications that are recognised industry wide. Our large companies could offer corporate-branded graduate courses. A Commonwealth Bank master of applied finance (with accreditation from a university partner), anyone?

Such degrees would make these employers even more attractive to the best and brightest students, aid retention and be a significant point of difference among employers.

By "insourcing" more graduate training, companies could provide tailored education, reduce education costs, get young people into the workforce faster, pick the best talent for full-time work after assessing them for a few years and find new revenue streams by leveraging their intellectual property into the higher-education market. These are degrees designed and taught by companies, in conjunction with universities.

Yes, a corporate degree does not have the same cachet as a university one. Purists would argue a corporate qualification is not independent, possibly narrowly framed, and not underpinned by academic research. Or it's tacky and too commercial. But surely corporates could partner universities to create corporate-branded diplomas or degrees with genuine academic rigour.

We'll never solve the problem of teenage unemployment and safeguard our graduate recruitment market if we rely only on governments and the non-profit sector. Corporate Australia needs to get more involved, bring more education back in-house in conjunction with universities, and close the gap between training and the labour market for young people.

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