When my son was about 13 and representing his school in squash against a rival school he reminded me of the importance of focussing on the solution and not the problem. Simply, he lost his first of five games and during the short break I started to tell him how good his opponent was. I received a quick sharp reminder, namely, “dad, don’t tell me how good he is, tell me how to beat him!”
The black graduates I meet daily come to me with the same quandary. They know that unemployment among black youth hovers between 40% and 50%. They know that black graduates are likely to remain unemployed longer than their non-black peers. They want to know how to beat the odds.
We all know that today the graduate employment world is so much more difficult and fiercely competitive. In 2013, 38% of the population were graduates compared to 17% in 1992. In the same period, the number of graduates in non-graduate roles increased from 37% to 47% (ONS Labour Market Survey, Nov. 2013) and as recently reported the figure now sits at 58.8% (CIPD Research, 2015). Notwithstanding the reasons for this the impact on the black community is far more acute. According to ONS data the 2008 unemployment rate for black people aged 16 to 24 rose by 70% to 47.4% in 2011, more than double the rate for young white people which only increased from 15% to 20.8% over the same period.
A fact, minority ethnic students are more likely to enter Higher Education with GNVQs or BTEC qualifications than other students, with black Caribbean students more likely to enter with Access qualifications. By virtue of this black 16 to 24 year olds are already disadvantaged when we consider their competencies relating to communication, numeracy, problem-solving and emotional intelligence – industry surveys report that these are already scarce talents in all of today’s graduates.
I remain disappointed knowing that black graduates continue to experience similar general difficulties that I experienced more than 30 years ago. Generally graduates are free to focus on the challenges of writing effective CV’s and cover letters that answer the competency questions posed by future employers. Black graduates however need also to handle the additional pressure of knowing that within six months of graduation they are three times more likely to be unemployed than white graduates (IPPR Research).
The demands of the recruitment process have taken a steep incline and may involve a string of on-line questions, a barrage of tests and even impersonal webcam recording of candidate answers. All of this happens before candidates make any contact, meaningful or otherwise, with a human. In the past five years the number of graduate job applications have risen by more than 75% (Discovery Graduates, June 2014), so too have the corresponding recruitment cost. From a corporate point of view technology has saved the day and allows them to attempt to cast an honest wide net.
On the face of things these developments should provide good news for black graduates. This does however pre-supposes that black graduates receive the same degree of support and direction as their peers. Support with respect to how to best the assessments and, direction with respect to which graduate schemes, which companies and which industries to approach. Notwithstanding the fact that their pre-degree academic record may be weaker than their peers, particularly if their entry into university resulted from various access schemes, black graduates have ground to make up from the outset.
Whether recruiters use competency, strength or motivation based rubics, graduates must still answer predetermined questions designed to highlight predetermined employee identified characteristics and talents. Recruitment being fundamentally a people process does ultimately mean that when it comes to face-to-face interviews ethnicity becomes more than just a passing concern. It is therefore encouraging to note that Sandra Kerr (Race for Opportunity’s national director) has commented that some employers, including the Home Office and consultancy group Ernst & Young, are attempting to eliminate racial bias in graduate recruitment.
Discussions with black graduates who have been working for a year or so are not too dissimilar. The principal difference is that these working graduates succeeded, or at least that is the belief. It is not easy for them to openly admit to their community the challenges that they face. Let’s face it, many of us seasoned workers have pushed through comparable difficulties in the early stages of our now established career.
I must also admit having had the benefit of two individuals, outside my then employers, who did for me what executive mentors do for senior managers. Perhaps my experiences in this regard explain why I am a strong advocate of black graduating students and working graduates being independently mentored. After all, months into that dream graduate role with the ideal employer how should inexperienced graduates explain that they are being overlooked because of being black – in their view! Or even what to do when receive a poor appraisal supported by the verbal caveat that ‘your work is ok and there is no specific thing that you need to do to improve!’ These are interesting dilemmas that could potentially impact the career of a fresh-faced graduate.
Overall, the demands on our young captains of industry and community leaders can, without hands-on support, feel endless. Overcoming the additional barriers created by notions of race will undoubtedly take planning and persistence. The trick is not to give in to the feeling that achieving your goal is a Sisyphean task.
Dr Ambroz Neil
(Version of article published in The Voice, 27th August 2015)