As the UK government lowers the Covid-19 alert level to 3 and more shops and businesses start to open their doors again, there is a sense that we are beginning to return to normal: the news over the last week, of crowded beaches suggests a suppressed desire for a traditional summer. But the reality is, of course, far more complex. For the economy, for society, for everyday work and home life, what is coming is not ‘back to normal’, but a new, different normal.
The impact of the pandemic on the economy has been and will be profound. Recovery is anticipated to be slow, with social distancing measures restricting activity for some time. Regional disparities will be laid bare and labour markets will shrink.
The challenges ahead loom large for everyone. But one group I particularly feel for are new graduates, looking for their first job opportunity. Entering the labour market this summer is an extremely daunting prospect.
We know from previous recessions that graduate employment tends to hold steady. Qualifications matter. Young people with qualifications will be in a much stronger position than their counterparts without. Economic recovery presents opportunities for graduates, and universities must help this year’s cohort to grasp these.
This is not to underplay the challenges that those leaving university this summer face. It’s going to be hard. More than ever before, this year universities have a responsibility to provide a more creative package of support for the 2020 cohort, who are graduating into a labour market and a world that they never envisaged.
At Sheffield Hallam, we have been working closely with employers across the Sheffield City Region through a new internship scheme aimed at supporting economic recovery. This scheme has enabled us to offer 150 virtual internships in digital marketing, software engineering, engineering and project management to this year’s graduates. The success of this initiative demonstrates that employers across our region are still very keen to hire our graduates. Given the range of skills and experience students acquire through their studies, many companies recognise what a valuable asset they are. Hiring graduates will be crucial to the sustainability and recovery of many businesses during this difficult time.
At Sheffield Hallam, our internship offer forms just part of our comprehensive support package for this summer’s graduates. Our Class of 2020 programme includes specific assistance on careers advice, discounted fees for further study, mentoring opportunities from successful alumni, especially those who graduated in previous recessions, advice on starting your own business in addition to wellbeing support and access to our student hardship fund. It is aimed at tackling the obstacles facing graduates, but also encouraging them to be bold, to recognise their potential, and aim high.
Our collaboration with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) on a new graduate mentoring initiative builds on these themes. Designed to support the £1bn ‘Covid catchup plan’ unveiled by Government two weeks ago, the GROW programme will recruit Sheffield Hallam graduates to train as mentors who will then be deployed in local schools to support incoming Y11 pupils. The focus will be on supporting those disadvantaged pupils who are in danger of falling behind, helping them to catch up on lost learning due to school closures. But in addition, mentors will be trained to provide broader support around wellbeing, helping to reengage and motivate pupils as they transition back to full time school.
As well as supporting GCSE pupils to succeed after such a long time away from the classroom, this initiative is clearly a fantastic opportunity for our graduates to upskill at a time when opportunities are limited.
It is also a demonstration of the pivotal role universities have to play to help our regions recover from the extraordinary events of the last three months, not just for the graduates to come, but for the future prosperity and prospects of all who live and work in the places in which we are embedded.
Sheffield Hallam University is ready to work with any regional or national partners to make sure the new normal is a place where people and innovation can still thrive, irrespective of the unprecedented challenges 2020 has thrown at us all. We know that our graduates’ employability is one of our strengths as a university – and increasingly so. In last week’s Graduate Outcomes survey of 2018 graduates, our performance on graduates entering highly skilled employment is amongst the strongest of the region’s universities. We are also committed to our graduates for the long haul. A connection to Sheffield Hallam is a connection for life, and my message to our Class of 2020 is this: it will be hard, it will certainly be tougher than it should have been. Look for opportunities and, keep talking to us: our employability teams have been working incredibly hard work graduating students and others. Our students have developed exceptional skills during their degrees, and especially the last three months — resilience, digital capabilities and courage – all skills that employers will need as the UK finds a new normal.