The X-Factor effect: how ordinary graduate jobs became once in a lifetime opportunities

Business Editor explains the complexities of modern graduate recruitment processes

“How is the milk round going?” my dad asked me one Sunday evening. In reply I expressed my confusion as to what this lactose athletic phenomenon is? I was then immersed in the world of eighties recruitment practice with all its bizarre simplicity and surety.

It turns out the ‘milk round’ is a well-known term refering to the process of companies visiting universities to seek new recruits. It also turns out this process was very different thirty years ago compared to how it is in today’s society. But why?

Tales of evening dinners, wine receptions and afternoon presentations resonate in my father’s recollection of the eighties milk round. Companies were then eager to attract students to apply for positions in their companies. However, my own experience at the University of York’s modern and rather drab version, which we now call a ‘careers fair’ certainly does not reflect this. At any one of these events one becomes accustomed to the seemingly never-ending row of financial corporations encouraging you to apply for their eight stage application process, eighty-hour week position and almost guaranteed coke-ridden mental burnout by age forty-five.

Of course one in ten of these stalls may be inhabited by a company whose motive is not to profit from the next financial crisis or the destruction of the Middle East: I refer to the dazzling array of weapons manufacturers that seem to line every science fair. In these stalls we usually become acquainted with a bubbly smiling drone dispatched from the likes of the Civil Service or the overstaffed Teach First stall. They tempt you with shiny public service holiday packages and tantalising offers to retain one’s moral principles. Yet even these bastions of public service, with well-respected career ladders, still offer the same rigorous eight or nine stage application process that makes one’s far off dream of climbing Mount Everest seem more realistic.

By this point the reader may be comforting themselves with the idea that my father attended an elite Oxbridge college and that as such the old milk round ‘handshake and a wink’ process was an inevitable culmination of privilege. In reality, this is not the case; he did Material Science, at Leeds. Admittedly science graduates have always had reason to be confident when it comes to job searching as their skill shortage is a neverending culmination of a poor high school education system and the ridiculous notion of A levels, which allows teenagers to base life-defining subject decisions on glamorised delusions of highflying drama and literature-based careers aged just sixteen. Nevertheless, it was not just science grads who were embraced by these milk rounds. Indeed, a Politics student had almost the same experience at any Russell Group university.

So why have things changed? The simple answer is a self-confidence defeating cocktail of increasing numbers of graduates and decreasing numbers of professional jobs. In 2015 a record breaking 235 000 students were accepted onto university courses. This is despite fees tripling to a historical high of £9000 per year. At the same time the number of professional jobs has declined. According to a report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, over half of new graduates are now in non-graduate jobs. This means that companies and public services are now the ones with the power to indulgently pick the cream of the graduate crop. Welcome to the X-factor effect.

Here we arrive at the disturbing situation of hordes of students applying for graduate schemes offering well paid, career-building opportunities that only very few will be finally accepted on. In response, employers have created intricate assessment stages that randomly sieve equally capable candidates. That is how students have become well-rehearsed in the fear-inducing language of situational judgement tests and damnable virtual email trays. Our futures are traded on little more than software logic puzzles. This scattergun approach clears the field for the lucky few who climb aboard HMS Economic Security. I hope they understand how large a role luck has played for them.

This is not to say a return to the recruitment practices of old are the way forward. Such recruitment practices did overwhelmingly benefit the privileged white male over his peers. Indeed, it is important that recruitment processes consider the diversity of their applicants. Developments of practices such as name-blind screenings are something we should encourage to address unequal ethnic and gendered representation in our country’s biggest companies and public services. We must, however, acknowledge the fact that university is no longer a guarantee for a professional job. Automation is just one other phenomena that will see to the increasing scarcity of such positions.

University can still be valuable aside from its career implications. It encourages us to think critically, allows us time to consider important political and philosophical issues and is generally a great way to stave off the rat race of employment. Students must therefore keep in mind these very real reasons to go to university above its much sold upon idea of economic prosperity. The milk rounds of old are gone and the new X-factor process is here to stay. If you’re lucky enough to make it all the way to the final, then congratulations, but please remember you were just one situational judgement error away from being one of the ones left behind.

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