When most of her friends from uni are getting ready for a Friday night out at the pub, 23-year-old photography graduate Imogen Bird is on her way to work. She graduated from Plymouth University last year with a 2.2 in photography and she’s on her way to one of the town’s clubs. There’s a big act headlining that night, and the club is going to be rammed. But Ilona isn’t going to be taking pictures of the event on the camera she’d trained for three years to use. She won’t even be taking pictures using her phone. Because she’s not working at the club as a photographer, she’s working as a glass collector.
‘I first got the glass collecting job when I was still studying at uni as a way of making some extra money on the side,’ Imogen tells The Debrief. ‘But, two years after graduating, I’m still working two shifts a week there because I just couldn’t find any other work. I start at 10pm and spend my evening collecting drinks, cleaning up other people’s vomit and dealing with drunk people. I make £6.50 an hour, so even though I hate the fact that I’m still working here when I spent so much time and money on my degree, I’m constantly begging for extra shifts. I need the money.’
Living off noodles and claiming housing benefits to survive isn’t where Imogen thought she’d be two years after graduating. But she’s not the only one. Last week, new statistics showed that underemployment is now a massive problem for graduates in the UK, with 2.5 million skilled graduates now in jobs they’re way too overqualified for. Analysis from the Local Government Association shows that 40% of 16- to 24-year-olds fail to make the most of their qualifications in the workplace, with nearly 1.3 million out of work and a further 1.2 million who are ‘underemployed or overqualified’, with the proportion being close to 50% in some areas. Unlike in our parent’s day, it no longer looks like a degree is in any way a guarantee of getting skilled work with a salary to match.
You might think that Imogen should take another job – any job – that could better her situation, but things aren’t that simple for the ‘underemployed’. ‘Competition for jobs, never mind the skilled ones that would make use of my degree, is so intense I literally can’t find any other work,’ Imogen explains. ‘Even cleaning jobs sometimes get 700 applications for one position. And then there’s the photography jobs I actually want – I’ve only seen four advertised in the two years since I graduated, and I check recruitment sites very day. I don’t stand a chance against those odds.’
Even cleaning jobs sometimes get 700 applications for one position
It’s a similar scenario for 24-year-old Nicole Asghar, who graduated last year with a 2.1 in anthropology from Sussex University, but has found that the knowledge she obtained during her degree hasn’t been enough to get her an entry-level caring job, which would lead her on her way to becoming a trauma therapist. Broke and struggling to get work, she’s back living at home and nannying part time in her home town.
‘I have to live with my parents in Fleet because, at 24, I’m doing the same job I was doing when I was 18 for the same money, so I can’t afford to live on my own,’ she tells The Debrief. ‘It feels like a step back after being so independent at uni. I could make more money nannying in London, but I couldn’t afford the travel so that option is closed off for me. I’ve seen some jobs advertised which would help me with my career, but when you see that 64 people have already applied for a job that was posted two hours ago, you know you’re not going to get a look in without the right experience.
‘I’ve had to apply for a masters – which will mean more studying and more money – to give myself a fighting chance of getting into the career I want. All the jobs I look for need experience, but how are you supposed to get experience if no one will give you a chance? It feels like doing internships and getting contacts are more important than a degree is these days, so why did I bother spending all that money when I could have been learning on the job?’
How are you supposed to get experience if no one will give you a chance?
It’s a vicious circle for the ‘underemployed’ – working to stay afloat doesn’t always leave the time required to find a job they’re more qualified for. Let alone having a life. Evelyn Opoku-Agyeman, 25, just got a distinction after completing a masters in music industry management at The London Metropolitan University. She sends out 10 job applications a day, but the closest she’s come to getting a job in the music industry is working behind the bar in a north London music venue where she earns £7 an hour.
‘I couldn’t find work when I left uni, so I took a job at the bar I worked in before I left home,’ she told The Debrief. ‘I got all the qualifications I thought were necessary to apply for jobs after graduation, but because I didn’t have enough relevant experience, I wasn’t even considered for any paid work. I could do an unpaid internship, but because I took out a loan to fund my post-graduate course, which I now have to pay back, I can’t afford to work for free.’
Evelyn shares a bedroom with her little sister at her parent’s house and admits she finds her financial and living situation depressing. ‘There’s no way I could bring someone back to stay over when I share a room,’ she explains. ‘I just started seeing someone who lives abroad, but when he comes to stay in the UK he can’t stay at mine, so sex is out of the question. It’s a nightmare.
‘It would be amazing if I could afford to go out and have a semblance of a normal life, but as it is at the moment, my job doesn’t leave me enough time to see anyone. I’ve got to get ready for work whenever my friends are getting ready to party. And I never see my family – I’m sleeping when they’re working and they’re working when I’m sleeping. It’s really isolating.’
There’s no way I could bring someone back to stay over when I share a room
It’s perhaps no surprise then that some ‘underemployed’ girls like Evelyn are beginning to take matters into their own hands. ‘A lot of my friends from uni are going through the same thing as me and we’re just getting sick of it,’ Evelyn explains. ‘The traditional routes into skilled work are closed to us, so we’re planning on starting our own business to see if we have any more luck on our own. Initially, it’s going to be a promotion company and then hopefully incorporate management and booking, growing the company organically.
‘So for now, I’ve just got to grin a bare it and try and save enough money to get my business off the ground. I often wonder whether it was worth paying all that money and working as hard as I did at uni because the people who went straight into work and got experience are further along in their careers than I am. But at least I now see a future for myself – which makes the two night buses I have to take to schlep it back to my parents house at 5am after a shift at the pub almost bearable.’
Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophiecullinane
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.