Job hunting in 2021: ten things that graduates need to know

Stand the best chance of job-hunting success in 2021 by keeping in mind these ten things.

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A mixture of tips, advice and trends that are likely to affect your job hunt in the coming year.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the future can be unpredictable. You might have had to adjust your own career plans or ambitions, you might have decided to start again from square one, you might have carried on as best you can: however your job hunt has been affected by the past year, 2021 is a new year and there’s every possibility that it will bring with it new successes, as well as new challenges.

The prospect of job hunting in 2021 might be an uncertain one for you. The unfortunate reality is that, for many graduate jobs and internships, there will probably be more applicants competing for fewer positions. The November 2020 Student Recruitment Survey carried out by the Institute of Student Recruiters (ISE) revealed that there had been a 12% decline in graduate recruitment, a 29% decrease in internships and a 25% decrease in placement years in 2019/2020 compared to 2018/2019 (based on responses from 179 member organisations, typically larger employers who hire a number of graduates each year). Additionally, more than half of the responding employers expect this declining trend to continue into the new year.

To help you prepare, make the most of your time and stand the best chance of beating the competition in the year ahead, we’ve drawn on our careers expertise to come up with a mixture of tips, advice and trends that we think are likely to affect your experience of job hunting in the coming year. Here are ten things that you need to know to maximise your job prospects... whatever 2021 may bring.

1. Your soft skills will be valuable

Soft skills such as flexibility, adaptability, resilience and problem solving will help you cope with uncertainty and change, both in your personal life and in your job hunt. These skills will be relevant for every job and will help you through the recruitment process and beyond, as you start your graduate career.

Not only will these help you weather a potentially challenging job market, they’re also very much in demand by employers. In the ISE Student Recruitment Study, responding graduate employers ranked resilience and emotional intelligence within the top five skills that they thought would become more important over the next five years, with self-awareness and problem solving falling within the top ten. Emotional intelligence and self-awareness are related qualities that make up a key part of being flexible and resilient.

Our advice explains how to develop the skills you need to find your way through unpredictable and challenging experiences, along with tips on how to showcase them in your applications and interviews:

2. Online events are here to stay

There’s no sign that Zoom or Skype will be going anywhere anytime soon. On-campus events, be they recruitment events (such as employer fairs, workshops or presentations) or society and social events, are highly likely to be replaced by virtual and online alternatives. Be sure not to miss out on these opportunities: they will still be a valuable way to develop your skills and get in touch with recruiters.

Get a head start on online networking by getting your professional online presence in tip-top shape and starting to build your personal ‘brand’. A simple way of doing this is to update and start actively using your LinkedIn profile. A familiarity with online networking will stand you in good stead for employer events and you might even be able to continue the relationship with employers after the event has closed.

Acting on a committee for a university society is still a great way to develop transferable skills and gain practical examples of demonstrating organisation and teamwork. Finding and putting in place online alternatives to events will also help to show off your adaptability.

3. Brexit and the coronavirus will continue to have an impact

Going into 2021, Brexit and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will continue to be two major factors impacting the wider economy and the jobs market. Keeping up to date with the relevant issues and how they might affect the industry, and the employers, you want to join will be a key part of being commercially aware.

Commercial awareness is a key skill that employers look for in applicants. In the ISE’s Student Development Survey 2020, employers listed commercial awareness as the second most common skill that was missing in their graduate hires. It’s important, however, that you don’t just get commercially aware, but that you stay commercially aware. With news about both Brexit and the pandemic moving so quickly, and with so much still uncertain, the best applicants will make sure that their knowledge is up to date. Make use of your university’s newspaper subscriptions and read industry news publications.

Additionally, keeping commercially aware may inform your decision on which employers and jobs to apply to in 2021. The pandemic and Brexit will affect different industries, and different employers, in different ways and could well have a knock-on effect on their plans for graduate and intern recruitment. Be sure to do your research into specific employers before making any career decisions.

4. There are alternatives to ‘traditional’ work experience

As we mentioned up above, internships and placements might be harder to secure this year, with potentially a greater number of applicants for fewer opportunities. When it comes to applying for jobs, employers will understand that many of the ‘traditional’ ways to gain work experience (such as work shadowing and part-time jobs) may not have been open to you during the pandemic. They will take this on board when making decisions.

However, that’s not to say there aren’t things that you can do now to gain work experience and develop your skills from home. Online courses are a great way to learn new things, and you can even add courses to your CV, as well as any qualifications you might gain along the way. There are a variety of free and paid options in basically any field. You could also volunteer virtually, using your creative, technical or communication skills to do good via your internet connection. This might take the form of doing volunteer translation work, promoting charities on social media or reaching out to vulnerable people via video call.

5. Employers are assessing candidates differently

As you’ll probably be able to guess, most graduate employers have been shifting their application processes online in 2020 – and we’re unlikely to see the return of the face-to-face assessment centre anytime in the immediate future. These virtual assessments aim to recreate the experience of their face-to-face counterparts, featuring a variety of tasks and opportunities to ask questions and to get to know potential future colleagues.

Along with this switch to virtual assessments, psychometric and aptitude tests are becoming more commonly used. 43% of respondents to the ISE student recruitment survey said that psychometric tests were used as a first-stage in their application process, with numerical and critical reasoning tests being the most commonly used (followed by situational judgement tests and verbal reasoning).

In recent years, some employers (such as HSBC) have been switching over to ‘strengths-based’ recruitment. This method looks at your natural aptitudes, and is different from ‘competency-based’ recruitment (ie ‘give me of an example of a time when…’ type questions). The ISE survey reported that a significant minority of graduate employers (46%) use some form of strengths-based recruiting, while the majority use competency-based (78%). Less commonly, you may also encounter values-based (36%) or technical (31%) assessments (presumably for technical roles).

6. Employers aren’t just looking for skills and work experience

It’s not just transferable skills that employers are looking to see in their applicants. Recruiters tell us that motivation is hugely important to them. They want to be sure that you’re genuinely interested in the role and the employer, and you’ll need to have done your employer research to convince them.

Minimum academic requirements for graduate jobs look like they are here to stay, despite some high-profile schemes (such as Penguin Random House’s) scrapping these. In the ISE survey, 83% of respondents said that there was a minimum hurdle for applications, with 58% requiring a 2.1 degree and 25% asking for a 2.2.

7. Make yourself stand out through your applications

Make sure you can translate your experience of part-time work, volunteering, studying and extracurricular activities (both virtual and face-to-face) into the kind of soft, transferable skills that employers are looking for, such as communication, motivation, time management and so on. This will underpin how you present yourself in your applications and interviews, and will enable you to show that you match the skills required for the job.

A good starting point is our advice on ten skills that will get you a job when you graduate. We’ve also put together a series of articles on different skills and competencies to explain how to show employers your strengths.

It’s best to take a strategic approach, focusing on doing fewer applications well rather than trying to fire off as many applications as possible. Remember you need to tailor each application for the employer. Our big guide to writing your CV explains how to use and adapt our CV template depending on the role you’re going for.

8. Everyone has a different idea of what they’re looking for (and what they need)

What motivates you? Is it the type of work you’ll be doing, whether you think the work is valuable, the values of the employer or is it the paycheck at the end of it all? All of these are valid answers and your personal motivation will influence the choices you make about your future career. In the year ahead, when some of your choices may be limited or more challenging to access, knowing what you want out of a graduate job is especially important.

If you start work this year, there’s a high chance that you will spend at least some of 2021 working remotely (if your job allows for this). As such, relocation and commuting costs may not factor into the equation right now. However, you can expect to need to head into the office at some point, wherever that may be and however often you are required. Keep location as a consideration when choosing and applying for jobs and internships, and take a look at our advice on where in the UK you are most likely to get a graduate job.

According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the median salary for 2017/18 graduates ranged from £17,500 to £26,000. Among ISE members, the mean graduate salary offered in 2019/20 was £29,667. From these figures, you can see the range of salaries that are available to new graduates. The higher figure from the ISE reflects their membership, which is made up of many big graduate recruiters that tend to pay higher salaries.

9. You can reassess your options

Your plans might have changed due to the pandemic, or you might simply have changed your mind about what you wanted to do. Either way, you may want to explore options outside of going straight into a graduate job. Many students are reportedly considering further study, partly to delay entering the job market. If this is you, check out our postgrad study advice for tips on what you can do with a masters, how to market it in your job applications and more.

If you've been dreaming of working overseas, this may be on pause for now. You may need to look for a job in the UK for now but it doesn't need to be forever. If you find a job with an international employer, they may even be able to transfer you to another country in the future.

For when you are able to safely work internationally, planning ahead with our country-by-country guides to working abroad. Our TEFL teacher job description explains what TEFL teaching involves and how to qualify.

What if you’ve already graduated? Our advice on how to structure your job hunt if you’ve already finished university will help you keep going until you succeed in getting the job you want.

10. TARGETjobs is here to help

Whatever happens in the year ahead, TARGETjobs will be here to advise you and to get you connected with employers. Register for an account and fill out your profile, if you haven’t done so already. This means employers can contact you directly about vacancies you would be a good match for. Do your research into employers and different career areas and keep an eye on the vacancies on TARGETjobs to make sure you don’t miss out on applying for any graduate opportunities that appeal to you.

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