How do you define an under-utilised graduate?

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

My current research is looking at the way in which the design industry uses graduates of any subject in design and non-design roles (according to the Design Council only 15% of the UK design consultancy sector is made up of designers, and only 40% of those are graduates).

One of the central theses is that the design industry is not very good at utilising graduates, especially in design-related roles, compared with other industries. (This varies – I suspect that the service design sector does better here than the fashion sector but that some areas of fashion are better than others. The term “the design industry” is problematic).

An early issue in the research has been “how do you define a graduate position”? Mason (1999) studied the chemistry, steel and financial sectors and found that when the supply of graduates started to increase in the early 1990s different sectors took different routes. The steel industry started upgrading a lot of previously “non-graduate” roles so that they took advantage of graduate skills and knowledge, or began creating new roles to attract talent and benefit from what was available. In particular, they began to expand their employment of graduates in roles related to design of products and systems*.
The finance industry, on the other hand, simply replaced non-graduates with graduates often without changing the roles they were expected to do. This he views (rightly) as under-utliisation of graduates.

I suspect the UK design industry is more like the finance sector than manufacturing in this regard. The campaign by representatives of the fashion and textiles industries, Skillfast-UK, to get universities and colleges to ensure graduates are skilled to be pattern cutters is an obvious example of under-utilisation of graduates. But I’m also interested in how graduates from non-design disciplines are used, for example those from English, accounting, law and business. I have a suspicion that there may be a significant difference which points to a failure to acknowledge the potential degree-level design qualifications offer. However it will be interesting if there is widespread under-utlilisation of graduates in all areas of the design business. This would certainly change the current emphasis on blaming educators for the perceived malaise in the design sector and instead focus on how the industry recruits and uses graduate talent.

A common definition of “graduate level” employment is simply one of responsibility. Is a graduate employed in a role with some strategic responsibility, with a degree of autonomy? It’s not a satisfactory definition because you could categorise a lot of jobs in this way: someone working behind a perfume counter could be argued to be autonomous and to have responsibility to meet sales targets using their initiative. But basically working in a shop like that is not viewed as a graduate-level job while managing a branch of a large retail chain is. To many, including me, the reasons are obvious but the problem is explaining why. And linked to this is another issue, which is a value judgement. To many, managing a branch of a major retailer is not seen as “worthwhile” – I can imagine several former colleagues of mine thinking a graduate of theirs were a failure if this is what happened to them. And it leads to contradictions: a jewellery graduate working in a jewellers is probably seen by some to be working in a related field to their degree** while another who is training to be a police officer with fast track promotion is not. The former is in a non-graduate design-related post while the latter is in a graduate but non-design related post.
So who is better utilised? And of whom should we be prouder?

Something I found useful in Mason’s paper is a set of three simple criteria for judging whether a graduate is being utilised properly or not, and which removes the value judgement. I mapped these as a flow-chart for ease of reference:

utilisation of graduates flowchart.jpg

(The third criterion may be problematic for some but Mason explains it: “The latter condition is one way of testing for the possibility that graduate performance in unchanged jobs is significantly better than that of non- graduates and is recognised as such in higher salaries” – in other words, is the graduate performing better and being recognised as such even though the role does not meet the first two criteria).

This of course strips out questions of whether the job is a good one, if the graduate is enjoying it and so on, but I suspect it is value judgements like those that need to be removed from the equation, at least at the initial stage because it points to company policy towards graduates. Questions of whether the jobs are challenging, enjoyable, offer paths to promotion etc are important but can be tackled later. What the flowchart offers is a quick and simple way of evaluating if a graduate is being utilised as a graduate and this will tell us about the company’s attitude to graduates – are they employed strategically or seen simply as people to fill vacancies? In Mason’s research, the steel industry was doing this very well, while the finance industry used the sudden growth in graduate numbers to place graduates in to jobs traditionally taken on by school leavers.***

With some adaptation I think this flowchart could be a useful tool for very quickly judging if a design company is utilising its graduate workforce. If the artworkers are a mix of graduates and non-graduates, all on similar salaries, then the answer is no. If the pattern cutters are all graduates, the answer is no.
And if it turns out that agency X is utilising its non-design graduates well, according to the tool above, but under-utilising its design graduates, it points to a further issue which I’ll let you ponder.

My suspicion is that “the industry” is a mixed picture. That there are some companies that make good use of graduates from all disciplines, there are some that do not, and there are some that value graduates in some areas of its business more than others (e.g. a graduate in a business management role compared with a graduate artworker or pattern cutter).
What’s important is that the tool be used not to condemn those that don’t do it, but to educate them. It’s far better to change expectations and understanding of what a graduate offers a design company than to alter courses to meet incorrect beliefs. Instead of changing all fashion courses so that graduates are well-trained pattern cutters, we should change the fashion industry’s recruitment strategy so that it hires school leavers or manual workers from other sectors and trains them, and recruits graduates in to more strategic roles.

Mason. (1999) Graduate Utilisation and the Quality of Higher Education in the UK. http://www.niesr.ac.uk

*It’s worth noting that despite what the design industry thinks, designers do not just work in design companies, but in-house. In this regard, its claims to be the “customers” of design courses are questionable. That would be like tabloid readers demanding that a newsagent stops selling broadsheets. Makes sense to the tabloid readers, but little sense to the shopkeeper.

**(And the former student will be seen by many in academia as “on their way” – it’s often claimed that design graduates take their time to make their mark which is an argument I get annoyed with. Barristers make their mark from day one. So do doctors, nurses, teachers. Why does the design industry think it’s okay that graduate talent languishes behind shop counters or in pattern cutting rooms? What if we changed that?)

***This, of course, inflates the number of graduates because if the only way to get an entry-level job is to get a degree, there’ll be a growth in demand for degrees. And if the only jobs on offer to graduates are entry-level, why bother putting in much effort? You can see where this argument leads: claims that the quality of graduates is dropping may be better explained either by the quality of the jobs on offer (advertising an entry-level job to graduates is not going to attract the best candidates) or by the minimum requirements (a degree). To further complicate things, expecting a graduate to have “school leaver” skills (a famous designer who shall remain nameless once complained he couldn’t find a design graduate who knew how to answer his phone properly) will only lead to a perceived lack of quality. If you hire a French speaker to deal with your Spanish customers, whose to blame when you find they’re not very good at it? Similarly, then, if you hire a design graduate to cut cloth, where should you look when it turns out they can’t do it?

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