Guest post: The Plight of the Recent Graduate

This is the plight of the recent graduate: there’s nothing out there. Zip. Zilch. Australia is officially closed for business. -- Roland, Melbourne.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Interns Australia

I was on the tram the other day and I looked up from my iPhone to see a smiling face standing over me. It was Adam, a lovely man that I’d met during my Masters program at the University of Melbourne, and whom I hadn’t seen since we both graduated in July. We exchanged pleasantries and then immediately asked each other that burning question, always foremost in the mind of recent graduates: “Have you found work yet?”. Neither of us meant work in the general sense. Adam was en route to his hospitality gig in the city and I work 3 casual jobs to pay the bills. We meant professional employment. And the answer was a resounding ‘no’.

This is the plight of the recent graduate: there’s nothing out there. Zip. Zilch. Australia is officially closed for business. Adam and I needed to check in about it because it’s essential for recent graduates to be able to reassure one another that the unemployment epidemic is, in fact, nation-wide. The problem, of course, is the ‘permission paradox’: you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. It’s frustrating for obvious reasons.

“Have you thought about another internship?” Adam asked innocently. Adam and I had both completed credited internships as part of our Masters program to try to get a head start on professional experience.

Cue rant.

“Well look I have thought about another one, but not here in Australia. Maybe in France where it’s compulsory for them to pay you. I think it’s immoral that I should have to bend over backwards working for free just to get my foot in the door. I mean, apprentices get paid don’t they? And internships are really just apprenticeships for ‘professions’ rather than ‘trades’ (I air-quoted the living shit out of that distinction to convey my disdain for the occupational class system). As Catherine Deveny (an inspiration and a favourite) always says ‘When someone asks you to work for free they’re actually asking you to pay to work for them’. Internships are no different, and I don’t have any money! I mean I could get one but it would cost me to get to work every day on public transport, buy food, not to mention shitloads in lost wages. I think it’s crap. I’m actually on Newstart at the moment via Centrelink – I usually earn too much to get the payment but my jobs are all casual so I thought I needed a backup plan – and when I had my first interview with them I asked if you could count applications for internships or volunteering towards your monthly quota. No dice. It sucks because I can’t really afford to work for free and no-one will hire me with no experience so it’d be nice if there was some kind of government benefit available while I’m out there getting professional experience. At the very least you should be able to claim your internship expenses as tax deductions. Quite frankly internships are just for rich kids who are supported by their parents and I think that’s fucked. Typical of this government though. Oh, this is my stop…”

It was good to get all that off my chest, because the internship thing really does shit me. I mean I get that recent graduates might initially be less productive than fully trained personnel (although I’ve encountered a number of situations in which the opposite is true), but if the work we’re doing is making money for a business or enterprise, we should be paid. Even if the work we do is shit you should still have to pay us. Public transport’s shit but we still have to pay for that! Imagine if we said “I’m terribly sorry but this service is far slower and less efficient than would be ideal for my purposes. I’m happy to continue using it, but I’m not going to pay’.

Actually, that sounds like a really good idea. But I digress.

I’m not suggesting that people just out of university should necessarily be paid as much as personnel with vastly more experience or greater qualifications, but I think compulsory minimum wage for interns would be a good first step in bridging the gap between the zero that’s currently on offer and a fully-funded position. That, and tax deductions. And free public transport on internship days given the above analogy. Whether these initiatives are paid for by the government or the enterprise itself really doesn’t bother me, but it’s unethical and unfair to be exploiting people for free labour, particularly people who are already saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. And don’t give me any of that shit about commercial struggle. Even in the not-for-profit sector if the executive pool all took a 1% pay cut they’d still be doing well and could afford to pay their interns. Why is it that we’re happy to pay executives millions of dollars on top of the millions they already have (even when their work is shit!) but we’re not will to give recent grads a dime?

Now you could try to mount the argument that undertaking free labour to gain experience will pay off in the long run, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s just not an option for many people who have to worry about things like…well…life as a hard-working, independent adult in a society (and under a government) increasingly determined not to do them any favours. Like I said: internships are for rich kids whose parents can afford to support them. By asking people to work for free we’re perpetuating a situation whereby only the rich get jobs. Only the rich have prospects. Only the rich are allowed to get ahead.

As if kids from wealthy families don’t already have enough advantages! Private schools, tutors, access to regular extra-curricular activities, nice clothes, familial connections – does the name Frances Bloody Abbott ring a bell?! Rich kids already have a leg-up in society, we should be making sure everyone else is well placed to try to close the gap. Otherwise we’re excluding the best and brightest from opportunities to make valuable social contributions just so that we can perpetuate inequality. And that’s fucked.

And a lot of us un(der)employed are pretty talented and hankering for some hard work! I’m definitely ready to earn my keep and make my mark in the world. I’m constantly submitting job applications – far more than the Newstart quota dictates. Each one takes a good 3-4 hours because you have to tailor your CV to put your best foot forward, go through the position description with a fine-tooth comb, compose a cover letter and painstakingly respond to the selection criteria.

I used to go to seminars at uni to learn how to formulate a good application. I’ve even taken my CV and some sample selection criteria responses into the Unimelb Career Advisers for some feedback. They thought they were great! Prospective employers don’t seem to. Ordinarily, after this level of rejection, I develop a complex and think there was something wrong with me, but I know I’m not alone. I’ve submitted hundreds of applications and had hundreds of rejections since graduating. Some I understood – I was perhaps too optimistic initially, applying for things I’d actually enjoy and find stimulating – others are just annoying. In fact some of the selection criteria are really, really stupid. I always imagine that HR staff get a whole heap of hilariously useless job applications for any given position, and they must go through them together and giggle at the worst ones. I would. By the same token I’ve seen some pretty bloody useless selection criteria in the last few months. Poorly constructed sentences written hastily by people who can’t spell, can’t format, had clearly never used a computer before but demand that I possess excellent skills in English communication. There are often 2-3 criteria that mean exactly the same thing, or that are just so blatantly obvious that you wonder why they were included in the first place. One of my favourites is “Proven ability to work to deadlines”. I always just want to write “Well I got this in on time didn’t I?!”.

The real frustration floods in when you receive the rejections. They arrive a couple of weeks after submitting the 4-5 pages of personal history that you’ve spent hours painstakingly composing, editing and proof-reading for someone to glance at for 30 seconds before deciding you’re unworthy to meet in person. You sit there, often having forgotten you’d even applied for that particular job, contemplating the short passage of electronic ‘regret’ you’ve just received. And you ask the screen “You can’t even spell ‘unsuccessful’, HOW THE FUCK DID YOU GET A JOB??!” But then you sigh and realise they were probably just a rich intern.

While in the process of applying for one of my current jobs – a sales assistant at a bookshop – I was chuffed to randomly hear from one of the referees I’d listed. She’d just finished a lengthy conversation with my (now) boss and wanted to tell me all the ways she’d talked me up:

  1. I was a Masters student at the ‘best’ university in the country
  2. I graduated with a (very) High Distinction average
  3. I’ve studied all over the world; France, Denmark and Indonesia
  4. I speak fluent French (slight exaggeration)
  5. I do regular volunteer work teaching sex ed. within marginalised communities and helping people with HIV
  6. I’ve got heaps of experience in the workforce in high-end customer service roles

Apparently she finished her spiel with “You’ve got to understand you’re dealing with a very capable and intelligent boy here”. I smiled inside and out when I heard that. I mean, I know I’m capable and intelligent, but it’s always nice to hear. I strode into my first day of work smug and confident, the vast majority of my stomach butterflies having asphyxiated on the extraordinary quantity of smoke that had recently been blown up my ass. About 5 minutes later they swarmed back from the dead, resurrected by the glowing of the list of achievements attributable to what I was beginning to realise was a prestigious groups of new colleagues.

Everyone had a post-graduate education.

Everyone spoke a few different languages.

Everyone was well-travelled

Everyone was well-spoken.

Everyone was brilliant!

And none of them could find a job in their field.

I soon learned that even my role as a casual sales assistant had been in popular demand, with my supervisor dropping into the conversation that they had received over 850 applications for the position. Fuck. That kind of news should have made me feel better – I was selected from a group of 850?! – but in this instance it just filled me with dread. That’s the state of Australia’s job market? People are so desperate they’re climbing over one another to be a retail bitch??

‘Fuck, fuck, fuck!!!’ I thought, ‘I’ve got 3 testamurs hanging on my wall, and they don’t mean shit!’ Well, that’s not entirely accurate; they mean 5 years of study and $44 421 debt. It’s not ‘good’ debt either; in fact at present the prospects of it yielding a return seem pretty slim. It’s debt that will continue to increase, year by year, due to indexation or, if the current government gets its way, compound interest.

‘That’s ok’ says the Education Minister Pyne, a man who, fortuitously, never had to pay for his tertiary studies, ‘because people with a degree will earn, on average, $1 million more over the course of their lifetimes than those without’. I have to wonder how he could possibly make that prediction when so many of us are struggling to find work. I have to wonder whether the statement should have been “In the past, people with a degree have earned, on average, $1 million more over the course of their lifetimes. In the future this figure will be substantially less as they’ll be paying more in de-regulated, indexed or interest-laden student debt and will either have to work for free to get their foot in the door, or will compete with a few hundred other desperate graduates for a job in a bookshop.”

Don’t get me wrong I’m sure some people will earn the extra million. People whose parents can afford to support them while they work for free for a while. The kinds of people that might one day go on to pursue (and enjoy) a career in parliament, or vote for the LNP. Is it election time yet?

After getting off the tram with Adam I made my way to the University Library. I had to print some documents for casual job #3 and had some credit left in my student account. Plus I can still tap into the uni wifi so thought I’d stream some online TV for later. These little titbits of ingenuity come in handy, you see, because, as much as I enjoy balancing my 3 casual jobs, I still struggle to bring home the bacon.

A few steps in I ran into another student I’d met during my Masters. Again the pleasantries were exchanged, and he told me that he only had one semester left of the course and he’d started looking for jobs for after graduation. He looked a little worried.

“Oh congratulations!” I said, smiling warmly “And don’t worry, you’ll find something”.

“You think?” he replied, “Did you find it easy to get a job?”

“I’ve got a few things on the go” I reassured him.

What a pile of shit.

 

Reposted from Roland.

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