The detrimental impact of the pandemic and successive lockdowns on the labour market are well documented. Just as with the 2008 financial crisis the most pronounced effects are upon young adults looking to embark on their careers. A report last year into social mobility by the Sutton Trust found that 49 percent of small and medium sized businesses and 29 percent of larger ones, including in the accountancy and professional services sector, cancelled all student work experience. Meanwhile, 61 percent of those employers surveyed cancelled some proportion of their scheduled work placements.
The negative impact of this on graduate employability and on social mobility are significant. But, even prior to the coronavirus outbreak employability concerns among both current students and graduates were high. A major driving force behind this has been the increasing automation in interview selection among many employers, including many of the largest accountancy and financial services firms. This automation involves bots being used to record and assess students’ responses on video recordings, as well as multiple rounds of gruelling panel interviews and psychometric tests. Such a process would put pressure on anyone, let alone 20 year old students concerned about securing a job to pay off their student debt that typically amounts to an excess of £40,000. These selection processes, though aiming to identify the smartest and brightest, are often counterproductive and instead only serve to benefit those more adept at answering intense questioning under time constraints. Such selection processes are suboptimal in their selection and fail to accurately assess the suitability of graduate employees at working with, for example, a public audit client than other candidates. Going forward, firms seeking to hire the brightest and most talented future accountants and auditors must focus on transforming the selection process to accommodate and equally represent all types of talented students, not just those who find it easier to perform under the pressure of an intense questioning.
One solution that can deliver a long-lasting positive impact on student employability is for the widespread industry provision of industrial placements in accountancy and financial services. Placement years provide students with an opportunity to work in a professional environment and become an employee for a year. Throughout the placement year, students submit monthly updates to their placement supervisor at university, typically an academic who oversees their progress and visits them once a year to check working conditions are suitable for their student. Placements are often compared with internships, but while both offer an opportunity to gain work experience, the extent of the experience with placements is far greater. Shorter placements, such as those ranging from one day to one month are often inadequate and fail to deliver the requisite level of student or employer engagement and training required to make the experience worthwhile. Such interns often become delegated “chief tea makers”. Unsurprisingly, a 2017 survey by the Censuswide research group found that a majority (53 percent) felt that their skills were not taken into account during their summer internship. Unlike a summer internship, placements are typically longer – lasting up to 12 months. They provide employers with sufficient time for training and allow students to be absorbed into different projects across a firm’s various teams and departments and allow students to better understand what it takes to work in a professional environment. In the last four years all of the placement students that I have come across had one objective: to be treated like a regular employee. Encouragingly, this has been the overwhelming experience of most students that I have dealt with.
In my role as the accounting and finance placement lead at the University of Sussex Business School, I see the lasting positive impact placements have on student employability prospects. Those students that graduate with a year-long placement experience are far more likely to secure a job within 12 months after their graduation. From my own observations, the majority of placement students graduate with full time job offers provided by their placement employers. In contrast, those students without placement experience see worse rates of employment after graduation. Placement students also perform far better academically than their peers. This trend can be explained in part by the time management and organisational skills developed in their placement year, often acquired as a result of working in fast-moving and dynamic teams. When their peers can sit around and chat aimlessly with friends in the library, placement students are more cautious with their time because of the routine that they develop whilst working for a year in a professional capacity.
As we steadily come out of lockdown and normality begins to return, business activity will pick up and will inevitably cause a larger traffic of work for financial services operators. Hopefully, going forward the financial services industry will seek to boost student employability in a sustainable way through placements rather than high turnover short internships. Though it looks good on the CSR report that such companies play a role in student employability, the reality is students do not want to be treated like designated photocopy machine wizards and chief tea makers. Professional services firms must also examine their own interview and candidate selection processes and need to ask themselves whether processes that can at times include up to seven rounds of interviews and assessments are an effective use of their own resources and candidates’ time. The idea that it is only those candidates who make it through to assessment centres that are the most suitable should not be a credo of the graduate selection process. Too many excellent candidates end up falling through the cracks.