Student Strategy for Graduation Success

Student Strategy for Graduation Success
Written By Rebecca Broad

We’re getting to the point in the academic year when the standard question to Exeter students is Where are you going after graduation?  There’s an assumption that the answer is anywhere but here.

Or at least… there used to be.  Five years studying part-time alongside freelancing has allowed me to observe some shifts in how students perceive our city, and it seems we’re opening our eyes a little more to the opportunities in Devon’s capital city.

I’ve been investigating why this is, and how students and Exeter-based businesses can best strategise their time to increase graduate success.

Why Exeter?

Samuel Fawcett went straight into a graduate trainee job as Communications & Marketing Officer for Devon County Council.  “Exeter is a growing city that has loads of opportunities, and is in a great location.”

Many graduates want to be at the forefront of professional life and Exeter is becoming one of those places.  EY’s UK Regional Economic Forecast ranks Exeter as fifth in the country for growth (ranked by Gross Value Added), beating London and Cambridge, and equalling Bristol.

Clara George is a Marketing & PR Assistant for Lightfoot, the government-supported in-vehicle driver improvement technology.  She’s also a fashion blogger at claraccouture.com with over 230,000 followers across her social channels. “There are very few fashion bloggers in Exeter compared to London so this means that I stand out from the crowd a lot more and am the first contact for many local events, brands and restaurants.

The digital and technology industries are among those really helping our city to shine.  Tech Nation 2017’s glowing review name-drops Crowdcube as the UK’s leading crowdfunding platform, the return of Like Minds Ideas Festival, and the now near-1000 strong membership of TechExeter.  Also: IKEA is coming, and we Can. Not. Wait.

It’s not all about the new kids, though: EDF Energy, Flybe and the Met Office are three world-leading organisations based in Exeter, with good reputations amongst students, each employing over a thousand people.

Dan Regan is Head of Innovation at Lightfoot.  The best part of being in Exeter, professionally, for him?  “Seeing how surprised everyone is to find a thriving tech business like ours based down here in Devon.  People just don’t expect it.”

Many like to complain of how long it can take to get from one side of Exeter to the other by car, but with my generation more concerned about the environment and less likely to own a vehicle, we’re way more interested in public transport.  Of course there are improvements to be made, but Exeter’s rail, bus and cycle links are – in my eyes – pretty impressive.

Chris Mastris, Digital Strategist at Optix Solutions, references a key reason graduates may want to stay, describing Exeter as, “one of the few places that offers the best of both worlds: the lifestyle, entertainment and convenience of city life; and the beauty, tranquillity and adventure of rural Devon.”  Last year the Sunday Times listed Exeter in the top 20 places to live in the UK, and I don’t know many who were surprised!

Exeter life doesn’t come cheap, though.  Hazel Reading, an aspiring ecologist, references high living costs, which I certainly noticed upon moving here from the Midlands.  Her part-time job hours “barely cover my half of the rent (I’m lucky enough to have a very supportive partner) and more things seem to have suddenly become a luxury.”

Strategy for success

Now we’ve established Exeter as a great place to live and work following graduation, with the challenge of costs, what can students do to increase their chances of graduate success – and how can local employers help?

Acclimatise

Beyond a doubt, the best step I have ever taken for my career was engaging with the University’s Access to Internships scheme, which allowed me to gain paid experience in different industries.

Lightfoot’s Dan goes a step further:

I wish I’d done a year in industry before completing my degree. I enjoyed my first job after graduation, but I would certainly have been more prepared if I’d already had a taste of industry before being set loose into the wider world!”

I completely agree with Dan when he says that graduates “need better support in making the transition between uni life and the “real world”.  I’ve seen so many people find it hard to adjust.” Local businesses can play their part by advertising summer internships, part-time jobs and graduate employment – with responsibilities similar to what you would give an employee.  This is 2018: give us a challenge beyond making tea and sticking newspaper cuttings, yeh?

Gain responsibility

We all know that to stand out we need to have more than good qualifications.  Committee positions, volunteering and responsibility at student leadership level are all good starts, but the key is to make your experiences specific to your future aims.

Clara says:

I realised that I wanted to work in Marketing, PR and events but I also knew that I really enjoyed fashion & beauty. Therefore, I began working as a Student Brand Manager where I was the main point of contact for big brands on the Exeter University campus. I worked with brands like Boohoo, Soap & Glory, PROPERCORN, Cath Kidston and Nike. This allowed me to quickly learn about marketing, sales and events management, gaining experience which later helped me to secure a job.

The takeaway for local businesses?  Students want to engage with you and can also be a big source of income.  Think about how you can involve us in a way that benefits us both.

 

Network

Rowanna Smith is a Careers Consultant at the University of Exeter.  She tells me, “a key benefit to students is to connect with the most relevant networks,” suggesting LinkedIn groups, events connected to professional institutions, and the Exeter Chamber of Commerce & Industry as an organisation for local development.  Local networks can definitely do more in encouraging students to come along as it’s easy to feel like an imposter, but the connections I’ve made have proven invaluable to my business.

Research

“Many people think that a degree will get you a higher paid job but this is not so in Exeter – there are experiences and skills that you need to even be shortlisted for an interview,” says Hazel.  One thing she could have done more while in education was to “research the job market myself, find out what those extra skills I needed were so I could plan and budget them in.”

Research is important for businesses, too.  Employers would be unwise to ignore the information Aptus Recruitment gathered for their 2017 Guides on the South West digital and creative industries.  Their statistics on younger employees are particularly illuminating – we rank progression opportunities and benefits far below job satisfaction and work/life balance.

What’s missing?

There are a few areas that still require improvement: further training, and travel outside of the South West being two.

English & German graduate Hannah Butler is now studying at Cardiff:

“I knew I wanted to go into journalism, and decided my best bet was to get my NCTJ Diploma, which I could not do in Exeter.  I felt there would be so many more journalistic opportunities in a bigger city with a wider selection of media (as well as better transport connections around the UK.)”

Hannah’s final point echoes what Dan at Lightfoot says about travel being the most difficult bit of being in Exeter:

Almost everyone we work with is at least a couple of hours away – but it’s not the end of the world; the train journey to London doesn’t make for a bad office!”

 

No one city can be all things to all people, but Exeter is certainly on the way…

 

Photos by Ryan Morse morseinteractive.com

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