Graduates forced to drop a grade

April 17, 1998

The job market in Australia is saturated with graduates looking for work they hope will match their qualifications. Yet this year the number of young people with a new university qualification will rise by another 150,000.

More than 1.5 million Australians now hold a degree. The production of graduates has doubled over the past decade and can only rise further.

Surveys conducted by the Graduate Careers Council of Australia show a substantial minority of new degree-holders have to accept positions in sub-professional fields or go on the dole.

Only 35 per cent of all young graduates are likely to find work in their chosen profession soon after graduating, while just under a third must make do with jobs previously filled by their lesser qualified cousins.

There are marked differences, however, between the professions and between the sexes in who finds the right work.

Newly graduated nurses, teachers, accountants, computer scientists, engineers and doctors usually get jobs in the field in which they studied.

But economists, scientists, graduates in business and administration and even lawyers may have considerable difficulty finding jobs at the professional level.

Women now comprise half the total number of degree-holders. Today, more women than men graduate in accounting, medicine, law, the arts, nursing, education, and even the natural sciences. Only in engineering, building, architecture and computing are men still in the majority.

On every campus across Australia, women have outnumbered men among the student body for ten years. Of the 650,000 students who began their university education this year, more than 55 per cent are women.

Yet men continue to do better at finding work in their chosen field. Monash University sociologist Bob Birrell says one probable reason for this is that men have other occupational options available, particularly in the trades.

Dr Birrell says that when all degree, diploma and skilled-vocational qualifications are combined, Australian men are actually better qualified than women. Among 25 to 34-year-olds, 44 per cent of men hold such qualifications (with more than half having trade credentials) compared with only 29 per cent of women.

Writing in the Monash journal People and Place, Dr Birrell and a co-researcher, Virginia Rapson, explore the implications of widening access to higher education.

They say there is no doubt the rate of growth in graduate numbers will exceed labour-market demand - if the only determinant of that demand is expansion in the occupations that have traditionally employed graduates.

So degree-holders will have to find new occupational niches.

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