Academic unemployment is rising and it’s increasingly difficult for many new graduates to find work suited for their degree. A generation of overeducated drifters wait tables and man check-out counters, stuck in job market limbo.

Anne Tarvainen is perhaps a fairly typical social sciences graduate, at least when it comes to working. Having spent ten years reading for a Master’s degree in communication, she is currently employed as a storage worker in a warehouse. For Tarvainen, working and studying concomitantly has been the norm.

“I had my first job in a restaurant before I went to university at the age of 18,” she recalls. “It kind of sucked me in – it was dynamic and exciting for a young girl, as well as rewarding. I still went to university, but studies became more like a hobby and my work was the priority. I was promoted to duty manager and then restaurant manager, although I didn’t want to quit my studies – you have to finish what you’ve started.”

Tarvainen is humble enough to lay most of the responsibility for her current work situation at her own door. “The only work experience I’ve done related to my studies was three months in the Foreign Ministry’s Media Unit,” she says.

“I actually studied communication just because I had to study something. My biggest problem was – and is – the fact that I didn’t have a plan for my future. The degree of determination really varied amongst my fellow students. Some were really passionate about communication issues and already had work experience in the field. Some were like me, trying to work out what to do in the future. I guess we all thought that this ‘magnificent’ education would lead to an exciting future.”

It is easy for young people to go with the flow and decide later what their interests in life will be. For Tarvainen, this attitude is a mistake.

“If a young person asked me for advice now I would encourage them to really think about what they want, then to study and work with this goal in mind. Maybe things get sorted out along the way for some people, but they didn’t for me and I blame myself for not having a tighter grip over my own actions. My life is OK but I can’t say that I’m fully satisfied.”

Towards a desired outcome

It would not be surprising if it were the case that unemployment is higher amongst graduates from arts and social science subjects. Whereas if you study Law the chances are you’ll end up as a lawyer, studying Philosophy, for example, is unlikely to lead to a job as a philosopher.

“At Helsinki University the studies were really theory and research-orientated – as if all the students would become communications researchers. How many of those can there be in a country as small as this?” she exclaims. The actual content of the studies didn’t support the entire range of career possibilities in the communications business. Maybe the problem is that higher education is valued too highly compared with more practical education, and Finland just cannot provide appropriate jobs for all the graduates.”

Furthermore, she suggests, it is hard to know sometimes what one is actually qualified for. “As I mentioned, the theory and research aspects were most stressed. The University is a place to do research and perform scientific experiments. There was very little talk about what kind of jobs we would be qualified for after our studies. So, I think it’s hard for graduates to find jobs for which they are qualified partly because the university doesn’t support different career possibilities.”

Finally, as Tarvainen points out, students often find it easier to find work when they have graduated from an ammattikorkeakoulu – vocational schools that give practical studies in many fields. “I’m not saying independent research is not important, but maybe universities should rethink their role as producers of workers who can benefit society,” she suggests.

Nick Barlow

Academic drag

THE FINNS’ firm faith in education is wavering. Amidst the current recession, academic unemployment has reached record levels. More and more new graduates are finding it difficult to land a job and the ones who find work are often kicked around from one temporary contract to another. Vocational education is becoming more popular while colleges in some regions compete to fill their vacant classrooms.

Finland was supposed to be the promised land of education, a top PISA-ranking dreamland where a university degree would pave the way to a better job and a better life.

“Our membership is now experiencing the worst jobless rates ever,” says Heikki Taulu from Akava, the confederation of trade unions for those with university, professional or other high-level education. “This recent unemployment record is a pretty clear signal that the job market is not receptive to the current high number of educated workers.”

Fields of technology and trade that depend on exports have been hardest hit by the recession. Engineers and BBAs are most vulnerable now, while traditionally it has been arts and humanities graduates who are worst off in the labour market.

Granted, highly educated Finns still fare better than those with less schooling. The employment rate of Finns with tertiary education was 85% in 2008, compared to 75% for upper and post-secondary education and 46% for those without any secondary education. Even in the current recession, the academic unemployment rate is rising slower than the national average. But the special advantage of education has gradually been eroding for decades.

“As the number of university graduates has grown their unemployment levels have slid towards the national average,” Taulu notes.

And the trend continues. More and more students are graduating into unemployment, and even worse, for academic job seekers it is often difficult to convince employers of their motivation towards work for which they are overqualified. To some college graduates there is also a certain stigma to “slumming it” in a menial job. All in all, the idealism touting education as the key to all success is under attack.

“For a long time there was a strong belief that the more educated our population, the better we would fare in the global economy,” says Taulu. “Lately, policy-makers have started to realise that we can’t really have an unlimited number of highly educated people. Hopefully that will be taken into consideration when assessing our future education needs.”