The transition from University to work

Thankfully, the luxury to speculate on moving from an educational to a professional environment is afforded to me by my own pragmatism. Exactly one year ago this summer, I approached a man called Trevor Brewis at the Middlesbrough College campus of Teesside University (where my course was based). Trevor was the man responsible for ‘farming out’ the student’s skill set to local businesses, for free or modestly paid, in return for experience of the workplace to help supplement skills being taught.

I originally approached Trevor to pursue a business idea that I’d had whilst studying and he tracked down some local businesses to help me gain appropriate knowledge to pursue that end. After abortive arrangements with various local businesses and businessmen (it happens a lot when you’re trying to get your foot on the ladder) I ended up offering my services to a Zendesk retailer business in Digital City’s Boho One building. Whilst I enjoyed my time working in that particular business, it was clear to me relatively early on that this wasn’t where my interests or strengths lied. Luckily however, that particular office was opposite Eighty8 Design which was owned and operated by two old friends of mine, Jonathan and Shaun. I naturally found myself migrating towards them and I’d spend my lunch in their office shooting the breeze. It wasn’t long before talk turned to me spending time with them both (time permitting) to gain industry exposure and experience in a web design company.

I still feel it speaks volumes about the emphasis Eighty8 Design places on professional harmony and fun

And so, the work began. I started by going in when I could and I began to learn things which I found far more commodifiable and much more satisfying. What also helps (and should never ever be overlooked when someone is trying to find themselves experience of working life) is the quality of relationship with the people you are going to be working with and the atmosphere of the environment in which you are working. Luckily at Eighty8, my relationship with Jonathan and Shaun is good — for a long time, we’d set aside time every friday afternoon to socialise together. That has since subsided due to a change in the way the business run but I still feel it speaks volumes about the emphasis Eighty8 Design places on professional harmony and fun.

My course tuition has since finished and I’m due to graduate at the back end of July. I have now committed more free time to Eighty8 Design and I’m currently in the office five days a week. What is clear to me above all else having been here a year is how far behind education is to required industry standard.

What is clear to me above all else having been here a year is how far behind education is to required industry standard.

Before I committed to my last year of study (which came after starting work at Eighty8) I made a point of speaking to all the people I’d met through my work at Eighty8 and people who worked for creative tech companies in the neighbouring offices about the merits of completing my final year of university. Without exception, people told me “you need your degree to get into the industry and get your first job and you’ve already done that, so there’s no point”. Whilst that is obviously true, the idea of not completing my final year wasn’t really that appealing to me. I reasoned that I wanted to have a safety net because the nature of my arrangement with Eighty8 was casual and still is. My final year of study has cost me £2,800 not including interest, which takes the total for three years of tuition to £8,400 — one expensive safety net.

the total for three years of tuition to £8,400 — one expensive safety net

I considered and reasoned further with the debt that I am now in before I committed to it and what prevailed was the idea of future proofing my line of work. I reasoned that HR process is only going to become a bigger and more omnipotent area of all business. I came to the conclusion that where I might not need some sort of license or accreditation to get work now, that might not last forever. Digital creative industry is currently unregulated and it’s also relatively new. Who’s to say it will remain unregulated over the course of my working life which could potentially be twice as long as the current age of the entire industry? Again, an expensive gamble, but with the skills market being so competitive now, who’s to say not having a formal qualification wouldn’t cost me my job in the future? If graduating into a saturated and yet, conversely, so called ‘growing’ job market has taught me one thing, it’s that nothing at all is certain.

It appears to me that my course at university has been inch deep and mile wide — which of course, I understand — universities need to cover as many bases a possible to give graduates as many options after course completion, but what actually has occurred in my situation is that voluntary work at a local (albeit progressive and prestigious) creative design agency has taught me many, many more commodifiable skills than the university itself and it hasn’t cost me a penny.

voluntary work at a local creative design agency has taught me many, many more commodifiable skills than the university itself and it hasn’t cost me a penny

My advice to fellow graduates and undergraduates is that with the emphasis on proper procedure with staff recruitment will only grow, university qualification is and shall remain a necessary evil.

At school, the emphasis from teachers on the more academic pupils like my friends and myself was always, always on preparing us for university. The idea we were given (which was skewed by the generational privilege of the middle aged teaching staff) was that university in itself was enough to secure a job for life straight from graduating. I can categorically state in black and white that now, it really, really isn’t enough. Not only is my degree expensive, it is now only part of the picture that prospective employers will look at. Having your 2:2 in Media Studies just isn’t enough in a highly competitive job market and universities would do well to admit that. I’m not saying there is no emphasis in Higher Education on gaining supplementary work experience, because there is, but it’s all a bit wooly. Understandably, universities don’t want to admit that what they are teaching you is A) hideously expensive and B) nowhere near enough to guarantee a job at the end of it, but the fact is that the culture of unpaid work after university education is a bit of an elephant in the room. It’s an uncomfortable truth that you’re dedicating years of life simply to get your foot on the bottom rung of the ladder of unpaid work and, naturally, they don’t want to pedal it. Systemically speaking; at best almost all of the graduating student population is set up for a bit of a fall and, at worst, a very rude awakening.

Apprenticeships are deeply unfashionable these days but after my experience in both worlds I can’t help but feel that in lieu of developing a viable alternative, New Labour’s emphasis on university education for all was a bit of a red herring.

Originally published at on June 29, 2016.

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