What is the shape of the graduate job market? (Part 1 of 2)

17th December 2020

Over the years I have worked with students who have said they wish to go to university to get a good job yet, but when probed as to what this is and how this works, they have struggled to articulate what this may mean to them. Many have not heard of the graduate training & job market (referring to the opportunities available to them after their first degrees) and readily admit to following the herd towards university, as they feel that it “seems like a good idea”. There is the sense from some students of “If everyone else is doing it, why not me?”

To help these students when exploring the impact of their choices I have used the very broad rule of thumb called the 80% rule. This is used to describe those jobs and training opportunities available to clients after their bachelor’s degrees.

But what is it?

In very general terms, the graduate job market can be divided into two distinct categories. Those jobs and opportunities which require an essential degree subject to enter, plus those that you can enter with any degree subject.

Our areas relating to the first category fall within the 20% of the overall opportunities, covering occupations broadly related to Science (including medicine, veterinary, dentistry and those allied), Technology, Engineering, Architecture & some VFX roles, Maths and some areas related to Modern Foreign Languages.

Of the remaining 80%, these occupations can be entered with any degree, through the premise of transferable skills. With the caveat that some skills, from some degree subjects, from some universities are more desirable than others for certain roles. For example, History or English are useful for some occupations in Law due to the skills these students develop.

Within our 80%, however, some degree subjects may be desirable for certain roles. Such as accredited degrees in psychology or finance for roles vocationally related to each.

Helping students understand the differences between “essential” and “desirable” is incredibly useful when they are looking to explore their next steps or keep multiple opportunities open. As a conceptual framework it links usefully to the chaos theory for careers[i]. It allows students to remain open minded if considering university, by giving them a frame of reference for any changes they may face in the future and how these could be navigated.

For example, they could follow their BPS accredited degree in psychology but if there were not any opportunities to follow their training to become a psychologist, they could still transfer their skills to a myriad of other post-graduate training schemes or opportunities (which do not require an essential degree subject to enter).

Knowing about this flexibility can help with their career management skills over their lifetime as their career journeys evolve.

On a personal note, the concept of “transferable skills” was only something I became aware of when I left university. The only input I had with regards my “career” at university were discussions of jobs directly related to the subject of Art, which I was studying; no one had talked to me about “transferable skills” as an idea. As one of the first generation in my family to attend university, I had no one in my personal network who could tell me about “post-graduate” jobs and how they worked. I had a distant relative who had studied Archaeology at university and was now doing “something in business”, but at that time I had no idea how that shift had happened.

When I discovered from my former college tutor (whom I was working with at the time) that I could do other things with my skills, how my ability to think laterally could be sought by employers outside the Arts sector, it was liberating. Yet I would never have looked if I had not been guided or shown.

This experience had a big impact on how I approach careers work with clients. It is vital that we do not assume what students know, especially the things we are in danger of taking for granted (such as terminology).

What is the evidence for the 80% rule?

Conceptually it us a useful idea, however, finding the evidence for it is hard to come by as the post-graduate job market is fluid. I came across the concept in a journal about eight years ago, but sadly I lost the reference to this first encounter with what was called the “80% rule”. It did however stick with me as a way we can explain these opportunities.

Aware that I had wanted to revisit this concept for a few years and explore it in greater depth (and inspired by a recent query sent to me via a colleague on LinkedIn) I have set out to look at the evidence in this long form article, with the aim of it being useful for my own practice and perhaps that of other careers advisers and leaders too.

In this article (of two parts) I shall seek to answer the following questions affecting careers practice:

  • Is 80% a good approximation for the overall number of graduate jobs which can be entered via any degree subject?
  • Of these, how many prefer a relevant degree subject?

To answer this, I shall look at a variety of evidence.


I went looking across a wide range of sources and found a multitude of broad statements from careers literature which came near, such as:

“Specialists are hired for their specific knowledge and expertise in a particular area. Some examples include computer scientists, pharmacists and doctors. Only around 10% of graduates fall into this category. These specialist graduate roles require a specific degree. The remaining 90% of graduate jobs do not require a particular degree subject.”[ii]

Yet, there were no specific references to support this and similar suppositions.

Target Careers did, however, confirm the careers where you require a “specific” degree subject with their useful insight guide at:

Prospects added their own take; within their profiles of jobs you can enter with different degree subjects:

“Remember that many employers accept applications from graduates with any degree subject, so don’t restrict your thinking to the jobs listed here.[iii]

Then I came across a multitude of references regarding how hard it is to classify what a graduate job is. I needed more data if I were to find clarity. I then came across two key reports which gave more depth. The first being Understanding Employers’ Graduate Recruitment and Selection Practices by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, BIS Research Paper No.231, published November 2015 which, contained many useful insights. I found no hard and fast statistics, yet did find some useful positioning statements which underpin the 80% rule, the main one being:

“Employers are demanding more and more from potential recruits, wanting graduates to be a good ‘fit’ with their business in terms of skills, abilities and attitudes. Continued strong demand for graduates will rest on whether they are perceived as high quality in intellectual terms, but even more importantly whether they have the communication and people skills plus positive work and commercial attitudes, which were the ‘must have’ behaviours for employers. Understanding of, and interest in business was especially important to small firms. Many employers were also looking for graduates who were flexible and ‘resilient’ in the face of change or difficulty. Most employers emphasised their interest in the totality of what the individual had to offer, not just their qualification or the content of their course”[iv]

The second study I found was the DFE Graduate choices in post-education jobs and careers – a literature review May 2019. It was in this study, that I found some interesting data which, challenged my assumptions. Not so much with regards the percentage of how many graduate jobs fall into the 20%, rather the nuance between a desirable degree being preferred versus any degree subject being acceptable for specific post-graduate jobs:

“There are … huge differences by subject area, ranging from 48% to 92% of graduates stating that a degree was either required or important. To a large extent this reflects the degree of vocationality of the course, as more vocational courses, such as veterinary medicine, medicine and dentistry or subjects allied to medicine prepare graduates for specific occupations requiring a specific degree for mandatory registration with their professional body.[v]

This links closer to our concept. The study goes further to state:

“There are numerous studies, showing that, in addition to the degree requirement, other selection criteria are important in graduate recruitment, e.g. attitudes and aptitudes for work, ‘soft’ or ‘transferable skills’ or indicators of employability and work experience.[vi]

“Using a random sample drawn from a database of vacancies one study found that the percentage of relevant degrees required varies by occupation, sector and size of employer. Looking at sectors, the percentage of vacancies requiring a {relevant?} degree varies from 57% in business services to 94% in the public sector/other sectors and, focusing on occupations, the percentage varies from 50% in management and business studies to above 90% in engineering/manufacturing, analytical science and IT.

Another study researching early career job advertisements in marketing found that jobs requiring a degree (about 50%) were open to a range of specific disciplines, e.g. marketing, business studies or psychology, depending on the nature of the vacancy. Mirroring findings from the job vacancies analysis, research with employers found that demand for specific degrees was higher in science and engineering, lower in human resources or sales.[vii]

This paints a congruent picture with our initial proposition but highlights the fluidity our clients are faced with. Occupation, as well as sector and size of employer will affect what is sought and by what percentage. The study went on to look at the views of those graduating:

“A recent secondary analysis of DLHE and L-DLHE data found that … Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates reported much more often that the qualification obtained was a formal requirement for the job compared to Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) graduates”

With further detail as follows:

“Published data … show that the percentage of graduates who stated that a formal qualification was required, or important for the job, is highest in veterinary sciences (92%), medicine and dentistry (89%), subjects allied to medicine (83%) and lowest in for example creative arts and design (44%), mass communications and documentation (46%) and historical and philosophical studies (48%)[viii]”.

This suggests more of a 90% requirement for jobs in STEM and hints at a closer to 50% ratio for those in the remaining areas, where is it can be desirable but not essential. I am presuming the anomaly of veterinary science, medicine and dentistry not being 100%, is where these are students working in other areas separate to their vocational degree.

When looking at the practices of employers as graduate recruiters, useful behaviours were identified which support anecdotal evidence:

“in some areas (marketing and financial work was given as an example). It was also found that several legal organisations chose to limit the number of law graduate recruits in order to recruit graduates from a broader range of backgrounds due to their high level of skills. It is not known though what role law specific professional development courses (like law conversion courses) play.

… drawing on qualitative research with employers of chemistry graduates found that specialist chemical employers (e.g. pharmaceuticals or water industry) were chiefly looking for graduates with a degree in chemistry or in other cases someone with a related degree, such as chemical engineering.

Most of the employers in other sectors (e.g. finance and banking or government) required a 2:1 degree but did not specify a particular subject degree for their graduate programmes although they may have preferences for certain subject areas due to the skills these graduates would bring to the job. Chemistry graduates were recruited where specific technical expertise or certain skills (e.g. logical reasoning or research) were required or where the person was most suited for the specific role.[ix]

With this statement, we again get close to the mark but with no statistics to support a final figure. Yet the study draws its final conclusions:

“One overall theme is that more vocationally oriented degrees are designed to prepare students for entering specific segments of the labour market, a classic example being medicine and dentistry. Once graduates have completed their degree they register with the professional body and have a licence to practise as a doctor or dentist. …

In other areas, such as business and administrative studies and related areas of work, data indicates that jobs requiring a specific degree may be closer to 50% overall, depending on the job role or function, as other subject areas may also be regarded as suitable.”

“At the other end of the spectrum, historical and philosophical studies are an area where the relationship between study and labour market is looser with less than half of graduates indicating … that the type of qualification was formal/important and one in three that the subject area was formal/important.[x]

We get our ratio in this last statement, with “only one in three” stating the subject area was important (leaving a remainder of approximately 66%).

The challenge we have within the current studies, is that they do not differentiate between “essential and desirable” degree subjects (using different terminology) nor to the extent as an average that graduate employers recruit from those with “desirable or related” degrees and those who recruit more generally from any degree.

With the above evidence we can add greater depth to our “80% rule” and state:

  • Graduate employers in the areas of STEAM and some in MFL, will look for an essential or relevant degree subject to enter these areas of work.
  • Approximately 40% to 66% of graduate recruiters in all other areas, will accept any degree subject.
  • Of those who do not, they will prefer a relevant degree subject

These factors will be affected by location, role, as well as sector and size of business.

This moves us away from a broad and initially simplified way of describing the graduate job market through the 80% rule alone, to one which is more nuanced. It is of course this nuance that we seek, as it can help us to provide greater clarity for our clients.

In part 2 of this article, we will challenge the idea of the 80% rule and nuance further.





[iv] Page 13, Understanding Employers’ Graduate Recruitment and Selection Practices by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, BIS Research Paper No.231, published November 2015

[v] Page 6, DFE Graduate choices in post-education jobs and careers – a literature review May 2019

[vi] Page 6, DFE Graduate choices in post-education jobs and careers – a literature review May 2019

[vii] Page 8, DFE Graduate choices in post-education jobs and careers – a literature review May 2019

[viii] Page 14, DFE Graduate choices in post-education jobs and careers – a literature review May 2019

[ix] Page 35, DFE Graduate choices in post-education jobs and careers – a literature review May 2019

[x] Page 53, DFE Graduate choices in post-education jobs and careers – a literature review May 2019

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What is the shape of the graduate job market? (Part 2 of 2)

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