Single mum Rachel Sawford overcame domestic abuse and used her experience to get through four years of university to improve the lives of people in similar situations as she once was.
Having completed an access course and achieving a 2.1 undergraduate degree, Rachel was shocked after a job centre advisor said she should remove her degree from her CV to avoid ‘scaring employers’ when she went there for help.
Recently, the Office for National Statistics announced half of recent graduates are in jobs they don’t need a degree to do.
The 29-year-old signed up to study social work to help others with similar stories to hers. But when she went to sign on for Jobseeker’s Allowance for the first time, Rachel was told she may have to remove the University of Portsmouth qualification from her CV to make her ‘more employable’ if she is not able to find a social work job.
‘I knew it was going to be difficult to find a job because they say it’s hard,’ Rachel said.
‘I am a single parent as well so I knew it would be hard to find work. I just wanted to go to the job centre to get advice. I thought that is what they are there to do.’ But Rachel’s experience was a little different to what she had expected.
Rachel says she was left ‘shocked’ by what the advisor told her to do on her first visit to the Arundel Street job centre.
‘The contract that you sign says after 13 weeks you will have to look for jobs outside of your remit. When they were building the contract on the computer, they asked if I had my CV, so I gave it to her. She said “this is lovely but you will have to amend it” because, she said, I would be overqualified for some jobs. She said I would scare employers with my degree.
‘In my defence, I said I was not happy with that advice. I have worked really hard for four years. If I did not want to get a job in this area, I would not have gone to university.’
Having built up a student debt of around £30,000, Rachel says the job centre’s approach has made her feel shocked and deflated.
‘They were making it like my degree means nothing,’ she said. ‘The four years I worked really hard for mean nothing. You think that the job centre is there to help you.
‘I have worked since I was 16; this is the first time I have been on benefits. I want to get off benefits but I will not take my achievement off my CV. They are saying everything that I have achieved in the past three years is worth nothing.’
Since the ordeal that left her stunned, Rachel has found temporary work as a teaching assistant – which will last for four weeks.
Liz Holford, careers advisor for the faculty of science at the University of Portsmouth, said: ‘If people’s circumstances mean they can’t move, it is about seeing what other roles she could consider.
‘A lot of social work jobs say you need experience, but graduates do manage to find employment. I have heard other students say employers only want people with experience but there are a lot of jobs for new graduates, too.’
Almost 40 per cent of over-21s are now graduates, compared with 17 per cent in 1992.
According to analysis by the Office for National Statistics, non-graduates experienced the highest unemployment rise during the recession. But some graduates are still finding it hard to get a job to match the skills they went to university to gain – or even any paid employment at all.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said: ‘While university leavers are still better paid and more likely to have a job than non-graduates of the same age, their prospects are worsening, just as their debts are soaring.
‘Having got themselves tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt, nearly half of all recent graduates are doing lower-skilled jobs. This is in turn pushing young people who don’t have a degree out of work altogether.’
According to research by the University of Portsmouth, 93 per cent of social work graduates from its course were in employment six months after graduating. The research does not show, however, if these are graduate jobs.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman did not deny job centre staff tell clients to omit the fact they are a graduate, saying: ‘Jobcentre Plus advisors work with jobseekers to ensure they have the best chance possible of moving into work. This may include helping someone to highlight relevant skills, experience and qualifications to ensure their CV is focused towards the job they are applying for.’
University of Portsmouth head of employability, Julia Hughes, on what the university is doing to help graduates into work: ‘We have had investment with the number of staff doubling.
‘We have invested in the space for students to use. We now have a business start-up hub.
‘That is for students who are at the stage of developing a business idea.
‘We are unusual for offering support for five years after graduation.
‘In my experience since getting here, 2009 for us was probably our worst year in terms of graduates getting jobs. Eighty-five per cent of graduates are in jobs but it is what the jobs are that is really important.’
Mike Hancock, Rachel’s Member of Parliament, said: ‘I am surprised they are giving that sort of advice.
‘It is very sad that she was told to tone down her capabilities. Normally people are looking for qualifications.
‘I really don’t understand where the job centre is coming from.
‘If she came to me I would write to the head of the job centre organisation in the area and ask what sort of advice is being given to graduates’ added Mr Hancock, MP for Portsmouth South.