Graduating in uncertain times

Image Credit: Sinéad Mohan

With a challenging labour market, salvaged PWE placements and a move online of employer-graduate career events, Noel Bardon examines the difficulties facing this year’s agri-food graduates in determining the best route to their post-UCD goals.

Most will agree that the economic climate this year’s Agri-Food students will graduate into is far from ideal. The challenges posed by recurring lockdowns, flanked by the possibility of a no-deal Brexit scenario, do not bode well for those hoping to enter an industry heavily reliant on external market forces. The Covid-19 adjusted unemployment rate stood at 14.7% for the month of September, a figure likely to have spiked upwards following the move to Level 5 restrictions in October. Employment opportunities may also be hampered by the reality that business confidence, a measure of business owners’ economic outlook, has also faltered in these trying times. The business confidence index for SMEs rebound modestly in the second quarter of 2020 in comparison to the first, yet continues to remain at the lowest levels recorded in ten years, as reported by the Irish Small and Medium Enterprise Association. Most indicators seem to point to a tough labour market, nevertheless, some employers appear more reserved in their predictions of further downturn. 

According to Emer McGrath, Co-Head of Markets with KPMG Ireland, the life sciences, agri-food, and technology sectors “have been buoyed by steady or increased demand and have shown their potential to play an important role in economic recovery”, following the publishing of the KPMG CEO Outlook Survey 2020. This may signal that this year’s Ag Science graduates may not be as disadvantaged in the jobs market as those graduating from other subjects, particularly within larger corporations and global industry players. Much will be revealed in the Department's 'Annual Review and Outlook for Agriculture, Food and the Marine 2020', where the report will focus on the statistically significant tangible effects of the pandemic, rather than just sentiment in segments of the business community.

This depressed employment situation is compounded for a significant proportion of final year students who were unable to complete their desired PWE placements over the Spring and Summer months. An integral part of the UCD Agriculture and Food Science degree programmes, the PWE period is used by most as a litmus test of possible career progression routes. Students can experience the industry, research, and advisory portions of the diverse sector through the medium of practical learning. Without said experience, some may lack clarity in the best direction their graduate progression could take, be it an entering of the job market directly, completion of a graduate programme or engaging in further education. With so much up in the air, students can only focus on the actuality of the situation, stay safe and hit the books.

Despite a necessary absence of on-campus activity, the UCD Agricultural Society’s Careers’ Committee has remained effective in filling its function to students. The cancelling of practically all face-to-face events for the foreseeable future has been countered with a compliment of virtual live sessions, interactive Q&As and online workshops. Much of the material covered in such events is posted on an Instagram page which reserved solely for this Committee’s content of this nature. The page surpassed 600 followers within weeks of its launch, leading Sean Tonra, Chair of the Careers’ Committee, to comment on the “Great traction right away. We had hundreds of followers, hugely increasing the reach”. However, also acknowledged by Tonra was the notable absence of active participation from students on online platforms, “whilst we get good numbers tuning in to the online sessions, engagement with questions and such can be slow”. He went on to attribute this to the medium of delivery, as the environment of a Zoom group call, no matter what attempts are made, cannot be compared to the informality of regular student meetings.

Traditionally, a School of Agriculture and Food Science Careers Fair would be held on campus in Spring. This has not officially been cancelled for 2021 the University Observer understands, however, restrictions will no doubt negate any possibility of the event proceeding in its conventional form. The reduced employer-student contact will be difficult to overcome for many, with the number of exhibitors exceeding 50 in recent years. Another popular outing for hopeful graduates is the annual Agri Careers Expo held in the RDS in February. An online alternative is hoped for by students, yet nothing has been made official at this time.