From 2:1 degree to zero-hours contract

By Judith Burns
Education reporter, BBC News

Image source, Issy Mason
Image caption,
Issy Mason's degree counted for little in her job hunt as she needed to work part time

As a report finds having a degree offers young women little help in the jobs market if they are also mothers needing flexible working hours, one young mum explains her frustration.

"Money is so tight. You never really know how much you are going to get paid each month," says Issy Mason a 26-year-old graduate, from Nottingham, who also happens to be a single mother.

She has an upper-second class degree in languages and international business from Sheffield Hallam University, speaks fluent Spanish and has completed two internships in marketing, one of them overseas.

She achieved all this alongside having become a mother at 19 - but her skills and qualifications seem to count for little in her hunt for a graduate job - because she needs a flexible work pattern.

She says the only jobs open to her flexible enough to fit around school pick-up for her six-year-old daughter offer zero-hours contracts.

'Minimum wage'

Throughout her degree, Issy always worked part time.

She thought this, alongside her unpaid internships, would make her more employable as a graduate.

But the reality has proved "dispiriting" and she feels shut out of the graduate jobs market.

"I have applied for graduate schemes, but there's not a lot of flexibility," she says.

"You can't negotiate start times and finish times for school pick-ups.

"There is scope in senior roles for part-time and flexible working, but there's less flexibility in entry-level jobs.

"I feel a lot of opportunities are out of my reach. It has been incredibly frustrating and depressing.

"At times, I really took it personally. It really hit my confidence."

But she still hopes "for a job that pays a salary rather than minimum wage".

'Too little support'

The Institute of Student Employers, which represents leading companies that hire and train young staff, said it was not aware of any of its members running part-time graduate schemes.

But Issy believes employers who write off or fail to support young mothers are missing out on talent.

She fears being thought "unreliable" because of her caring responsibilities but says young women who complete their degrees as parents "have already shown the tenacity and motivation and commitment for good careers".

"We've shown we want to make a contribution to society," Issy says. "We just need a bit more support."

"It's not just about the grad schemes though - flexibility should be available across the board.

"There's definitely scope for government to help businesses understand how they can be more flexible and welcome more well qualified mums into their employment."

A master's in hope

Issy's current zero-hours job, as a receptionist in one of Nottingham's sport centres, offers more regular hours than her previous work.

"Sometimes they call on the day if they need me," she says.

Life is less difficult than it has been, though money is still "precarious and fluctuating".

The Young Women's Trust has supported Issy with career coaching and counselling, and in January, alongside her part-time job, she will start a master's degree in branding and advertising at Nottingham Trent University.

She says there have been times when she has felt "quite negative" about herself and her capabilities - but now she is cautiously optimistic.

"I realise that I do need to get a graduate position - but I am a little bit more positive because by completing a master's degree, I will show that I still have enough drive to develop my career."

Image source, Getty Images

What does the government say?

A government spokeswoman said a record number of women were now in work and legislation gave all employees with 26 weeks' continuous service the right to request flexible working.

"We are determined to support women into work, which is why we have expanded access to high-quality affordable childcare and earlier this year fulfilled our promise to double the free childcare available to working parents to 30 hours a week, saving them up to £5,000 a year," she said.

"We also recently announced £5m to support people returning to paid work after time spent caring... many of these people will be parents with childcare responsibilities."

The research

The most recent Higher Education Statistics Agency figures show 3,665 female graduates were on zero-hours contracts six months after leaving university in 2016.

And analysis of long-term data from the University of Essex's Understanding Society Study, for the Young Women's Trust, indicated young women with degrees were as likely to be jobless as men with no qualifications, often because they were parents.

"Young women are working hard because they want to become financially independent. Instead, however, many are getting stuck on low pay, in insecure work and, in many cases, shut out of the jobs market altogether," said YWT chief executive Carole Easton.

Dr Easton called for more support and mentoring to ease their transition into work, a commitment to invest in jobs and skills for women and more access to affordable childcare.

"There should also be a ministerial champion to oversee progress," she said

"Giving young women the support they need to find secure, well paid work will not only help them to become financially independent but will benefit businesses and the economy too."