Elbows at the ready
The scramble for jobs with social landlords is going to be fiercer than ever this year, so good qualifications will be essential. But is a housing-related degree really what employers are looking for? Simon Brandon asks them.
It’s not the best time to be looking for a job. For many would-be students, it’s a bad time to be applying to university, too.
According to the University and College Admissions Service, the number of applications for university places has jumped by almost 10 per cent this year.
Many of those applicants will be hoping to ride out the recession by preparing for the upturn at its end. But there are more university hopefuls than places now, and around 50,000 of them have a different future in store.
So we should spare a thought, perhaps, for those graduating this year. According to the Chartered Institute of Housing, the number of graduates from housing degrees has risen from 859 in 2000 to 1,360 in 2009.
A snap poll of social landlords by Inside Housing shows that graduate training schemes within the sector are, on the whole, drying up. In the scramble for what jobs there are, do the graduates with a housing-related degree have the edge? Data on the recruitment of graduates outside social landlords’ specialist training schemes are not available. Many of our survey respondents explained that they do not hold that information; a graduate is simply a new employee with no previous experience. To go by graduate traineeships, however, the picture is bleak. As the number of traineeships available each year has dropped, the number of applicants for each has risen (see box, overleaf: up to the job).
And it seems the latter is not simply a by-product of the recession. ‘The public profile of social housing has increased over the past few years,’ says Jack Hobbs, a 24-year-old history and politics graduate who has won a place on Sanctuary’s inaugural graduate training scheme, beginning in September. ‘There is so much going on in the sector at the moment. It has a greater public profile than I had been aware of previously.’
As Mr Hobbs puts it, housing today is a marriage of social purpose and commercially minded business - an appealing combination to those who want to put something back without sacrificing a rewarding career. That, coupled with the sector’s increased visibility have made it an attractive prospect.
A buyer’s market
Housing association Affinity Sutton has also begun a graduate training scheme this year.
‘We need to bring in talent from wherever we can find it,’ says Jonathan Cawthra, head of human resources at the group. But he adds that the quality and quantity of job applications has increased across the board: ‘It’s a buyer’s market for recruiters this year,’ he says. Competition for jobs is hotting up.
Sanctuary received 240 applications for the three places on its trainee scheme. ‘We have benefited from the economic cycle at a time when other graduate programmes are being curtailed,’ says Bernadette Bird, group HR manager at Sanctuary.
‘Given the economic situation, it might have encouraged graduates to look at our scheme.’
And, as Mr Hobbs’ qualification demonstrates, a degree in housing is not by any means a necessity - the two other trainees have degrees in business and geography. The sector has changed; housing associations have become big businesses, and the managers of the future will need more widely applicable skills than purely housing expertise.
‘We wanted to get away from the idea that housing is an unattractive job,’ says Ms Bird. ‘We felt we could provide graduates with a good rounded experience and get some new ideas in… we wanted people to look at housing with new eyes and new ideas.’
The traditional housing management role has become but one part of a large housing association’s business, which explains why landlords have started casting their nets wider. According to Mr Cawthra, a housing degree shows a desire to pursue a career within the sector, but outside housing management it ‘can be of no greater relevance than any other degree’.
Daniella Havelock, housing group leader at Sheffield Hallam University, disagrees. She says the university’s housing studies degree teaches standard university skills, such as writing and communication, alongside strategy, finance and marketing - all with a housing bent.
‘It is appreciated by the employers who work with us,’ she says - SHU reviews its course contents every six years with input from a forum of local housing employers. ‘But if you’re asking me is that understood across the sector, I’m not sure that it is.’
Nevertheless, Ms Havelock says more of her graduates this year have found work than usual. ‘I’m not sure what we can put that down to,’ she says. ‘What we have found over the years is that where employers are looking for people, often the balance is tipped in favour of experience over qualifications.’
To try and bridge that gap between theory and hands-on practice, an integral part of SHU’s BA in housing professional studies is a sandwich year spent working for a social landlord. Mature student Christine Cross, who graduated from the course this year, found a job in Chesterfield Council’s housing department after spending her sandwich year there.
‘A big selling point of the course was the placement year,’ she says. ‘I needed to know that when I finished I’d have some prospect of a job.’ Not all her classmates have been so fortunate.
Ms Cross works on the frontline as a neighbourhood officer, where her housing degree could stand her in good stead in the long run. ‘There is such a wide variety of jobs in housing but I would say the housing officer level is about right [entry level for a housing graduate],’ says Ms Havelock ‘But although graduates can often go in lower, their rise through organisations is much faster. We’ve heard a lot of feedback from postgraduate students who have come back here.’
Fewer opportunities for graduates and more applicants for each one; if you’re recruiting as a social landlord, there are rich pickings to be had. If you’re a graduate, the prospects aren’t currently so bright. But the appeal of the sector - real businesses working for the greater good - coupled with the increasing breadth of its remit mean that just as employers could perhaps have a little more imagination when it comes to housing graduates, those from other disciplines should realise there are many more career paths within the sector than has traditionally been the case.
The housing trainee
‘I used to think, “in five years’ time I’ll be an assistant manager”,’ says Nicky McBain. ‘But I don’t think reality is like that.’ This year Ms McBain graduated from Sheffield Hallam University’s housing studies course - one of 16 housing degrees UK-wide - with a 2:1.
‘I really enjoyed the course - I learned as much about myself as about housing,’ she says. ‘I’ve been a lone parent, stay-at-home mum for a long time and I wanted to put something back into the community.’
That fact hasn’t yet translated into a job for Ms McBain, however. She remains unemployed.
‘I wanted to come off [benefits] and never be dependent again,’ she explains. ‘I’ve looked everywhere… I’ve trawled all the graduate sites. I did hope for more out of [the degree].’
The graduate trainee
‘Monday isn’t a horrible day for me,’ says 25-year-old Octavia Williams simply. ‘It’s all about job satisfaction.’
Last year Ms Williams completed a masters degree in housing and regeneration at the London School of Economics, which followed a BA in politics from Newcastle University. In September last year she began a traineeship on Southern Housing Group’s graduate programme. Today she is working in the group’s community regeneration arm, having rotated through its communications team, call centre and housing management department.
‘I really enjoyed housing management,’ she says. ‘Nothing else has quite matched up to it.’
But asked how well her degree has helped prepare her for the job so far, Ms Williams doesn’t sound so sure. ‘Well, it gave me a good sense of the history of social housing and a bit of context,’ she says, adding that she learned most about housing management while on the job. But the skills learned at university will, she says, come in useful during the programme: ‘The degree will come out in different parts of the placement, like finance or development.’
Many of Ms Williams’ classmates have struggled to find work since graduating, and she is the only graduate trainee out of the six in last year’s intake at Southern to have completed a housing degree. ‘You are providing housing, but the whole organisation has to run,’ she points out. ‘And even if I hadn’t done an MA, I would have applied [for the graduate scheme] anyway.’