I have just returned from my graduation ceremony at the University of Sheffield, and now officially hold an MA in Librarianship (see the following obligatory graduation garb photograph)!
I had a fantastic time being in Sheffield again and catching up with my friends and tutors. The main theme of our conversation was obviously what we were all doing now, and, sadly, despite being intelligent, creative, enthusiastic, open-minded, knowledgeable and experienced, very few had managed to find a professional post, or, indeed, even a paraprofessional one. We all know that the job market in any sector is shockingly poor at the moment, but, in the LIS sector, not only are there very few vacancies, but hardly any of them are being made open to newly-qualified librarians. If you’ve read my previous blog posts, you will know that I have been extremely fortunate in finding a professional position; however, I had many applications rejected outright, and did not even bother applying for some positions, due to the insistence that candidates must have “post-qualification professional experience.” This little phrase headed up so many job descriptions and person specifications, shutting the door in my face. Sometimes, I read through the full description of the role and person specification, and, realising that I could meet all of the criteria, apart from the post-qualification professional experience, through my previous work experience, particularly during my graduate traineeship, experience from my extra-curricular LIS activities, and the knowledge I had gained during my MA, decided to apply anyway. I thought that someone reading my application might think that I was worth interviewing, that I could bring something to the role despite not having held a librarian position before. But none of them called me to interview. None of them gave me a chance. And that is the problem; many employers seem totally unwilling to give new LIS graduates a chance.
I can understand that some positions do require that professional experience; more senior roles with a large amount of managerial responsibility, or very specialist knowledge or experience, for example. But none of the roles for which I tried to apply were at that level; they were all similar positions to the one that I eventually secured. My current employers put out an extremely demanding person specification for the role; there were about twenty-seven criteria, requiring a large amount and variety of skills, knowledge and experience. However, nowhere was there a statement that I needed to have post-qualification professional experience; so here was my chance. I met all of the criteria, from experience, knowledge and skills gained during my MA, my previous work experience and my involvement in the CILIP Career Development Group and LIS New Professionals Network. At the interview, they asked questions that allowed me to demonstrate my suitability for the role, even without professional experience. For example, I was asked about teaching information literacy, but they did not simply want to know what teaching experience I had; they also wanted to know about what ideas I had for teaching. I do have some experience of participating in teaching from my graduate traineeship, but the way they phrased the question allowed me to give a long and enthusiastic answer about not only my experience, but also the elements of best practice that I had identified when researching information literacy teaching for a piece of coursework for my MA, meaning that I was able to give an answer as full and as good as a candidate who had been teaching information literacy in a professional role previously. Their willingness to give me a chance allowed me to demonstrate to them that I could handle this role.
Obviously, new LIS graduates do have a part to play in all of this; they need to keep applying for roles even when they are sick and tired of the whole soul-destroying process, they need to keep emphasising in applications how they can “fill in the gaps” left by a lack of post-qualification professional experience (for example, at Sheffield we studied a year-long LIS Management module, meaning that, even if we have not managed people at work before, we know a lot about it and are more than capable of putting what we have learnt into practice), and they need to keep up with what is happening in the LIS world. It is not enough to expect that a LIS Masters and a graduate traineeship or other work experience will be sufficient to get that first professional job. But my friends from the Sheffield course are doing all of these things, and they are really good candidates for jobs. Yet employers are just not interested, which I find baffling and frustrating.
New LIS graduates can bring so much to libraries and organisations. They are enthusiastic, and full of ideas for improving and promoting services. They are dedicated to the profession; when I and my friends started the MA, we were in a recession and, even though the job market was not in such a sorry state as it is now, we were well aware that there may not be jobs for us at the end of the course. Current students have started the MA knowing exactly how bad things are, and I’m sure that there will be a full cohort for September 2011, even with the state of the job market and the looming cuts to public libraries and HE institutions. Things are bad, yet we have stuck with the LIS profession. New LIS graduates are intelligent, and are fast learners – many of us went into the MA from totally unrelated academic backgrounds, and had to very quickly learn how to carry out social science research for our dissertations. They are willing and able to learn quickly on the job too.
They are malleable; when I spoke during a session on the new professionals’ view on the future of academic libraries at the SCONUL Conference 2010 (We are the next generation, so do not mess things up), one of the delegates explained that they were interested in recruiting new LIS graduates, but found that none of them had any experience of, or had learnt about on the course, working in the very specialist type of academic library from which the delegate came. We explained that LIS courses cannot cover everything, that new graduates cannot be expected to have gained such specialist experience prior to the course, and that new graduates are very malleable and adaptable; they are willing and able to apply what they do know to new situations, and that, as such, they should be treated as a kind of blank canvas. The delegate went away saying that they should perhaps look at whether their job specifications were too rigid; hopefully this means that one day another position may come up for which new LIS graduates have a chance.
Many LIS graduates completed the course whilst juggling other commitments; they are excellent time managers and self-organisers. Many can be flexible about relocation and working patterns. Many are willing to take on roles in a different LIS sector to the one in which they have previously worked. They keep up to date with what is happening in the LIS world, and they are keen networkers, using Twitter and LISNPN to make contact with others in the profession.
In short, I do not believe that a lack of post-qualification professional experience makes new LIS graduates unsuitable for the number of roles which seem to deem them so. I also fail to understand how employers can be so strict with this; how do they expect their candidates to gain this experience – do they expect other employers to take new graduates on, when they will not? Again, I will reiterate how lucky I was, to find an employer who was willing to take me on in a professional role. I will also say that I feel I perform my role well. It was a very steep learning curve on which I am still travelling, but I have applied myself thoroughly to that learning, and I work hard to prove that they did not make a mistake in employing me. There must be many other roles similar to mine in academic libraries across the country, for which new LIS graduates are not being considered, when there is no reason to exclude them. I haven’t been able to answer the question that I posed in the title of this blog post, because I just do not understand what the problem is. What are employers worried about? So I put the question to anyone reading this: why won’t employers give new LIS graduates a chance? If someone can give me an answer, I would be interested to hear it.
I don’t expect any employers to read this and change their minds about excluding new graduates from their vacancies, but I hope that perhaps I can encourage other new LIS graduates not to give up in their pursuit of that first professional post.