Higher education massification and the changing nature of graduate jobs in spain

Osseiran, Ghia (2018). 'Higher education massification and the changing nature of graduate jobs in Spain' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.




Even though the share of tertiary[1] graduates in the working-age population in Spain is at a comparable level to the OECD average and “Scandinavian” rates of educational attainment” (Barone and Ortiz, 2011), the Spanish employment structure has not changed to resemble that of its Scandinavian counterpart. This labour market mismatch at the macro level has led to a relatively higher prevalence of “surplus” graduates placed in medium and low-skilled occupations,[2] a situation defined in this paper as “occupational drifting down” (Berg, 2003).

This study examines changes in recruitment trends and education requirements for entry-level posts in retail banking and the wholesale and retail trade industry in Spain. It draws on 50 in-depth semi-structured interviews conducted with senior managers and young graduates employed in the retail banking and retail trade industries in Spain between January 2015 and March 2016. In gaining proximity to the real-life context of graduate mismatch in the workplace, this study seeks to advance scholarship on graduate skills utilization and hiring trends at the sectoral level, providing novel insight into the changing education and skill requirements of two industries in Spain. In this way, this study fills a research gap, as sectoral case studies are sparse in the literature (Caroli et al., 2008; Elias and Purcell, 2004; Mason, 2002; Green and McIntosh, 2002, Knights and McCabe, 1998, Mason, 1996), particularly for Spain.

Whereas in the past university graduates competed with non-university graduates, this study shows that a university degree has become a requirement for all positions in Spanish retail banks over the past decade, reflecting similar graduatisation trends for the financial sector in the UK (Mason 1996). Holding an advanced university degree further advances a graduate’s placement in the “queue” for jobs (Thurow, 1975). This has culminated in the effective closure of associate professional, as well as services and sales occupations, to tertiary vocational graduates who would have had the educational requirements, had educational requirements not been inflated for these occupations. This closure arguably came precisely as a result of HE massification. Consequently, millennials with vocational tertiary degrees and upper secondary qualifications (bachillerato) were entirely barred from employment within a retail bank branch, including for medium-skilled occupations such as cashier, for which they also would have had the appropriate education, due to the upgrading of educational requirements to get the job.  In this way, tertiary vocational graduates and non-graduates were effectively displaced from the job “queue” for retail banking positions.

In the wholesale and retail trade industry, the majority of tertiary graduates,[3] and approximately one in every two Spanish university graduates employed in the sector, occupy medium and low-skilled occupations that one generation ago did not require a tertiary degree. The surplus share of graduates queuing for retail jobs has allowed employers to divert the surplus queue to non-graduate jobs at their points of sale, using graduate performance in non-graduate jobs as a screening mechanism through which the best were then deemed eligible to apply to graduate jobs in head office. In this way, employers in the retail industry introduced what Mason (1995) referred to in his case study of the financial sector in the UK as “different layers of graduate recruitment”. These different recruitment pathways have entrenched segmentation in graduate career trajectories, establishing a clear divide between graduates recruited into the central offices of retail firms and those diverted to the points of sale. In this way, the costs of this “positional” competition for graduate jobs were primarily borne by graduates themselves whose career aspirations were frustrated, as they continued to stand in queue for graduate jobs, whilst firms maintained “internal labour markets with limited ports of entry” in their central offices (Thurow, 1975, p. 86).

Drawing on semi-structured interviews with graduates and employers in both sectors, this paper explores changing perceptions and understandings of what counts as a “graduate” job. In his seminal book Demanding Work: The Paradox of Job Quality in the Affluent Economy, Francis Green (2006) proposed the application of the notion of capabilities, defined by Amartya Sen as “the various combinations of functioning’s (doings and beings)” (Sen, 2009, p. 5) that a person is able to choose from, to the evaluation of job quality. In this way, Green described “the capability to achieve well-being [in the workplace]… as depending on the extent to which the job enables the individual to pursue personal goals” (Green, 2006, p. 14).

This analysis argues that using the capabilities approach as the evaluative framework to assess what constitutes a graduate job provides a theoretical framework that allows for broadening the focus from the graduate wage premium to expanding graduate capabilities, including in the workplace. In this way, the key question becomes do individual freedoms expand in proportion to the increase in educational attainment levels? Or are graduates deprived of “the agency to transform their realities” (Flores-Crespo, 2007, p. 56), in this case work realities, when placed in jobs in which their human capital is effectively underutilised because of the imposition of a “ceiling” on their productivity (Allen and Van der Velden, 2001)?

For Sen the capability space is the evaluative space. If we only look at functionings or achievements without considering the freedom to achieve, we may arrive at erroneous conclusions. Perceiving skills mismatch from the capability perspective implies a shift from primarily investigating the graduate wage premium to emphasizing graduate labour market outcomes and job quality in the work place. The paper will juxtapose normative considerations of what constitutes a graduate job from a capabilities perspective, with the changing realities of what is considered a “graduate job” in the two sectors considered, in its exploration of the changing nature/understanding of graduate jobs today.





[1] ISCED 5A, 5B and 6.

[2] Defined in this study as ISCO Major Groups 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.

[3] ISCED 5a, 5b and 6

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