One in eight young people without degree-level qualifications are working in graduate jobs, according to analysis by the Office for National Statistics.

In 2017, 12% of non-graduates (327,303) aged 22 to 29 were working in a graduate job – defined as a role where the tasks typically require knowledge and skills gained through higher education. This compares with 54% of graduates (1,273,336) in the same age group who had a graduate job.

Sales, HR, and retail and wholesale management most common graduate jobs for non-graduates

Some types of graduate jobs were especially common for those without degrees. These include sales, HR and retail and wholesale management.

NOTE: Salaries are median, full-time and do not include the self-employed.
Source: Annual Population Survey, Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings

In these types of job, it may be easier for non-graduates to “work their way up” to senior positions without formal qualifications, unlike in more regulated professions like medicine, law and teaching. In addition, apprenticeships are more established in retail and sales, enabling school leavers to obtain on-the-job training.

Fewer non-graduates in work

Overall, graduates and non-graduates face different experiences in the jobs market. People aged 22 to 29 without a degree have a lower employment rate (78%) than graduates (90%). Although unemployment rates, those actively looking for a job, are slightly higher for non-graduates at 6.8% compared with 4.6% for graduates.

The biggest difference between the two groups is in the numbers who are neither employed nor unemployed. These are people described as “economically inactive”1 who are not available for or looking for work. 17% of non-graduates aged 22 to 29 were inactive, compared to only 6% of graduates.

Most of these non-graduates said they were not working because they were long-term sick, or looking after the family or home. There may be more non-graduates who are long-term sick because higher levels of education are associated with better health and well-being. There may also be more non-graduates looking after the family or home because women with lower educational attainment tend to have children younger, at an average age of 28.5 compared with 32.9 for graduates.

Non-graduates work in lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs

People without degree-level qualifications mainly work in lower-skilled and lower-paid jobs. 61% of non-graduates aged 22 to 29 work in four job types:

  • elementary jobs (for example cleaner, warehouse work, security guard)
  • skilled trades (for example building, plumbing)
  • care
  • sales and customer services

In contrast, 58% of graduates in the same age group work two job types:

  • professional (for example teacher, doctor, lawyer)
  • associate professional (for example sales, marketing, IT)

Occupations of non-graduates aged 22 to 29, UK, 2017

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Occupations of graduates aged 22 to 29, UK, 2017

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There’s a big pay gap between mainly-graduate and mainly-non-graduate jobs: young people in “professional” roles earn almost two-thirds more (63%) than their peers in “elementary” roles, and this pay gap has remained the same since 2008.

The highest-paid non-graduate roles are in skilled trades – these may earn more because their qualifications match the industry they work in and they have greater access to training on the job. Young people working in skilled trades have seen the greatest pay increase at 11%.


  1. Students have been excluded from this definition of economically inactive.


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Policy Evidence and Analysis Team