Equine degrees: what are they worth?

  • It’s June, and another batch of students is about to graduate from Britain’s 100-plus equine-based degree courses. But will these hopeful 20-somethings be fully equipped to find graduate jobs in the equine industry, or beyond?

    Equine employers appear slow to embrace the skills and knowledge of graduates, with many feeling that practical experience is more useful to them than a college education.

    A recent survey of 1,146 visitors to www.horseandhound.co.uk found that 44% of respondents classed equine degrees as “Okay, but practical training is better”, while 18% said the degrees were lacking in any merit or usefulness. In the same survey, a quarter indicated that these qualifications were useful in the horse industry, with a further 12% adding that they would be valuable in any industry.

    But is the negativity towards graduates justified, or is it just a symptom of an industry that is failing to move forwards? With long hours and hard physical work expected in return for a less than impressive income, is it any wonder that young people who want to work in the horse industry are aiming for a little bit more?

    The horse industry cannot survive without keen, experienced grooms, and increasingly the demand is being met by foreign nationals — South Africans cashing in on the pound’s strength against the rand, or Eastern Europeans. Meanwhile, numbers of graduates complain of disappointing job searches.

    Where do equine graduates end up?

    Although courses may seem highly vocational and specific, not all equine-course graduates want to work in the horse industry.

    “As the courses have strong ‘general vocational’ content and relevance, a large proportion — about 30% — of graduates go into jobs outside the equine industry,” says Clifford Mitchell from Warwickshire College.

    But are they attractive qualifications for non-equine industry jobs? Richard Wilson, head of business at the Institute of Directors, which represents captains of industry, doesn’t feel that an equine qualification would put off prospective employers.

    “Candidates who have degrees have already singled themselves out to recruiters,” he says. “This is a pretty specialised degree, but there is now a greater diversity in the amount and type of degrees. The IoD doesn’t mind what subject people study. With the introduction of tuition fees, we feel that if it’s worth paying for, it must be worth doing.”

    Opportunities within the equine industry for graduates — with corresponding “graduate salaries” — are relatively few, however.

    Colleges often cite yard management positions as future roles for graduates, with many students hoping to work in this area. But, phone up when such jobs are advertised, and you find the majority of vacancies in riding schools and yards require practical knowledge rather than a paper qualification.

    “There are opportunities for hard-working yard managers, but management opportunities within riding schools and livery yards are few and far between,” confirms Duncan Brown of the ABRS. “Riding schools will pay good money, but some cannot afford salaries of £15,000 for someone straight out of college.”

    In 2004, approximately 9,000 people went through the BHS horse management examination system, and — apart from a peak of around 13,000 in the mid-1990s — numbers have been sustained in the face of competition from colleges. This would suggest that colleges are not directly taking away prospective grooms and instructors, despite suggestions that the growing trend of college attendance is causing a dearth of experienced staff.

    The retail and trade sector is one of the main employers in the horse industry.

    Claire Williams, executive director and secretary of the British Equestrian Trade Association (BETA) says: “There is a demand for graduates with realistic expectations and who see the equine skills they have acquired as a base upon which to build. Many companies want graduates with good general business-related skills but direct equine knowledge isn’t necessarily what they’re looking for.”

    Many want to go in to the area of nutrition but, as Claire Blaskey of Blue Chip points out: “The opportunities in nutrition in this country are very limited.”

    No one in the horse industry seems to be keeping accurate details of how many graduate vacancies occur annually. But in a sample of three issues of Horse & Hound selected randomly from the past year, there were only 15 jobs (10%) in the equine industry advertised where a degree was required or would be an advantage, while 129 jobs were practical, mostly looking for grooms or instructors.

    Meeting employers’ needs

    When Berkshire College of Agriculture (BCA) set up a foundation degree course last year (equine science with management), they asked employers, the BHS and LANTRA (the government’s skill sector council for agriculture) how employers in the horse world really felt about taking on equine graduates.

    “Feedback included their lack of practical experience and knowledge about legislature, and naivety about the workload and hours involved,” explains Jo Houghton, BCA’s head of equine studies. “The foundation degree has compulsory riding modules and weekly work experience. The hours are realistic — if the employer starts at 7am, then so does the student.”

    But a cross-section of employers recently advertising vacancies for “yard manager” in Horse & Hound, were not overly fussed about candidates having equine degrees, placing greater emphasis on practical experience.

    “Ideally, it would be nice for them to have both,” says Scott Smith, manager of York’s Allerthorpe Farm Stud. “But in my experience, practical knowledge is the first thing I want.”

    Suzanne Gorringe, from Wellington Riding, has more than 100 horses but only employs one yard manager. “If we are recruiting, we would consider an application from a graduate, but hands-on experience is vital,” she says.

  • This careers feature was published in full, along with information about the roles undertaken by equine degree students after graduation, in Horse & Hound (16 June, ’05)

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