The importance of employability skills ‘Top 10 skills employers require‘ for graduate recruiters is well documented, notably by ‘High Fliers’ in their annual graduate recruitment survey where it is consistently reported that a majority of the top employers rate these skills at least as highly as academic achievement.
Research by Pearson College in 2016 also alludes to the value of employability, with 91% of the (234) employers surveyed reporting that attitude and aptitude were more important in their recruitment decisions than the applicant’s degree subject and university attended.
I refer to this research not to question the significance of a good degree from a good university but to emphasise that employers look beyond academic achievement. Providing evidence, for example, of your communication skills, teamwork and initiative is how you can make yourself stand out from the competition and demonstrate why the employer should hire you. Clearly, employers will place emphasis on different skills given the requirements of their particular industry and job roles but is there a specific skill or quality that they all require?
The Guardian conducted research with the job search engine Adzuna in 2013, identifying the 10 words and phrases most commonly used by recruiters in their job descriptions and person specifications in over 500,000 job advertisements. (1) Surprisingly, given that I thought this skill was taken as a given, ‘organised’ was the most popular, cited in over 99,000 adverts. Perhaps the prominence of the ability to prioritise, meet deadlines and work methodically under pressure is symptomatic of the current graduate labour market and level of employer expectation.
I spoke to the following employers I have worked with in the science faculty at the University of Warwick this term to ask if the skills often cited in graduate surveys resonated with them:
…the key skill we are looking for in new graduates is the ability to translate real world problems into technical solutions. Everyone who works for us needs to continuously learn new skills, so existing knowledge is less interesting than ability to pick up new capabilities. So we’re looking for candidates who can demonstrate they can take what they’ve learnt and apply it in new areas. (Felix Hoddinott, Executive Director, Quantexa)
…the best quality we like to see from all of our talent is being comfortable with criticism and failure, and then showing a willingness to learn from their failings…in the creative industry especially, everyone needs to be open and honest with themselves and their team; sometimes however people come to work with a fear of failure, which they may attempt to hide which is always damaging to themselves and their team. (Adam Wells, Studio Director, Exient Games)
…what we’re looking for is to see how candidates think. What approach they take to work through a problem, and how they are able to take experience they already have and apply it to a new problem… I’m looking for people that can do sideways thinking, coming at a problem in a new way to find the best solution to it. (Recruitment Team, Her Majesty’s Government Communications Centre)
…some things are a given; good grades, good communication skills (this can still be shown in a CV by being articulate and nice to read), interest in the field of scientific discovery and attention to detail. To separate, I look for if students who have had paid job, any will do. It shows a lot about your work ethic and that’s something I can’t teach. On the interview day it’s all about communication and attention to detail…above all, proven work ethic is key (Claire Brittain, Senior Research Scientist, European Statistics, Eli Lilly and Company)
… it’s your personality, your confidence…your willingness to learn and a passion and commitment for the area of work…these are the soft skills that really help on a day to day basis in the workplace. (Andrew Oliver, CEO, Radiant Worlds)
Enthusiasm! Do they demonstrate that they really want the job? Conscientiousness, do they demonstrate attention to detail? Are they hard-working? (Alex Burlton, TPP)
Develop your softer skills
Whilst not a comprehensive survey this anecdotal employer feedback does highlight the importance recruiters attach to employability skills and personal qualities. It was interesting to note that none of the employers I spoke to said that experience had to be gained in a specific industry to be relevant. This illustrates that all experience is of value and highly transferable. Qualifications evidence your academic and intellectual ability but your attitudes and behaviours (and moreover your ability to convincingly demonstrate them with experience) does appear to be the key to success in the recruitment and selection process. Skills gained through extra-curricular activities, volunteering and part-time work for example, will enhance your university experience, inform your career decisions and give you an advantage in the graduate labour market.
(1) The Guardian newspaper, April 22nd 2013 ‘The top 10 things employers look for’.