In the 5 years I’ve been doing this job, my most asked question is ‘what do employers want?’.
There is a simple answer: someone with a good brain, someone who can get stuff done with other people, someone who is motivated to do the work they are signing up to do.
But we all know the ask is more complicated than that. Many a report has been commissioned and many will be on the nation’s skills and productivity gap. It’s why I have consistently resisted the urge to produce a skills gap report in my time here at the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) – my desk still has at least four piled up that I keep meaning to read properly.
And what do employers want exactly? Unfortunately language is a barrier here. Firstly I think attributes and skills are two segments of the employability Venn diagram. I can’t change my height but surely I can improve my creative thinking. Is resilience a skill or an attribute? I’ve heard some argue that work ethic is a learned behaviour. The most unfathomable phrase of all, commercial awareness, just confuses most students. (For the record, my definition is it’s an expressible interest about the industry a student wants to work in – if the business pages bore you don’t apply to become a management accountant)
So with the caveat that we may disagree on wording and categorisation, my summary of the employer ask list is: people or teamworking skills; thinking skills; organising skills; flexibility; growth potential; work ethic; and commercial awareness. I’ve left out the technical skills as they vary from industry to industry and role to role.
Once we have a workable definition we need to turn to developing these skills. There isn’t a simple download we can use to import them into students brains. They are developed through awareness and experience. However, the one intervention our ISE data indicates as the most effective is work experience. Whether it’s a suited up summer in Canary Wharf or waiting tables in a busy restaurant, being exposed to the working environment in some way makes students more employable.
It’s why employers are investing increasing resources into internship and work experience placements. Their analysis shows that graduate hires that have some prior experience of working with the organisation are more likely to join, then stay longer and perform better.
People and teamwork skills present a particular problem for the transition into work. In the world of employment, a piece of group coursework bears little correlation to the skills needed to get things done with and through people. Dealing with conflicts of opinion, differing priorities and managing hierarchies are the realities that graduates face in the workplace. Employers don’t expect their graduate hires to be fully formed when they start but they would like them further along the spectrum of ability and it’s only really through work that these people abilities are developed.
Placement students also become better students. The dean of a particular business school once said to me he could really see the difference in placement and non-placement students. Those that had done a placement were more engaged on their return and we more able to deal with the stress of their final year.
The more we can encourage students to take placements and/or to reflect in a meaningful way on their working experiences, the better the employment outcomes for those students. I also think it makes them better students and better citizens because employability skills are really life skills. So there is my employability silver bullet: make every degree a four-year sandwich degree.