Employer insights: What gets your students hired?

Employer insights: What gets your students hired?

At EAIE Liverpool 2016, I had the privilege of organising an employer panel From learning to earning: employers’ perspectives on employability. [i]  In the session, representatives from multinational companies shared their insights into what they deem to be employable graduates. Our world café session was structured so that it would be as interactive as possible: 75 minutes, 10 questions, an audience and the speakers. And interactive it was!

Hard and soft skills

The first question was about hard and soft skills. Stuart Jehan from Robeco started off by saying that being employable and recruited is not just about the hard skills and academic knowledge graduates have gained. To a large extent, employability is about the soft skills; fitting in a team, being flexible, having intercultural communication skills and being likeable. IBM’s Jenny Taylor threw in some fireworks right away by stating “these so-called hard skills learned during students’ higher education is not what we pay attention to during the recruitment process. We usually need to retrain graduates the moment we hire them, as IT knowledge outdates quickly.  The most important aspect in the recruitment process is the soft skills and the ability to get those skills across to a prospective employer”.

Jenny’s colleague, Kashif Taj, added that he doesn’t like the term ‘soft skills’. He went on to explain that “there are many words which make better sense than soft skills, for instance interpersonal skills or transferable skills, but I think we should simply call them professional skills – if you do not get this right, it will be truly difficult to find a job”.

All about attitude

After this introduction, it was not difficult to encourage the audience to ask questions and contribute to the discussion: from the willingness of employers to hire graduates with a disability to the level of ‘professional skills’ required. All employers agreed that those who studied with a disability have gained perseverance, problem-solving skills and a drive to succeed. As for professional skills, it is more about the ability to translate work experience into a skill set that employers understand – hence, if your student worked as a waiter, they have gained service mindedness, a professional attitude, client-focused communication skills, and most likely the ability to work in a diverse team.

Different skills were mentioned, so naturally the next question was about the one skill that the employers personally believed was the most important. For Stuart, it was communication skills. “In our line of work we need people that are capable of transparently interacting with a variety of different people, with consideration to both diverse cultures and backgrounds”. For Jenny, it is a drive to succeed, “it is all about attitude”. For Kashif, it is an applicant’s adaptability to a team and to the mind-set of the organisation: “it is essential that you can be part of a team and take on different roles depending on what is being expected of you.”

The skills dialogue that followed had us discussing the importance of being confident and believing in yourself. Jenny and I are both strong advocates for making sure that female students learn to claim success. “In an interview you sit opposite a girl who mentions in her CV ‘supported the event director’, and when you ask them whether they supported or organised the event, it usually turns out they organised it… why not say that?” says IBM’s Jenny. The key is to ensure that your students – and particularly your female students – know how to ‘sell’ their skill set to prospective employers.

On the other hand, there is a difference between being confident and being overly confident. “A recent graduate who walks into my office claiming they know all about the international world of asset management, for instance, without having a snippet of experience truly puts me off. If you want to impress me, I’m more impressed if you are honest about what you know and how much you still have to learn.”, says Stuart.

Being prepared

So what do tell your students to avoid when they are looking for a job? Kashif says: “students need to learn how to fail. Failure is inevitable and part of personal and career growth. But young people nowadays are not used to it. They expect their feedback to be ‘excellent, 100% and great’. If I tell them they are not currently a high performer, they sometimes become upset. Positive and constructive feedback help us to improve performance – they go hand-in-hand”. All employers agreed failure is a normal part of a career path and it leads to learning. We had a discussion around failure and how higher education institutions can bring eg gamification, to teach students how to deal with failure.

We discussed the difference between the skills needed in academia and the corporate workplace and the audience pointed out that the differences may not be that big, as teamwork is gaining much more traction in education. We then talked about the changing labour market where “preparation for a job interview has always been key, but with social media at their fingertips, the current generation of job hunters has no excuse not to be prepared”, Stuart mentioned. Kashif then related examples where graduates were totally unprepared and showed no talent to improvise.

Closing the gap

We also discussed whether universities prepare students adequately for entry in the job market. A heated discussion followed. Stuart felt the higher education sector and employers should collaborate more to prepare students for career opportunities and advise on internships. When the employer panel was asked what universities could do, the answers were bold: “truly prepare your students! Give them careers advice. Make them understand the cultural differences of doing business across borders. Teach them to behave in meetings, teach them to write a business email, teach them to give a proper handshake! Teach them the importance of listening”. Indeed, human beings have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

The discussion provided good intelligence into closing the gap between education and the world of work. The main take-away for me was the fact that all the participating employers underlined the importance of making a career choice out of sheer interest in the topic. As Jenny said: “it is not about the salary you earn, but about enjoying what you do. That is  genuine career success”.

Nannette is Director at Expertise in Labour Mobility and Founder of CareerProfessor.works, the Netherlands.

[i] Aside from Nannette Ripmeester, the panel was composed of: Jenny Taylor, UK Foundation Manager at IBM, UK; Kashif Taj, Early Professionals Manager at IBM, UK; and Stuart Jehan, Strategic Development Manager at Robeco, Luxembourg.