Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What do graduates do? : What do employers want?

Leaving university with a good degree is a pre-requisite in the graduate employment market, but this alone is not enough to secure your first graduate job.

How does an employer choose the right person from hundreds of applicants all with the same class of degree? The skills you develop whilst at school/college and university and the experiences you gain will all help to give you the edge over the next candidate. This means it is essential not just to bury your head in a book all the time while you are at university, but to be proactive and engage in interests and work experience, which help to enrich your life and your CV.
So what employability skills do employers want?

According to a survey of 500 Directors in October 2007, when recruiting, 64% said graduates’ employability skills were more important to their organisation than the specific occupational, technical or academic knowledge/skills associated with the graduate’s degree. The Future Fit report, published by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), echoes this view, stressing that employability skills are essential for all graduates in today’s job market.

Analysis of years of national employer surveys suggests the desired skills for graduates fall into four broad areas. Table 1 lists some of these skills, along with examples of how you can develop them. Take a look at the examples given and take time to review your own skills. You may have already started this process if you have a Progress File/Personal Development Plan. Many university courses may require certain skills, especially vocational ones like medicine or law. Look carefully at prospectuses and entry profiles on the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) website to find out what they are looking for.

Work experience and the benefits of volunteering

The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) research report, Employer and University Engagement in the Use and Development of Graduate Level Skills, highlighted that many employers preferred graduates from sandwich degrees, because they have gained practical experience and had a better idea about what the world of work had in store for them. It isn’t just paid work that is valued by employers, however; many also emphasise the benefits of volunteering in terms of skills development. According to Andrea Grace Rannard, Head of Student Volunteering, Volunteering England:

"Volunteering is a savvy use of an individual's time, valued by employers. Volunteering provides an insight into a profession and a company, allows an individual to build confidence in a role, develop or enhance relevant skills, generate useful contacts that can offer "insider" knowledge, and potentially lead to paid positions. Overall, it is a great way of improving a CV."

The value of a degree

There is compelling evidence that employers increasingly demand more skilled workers. Terence Perrin, Chairman of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), comments on the value of a university degree:
“There is no doubt that a university degree still has a very high currency with employers and a profound effect on a person’s earning potential over a lifetime. Our membership of over 800 organisations involved in graduate recruitment still attaches great value to a university education and has remained committed to recruiting graduate talent through the recession. A degree remains an extremely worthwhile investment.”

According to a recent study of graduates from 2005, three-and-a-half years after graduation, 81% of graduates were working in occupations classed as ‘graduate occupations’ and the most common reason for taking on their current job was ‘It fitted into my career plans’. Almost nine in ten (87%) graduates were also either very satisfied or fairly satisfied with their career to date. Another study, The Class of ’99, conducted earlier on the 1999 graduate cohort three years after graduation also revealed that many graduates reported the advantages a degree brought to the workplace, in terms of writing, analysis, problem-solving and presentation skills, and these were skills most commonly felt to be used in graduate employment.

It is, however, important to note that there is not always a correlation between the level of graduate skills or qualifications required in a job and the salary. As The Class of ‘99 noted, some of the lowest-paid graduates were the most highly qualified, in areas such as academic research, librarianship and journalism. For some graduates, the attraction of a psychologically rewarding career is greater than a “cash career”.

The university experience

According to the Student Experience Report 2007 from UNITE, 94% of the over 1,600 students surveyed reported that ‘going to university is a worthwhile investment and a natural progression from school’. Looking beyond financial considerations, the process of obtaining a degree and taking part in the whole university experience is often life changing – a time when knowledge, skills and personality are developed and values and networks are established. Obtaining a good degree along with some work experience will be of great benefit to your graduate job search, and probably financially lucrative too!

Useful websites
Volunteering England
WorldWide Volunteering (WWV)

Written by HECSU and AGCAS, November 2009.

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