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Making Graduates More Employable

More than half (52%) of graduate employers feel that “none” or “few” of their new graduate recruits are “work ready” upon leaving university according to the YouGov survey conducted at the of the last academic year in August 2013 of senior UK managers and published in conjunction with the Good University Guide[1].
 

Question:  What business skills and experience do you expect a recent graduate to have when joining your company?
 

65% of 2000 UK graduates surveyed about their experience after university said they were not prepared for the “world of work”.  52% indicated that their universities did not sufficiently help them to be prepared, according to research conducted by OnePoll on behalf of LinkedIn and published in March 2014[2].
 

Approximately 788,000 students graduated at the end of academic year 2012/13.  Interpolating the above data suggests that in excess of half-million (512,000) graduates were not properly prepared for work.
 

Question:  What skills and experience did you have when you started your first corporate job after leaving university?
 

As I start writing this article I am thinking back to when I started my first corporate job after leaving university.  During the interview process it became clear that I was being hired for my computer programming skills.  Naively, in my mind, I translated this into “congratulations Gary, we need experienced programmers like you on our team”.  What experience? I had none!  It took less than a week for me to realise I was the least experienced programmer, and didn’t know anything about working as a team member to deadlines. 
 

My formal education might have finished but my real learning was just beginning.  Fortunately for me this company had a structured graduate recruitment programme in place to teach me many of the BSH skills I still use to this day.
 

In this article I will examine the concerns of employers; what undergraduates and graduates can do to make themselves “work ready”; what Higher Education (HE) institutions should be doing to prepare graduates for the “world of work”.
 

According to HESA – the Higher Education Statistics Agency[3] – in academic year 2012/13 nearly 788,000 students graduated of which nearly 404,000 graduated with a first degree; 262,000 graduated with a postgraduate qualification; and 122,000 left higher education with a foundation degree or some other form of undergraduate qualification.
 

I opened this article with the latest research that at least half of employers are really not satisfied with how prepared graduates are to work in their companies.  This means that nearly 400,000 students do not have the business skills to complement their degree qualification.
 

Worryingly this situation has remained stubbornly static for many years. 
 

At the beginning of 2012 Woods Bagot, a leading global architectural company commissioned Global Strategy Group[4] to ask “Are recent college graduates ready for the rigors of today’s workforce?”  Almost half (49%) of 500 business decision makers surveyed believed that graduates were less prepared for work than they were 15 years (1997) earlier.  In January 2011 a survey by the TotalJobs[5] recruitment website found that almost half (49%) of recent graduates believed their university education did not adequately equip them for the “world of work”.  A quarter of graduates went on to say they wouldn’t recommend higher education to those currently studying A-levels.
 

To quote Albert Einstein “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.
 

In March 2009, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in conjunction with Universities UK (UUK)[6] – the voice of UK universities, published an extensive report entitled “Future Fit: Preparing graduates for the world of work”.  This report looked in detail at what employers want from graduates; what universities are delivering; what students want and what they get; what initiatives employers are undertaking.  It also looked at what improvements are required.  Let’s address each of these points.
 

Employers want to recruit graduates with employability skills, by which they mean a combination of business, soft and to some extent hard skills (BSH skills).  These can be categorised as (but not necessarily in any order of priority):-
 

Skill Category

Description / Understanding

Type

Commercial and Customer

Contracts and the negotiation / acceptance process; Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA); key drivers for commercial success; business innovation and risk assessment; sales life-cycle or process; what is customer satisfaction and how it builds loyalty and reference-ability.

Business

Financial

Common finance terminology; reading financial reports (including Profit and Loss (P&L) and Cash Flow); budgeting and forecasting; difference between revenue and margin; how to calculate margin and profit.

Business

Industry sector

A relevant degree and/or practical work experience in industry sector; key players and competitors; political, economic, social and technological (PEST) analysis considerations.

Business

Numeracy

The application of basic mathematical skills that are relevant in business, including measuring, estimating and using formulae.  Basic statistical analysis.

Soft

Self or personal management

Time management; project / task planning and estimating; taking personal responsibility; commitment to deadlines; taking initiative and being a self-starter; assertiveness versus aggressiveness – knowing when and how to say “No”; listening to, accepting and applying feedback to improve own performance and capability.

Soft

Team working

Working as a team member; contributing positively to discussions; learning when to stay quiet; demonstrating leadership; acknowledging the contribution of others.  Being managed and managing people.

Soft

Communications

Communication / presentation skills; written and spoken, structuring work in a logical and coherent manner; listening and asking better questions.

Soft

Interpersonal behaviour

Professional and acceptable behaviour with colleagues and customers; confidentiality, trust and reputation; dress code; work ethic.

Soft

Problem solving

Analysing the situation and the facts that apply to it; considering the options and alternative solutions; weighing up the benefits and risks.

Soft

IT skills

Computer skills including use of common Office applications – word-processing, spreadsheet, presentation; knowledge management tools; internet access and safety;

Hard

 

How realistic is it to expect a recent graduate to have the above knowledge and skills before they start working for an employer?
 

Many of the above skills are developed in students throughout their primary, secondary and tertiary education, however in the opinion of employers not well enough.  A lot more must be done to prepare graduates better for business while they are in HE.
 

According to the CBI[7] survey 82% of employers said universities should prioritise “improving students” employability skills, which implies this should be a key focus for universities.  Yet, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) 2013 Annual Survey Report for Resourcing and Talent Planning, produced in partnership with Hays[8] only 13% of respondents believe that schools/colleges/universities equip young people with the skills their organisation needs to a great or very great extent.  More than a quarter believe they are poor at equipping young people with the needs they need.
 

If universities are to take more responsibility and a greater role, then in order to achieve this, employers and universities need to work together to define what the BSH skills learning purpose and objective must encompass, or in other words what is the expected outcome from the learning experience.
 

When I am scoping a training session, to quote the late Stephen R. Covey – author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – I “begin with the end in mind” and ask / answer the question:-
 

“At the end of this training topic / session the student will have learned / understood… and have the skills to be able to perform / do…”
 

Universities need to clearly understand what the attributes and qualities, skills and capabilities are that employers are seeking; why and how these are relevant and important for them.  In order for universities to do so, employers need to articulate them clearly.
 

Universities then need to identify which of these skills are already incorporated into their existing course curriculum, and for those that are not, plan effective ways of embedding them into the curriculum, or create an explicit programme for BSH skills.  
 

While lecturers and tutors are highly skilled and experienced in their chosen subject, they will almost certainly benefit from a workshop on identifying / incorporating the above skills into their lectures, tutorials, group and individual assignments.  They should be provided with expert assistance where needed, to facilitate this.
 

It will not simply be enough for these skills to be embedded into the course curriculum.  It will be necessary to conduct formal training sessions on a number of these skill categories utilising online and classroom-based teaching methods.  Consideration needs to be given to the learning methods used by today’s students.  A partnership between external training providers and the university should be formed to deliver the knowledge and training to students in a timely, accessible and engaging manner.
 

The CBI[9] report acknowledges that some universities are taking the initiative to improve students’ employability skills through the development of Personal Development Plans in conjunction with the Careers service.
 

However, it is not enough to simply embed BSH skills into the curriculum without defining and implementing a process for the measurement and assessment of how effective the teaching of these skills is, as well as testing how well students are utilising these skills and applying them to their day-to-day activities.
 

In order words, this is a great opportunity for universities to capture and create some baseline measures that can be used to compare the effectiveness of these training programmes against the success of the graduates gaining employment, and employers acknowledging that significantly more graduates are joining them with a good foundation level of knowledge, skills and capabilities suitable for the workplace.
 

Additionally, these baseline measures can be compiled into benchmark indicators (i.e. league tables) that help students applying for higher education to identify those institutions that are better at preparing them for the “world of work”.
 

I was recently discussing with a colleague how we gain experience in the work environment.  He mentioned that about 10 years into his career, at times he got frustrated with the lack of business skills and experience of his newly recruited graduates, and had to remind himself that they couldn’t possibly have his 10 years of experience to apply.  As I thought about this I recalled that I had experienced the same frustration about 10 years into my career as well.  From this we can learn 2 things – (1) it takes time to gain useful experience, and (2) how quickly we forget that there is no substitute for experience.
 

Over the years I have interviewed a number of graduates during their first year of work.  Here is a sample of their comments:-
 

“Despite my Oxbridge degree, I didn’t realise how little I knew that I could apply to my job role” – Samantha (23)

“If only I’d understood how to pace my work and not show-up my peers” – Ben (23)

“Standing up for meetings took me by surprise” – Jonathan (21)

“Sometimes my enthusiasm can get the better of me.  I need to learn to temper my enthusiasm, listen more and give proper consideration to my colleagues ideas” – Katy (24)
 

Knowledge acquisition and learning is a continuous process.  In fact many organisations operate continuing professional development (CPD) learning programmes that promote personal career progression.  Thus, it is definitely the responsibility of the employer to provide opportunity and access to learning programmes covering the above skills, and these must be made available at appropriate points in the progression of an employee from subordinate to manager through executive and leadership roles.  Each time the learning will be taken up a notch, and the content will be in context to their new role.
 

Therefore while universities can provide a good introduction to BSH skills, it is very much the responsibility of the employer to continue the development of their employees.  Employers must acknowledge and accept that there is a limit to how well a university can equip a graduate with these skills.  University is not a corporate workplace environment.
 

During the first couple of years of a graduate’s working life is the best time to invest and develop the BSH skills that every employee should master in order for them to be effective workers, managers and leaders as they progress their career.
 

However, this is easier said than done.  According to the CIPD, the percentage of organisations operating a structured graduate recruitment programme varies dramatically with size as follows:-
 

Number of employees

Percentage with structured recruitment programme

Less than 50

              3%

50 to 249

              15%

250-999

              24%

1000-4999

              34%

More than 5000

              58%

 

Not surprising the smaller the company the less likely that they will have the internal capability to provide a formal BSH skills training programme.  Most small and medium sized companies will need to rely on external training providers and programmes for their employees to learn these skills.

However not all training providers have experience engaging with students and therefore may not be very effective at adjusting their skills teaching to the appropriate level for recent graduate employees.  So if you are looking to send your graduates on external skills training programmes then I recommend you look for training providers with a reputation for working with universities.
 

Many larger medium and large companies have good internal skills programmes, including the opportunity for new graduates to rotate through 3-4 different functional departments before choosing which role they wish to pursue and develop their career in.
 

HE Institutions should take the opportunity to partner with these larger companies and utilise their graduate training programmes either by inviting the companies on to campus to deliver their programmes, or arranging for undergraduates to participate in off-campus programmes being held at corporate learning locations.
 

In summary, for UK businesses to compete in the worldwide knowledge economy then much more can and must be done to teach undergraduates foundation BSH skills that will make them more desirable graduates ready for, and eager to engage in, the “world of work”.
 

In the words of Donald Rumsfeld “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.”
 

Most undergraduates will fall into the “unknown unknowns” category, therefore it is the responsibility of the business community and universities to make them aware of how important BSH skills are to their future success, and provide them access to necessary training by integrating it into the curriculum.  Additionally, work experience programmes should also emphasise the acquisition of these essential skills.
 

Together, let’s build a successful framework that enables the UK to produce the best “work ready” graduates in the world.