Fast Track: Don't neglect your `soft' side

Many job-seekers overlook the skills that are highly rated by employers, says Meg Carter
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The Independent Culture
Employers are generally satisfied with the quality of graduates they are recruiting from UK universities, but a gap exists between the skills they value and those which are seen as a priority by undergraduates, as revealed by a report published this week.

In many business sectors, what you study is becoming less important than it used to be, in dictating your success in securing a job. Although the importance employers attach to different skills varies widely, communication skills - both verbal and written - are highly valued, as are problem-solving abilities and an ability to learn new material quickly.

The report, "Graduate Education and Training for the New Millennium", is based on a detailed survey of 372 of the UK's leading graduate recruiters - more than twice the number of businesses surveyed for the recent Dearing Report on Higher Education.

The aim was to analyse employer demand for graduates, according to the report's author, Dr Anthony Hesketh, lecturer on post-compulsory education and training at the University of Wales's School of Education.

The study investigated seven different business sectors, examining which skills employers rate highest, where they seek graduates, what training they offer, how graduates affect company performance, perceptions of changes in graduate quality and future graduate recruitment needs.

Though employers still want technical skills, these are no longer perceived to be a priority. In-house graduate training and other technical learning programmes are seen as sufficient to fill in any skills gaps.

Science and engineering companies, for example, place a high priority on communication skills, learning abilities, problem solving and self- management. IT skills, however, are a low priority. Contrary to popular belief, this section does not suffer as wide a skills gap as the legal profession, finance or retailing, the report shows.

Consumer services companies, however, reveal the biggest gap in employer/graduate expectations, out of all the business sectors studied. These employers place great importance on verbal communications skills, learning ability, team work and self-management. Yet recruiters identify major problems in attracting recruits with these abilities. Respondents had no trouble finding candidates with IT skills, however.

In contrast, many graduates rate communications ability as the main general skill needed for success. And many overlook other, softer skills which are as highly rated by employers.

"The universally high demand for communication and learning skills contrasts with relatively low interest in technical, IT and numeracy skills," Dr Hesketh observes. "It's striking, particularly as the last two skills were strongly endorsed by the recent Dearing Report. Self-management, which was not one of Dearing's proposed four core skills, was also an employer priority."

The study also investigated to what extent employers target specific institutions for graduate recruitment. Sixty-seven per cent of respondents engaged in at least some targeting. Different businesses target in different ways; some go the Oxbridge route, others to red-brick colleges known for taking those with the best A-level results. The least targeted institutions were "new", post-1992 universities.

However, Dr Hesketh insists, when employer satisfaction with graduate recruits is analysed, the results show that those recruiting graduates from these newer universities are not significantly less happy with the results.

"The upshot is that while graduates perceived as top performers by employers still tend to come from the best universities, graduates from newer institutions are no longer regarded as the worst performers," he says, commenting on the debate concerning the viability of differentiated tuition fees. "There is certainly evidence of the beginnings of a `winner takes all' market, with around 5 per cent of graduates able to command starting salaries of pounds 20,000 or more."

This could provide justification for differentiated fees, as these high earners would be able to shoulder the burden of increased repayments.

However, he adds, there is also evidence that employers are increasingly concerned about the higher costs associated with graduate recruitment. "When asked what they say is the key obstacle in the way of recruiting the best graduate talent, the majority said the fact that it is becoming more expensive."

The key factor affecting students' choice of higher education institution should therefore be its past graduates' job patterns. "Students will have to pay closer attention to where employers shop, who gets which job and from where," Dr Hesketh adds. "What we are seeing in the graduate jobs market is a move towards increased consumerism."