Go Higher: Firms want players, not spectators

Commercial awareness and a `can do' attitude will be attractive to your prospective employers, says Neil Harris

If a degree ever did mean a job for life, those days are long gone. Recruiters of graduates look for much more than academic success. They want to see a very broad range of skills in their successful applicants. While a good academic record will get your foot in the door as an applicant, selectors are seeking much more than that before they clinch the deal. Interviewers want to hear hard evidence of the competencies you need to do the job. These can be found in all aspects of your life. Recruiters will search through your employment experiences, holidays, leisure pursuits, sports, or activities in the students' union to discover if you have them.

High on their list is commercial awareness. If you have worked in a pub, a shop or some other commercial organisation can you show that you ever saw it as needing to be profitable? Do you have any ideas about how the situation you were in could be improved?

Employers want to hire people who have a "can do" approach; those who get involved rather than those who stand on the sidelines and watch the world go by. Don't get carried away with your visits to art galleries, the cinema or football matches. Instead concentrate on things you did which achieved something, changed things for the better.

While education may be an individual matter, employment is a team effort. Recruiters are keen to know what you have achieved in a group, on a committee, a sports team or simply with your flat-mates. If you can show that you took the lead, so much the better. Show, if you can, that you are a tactful communicator who can also be persuasive. Tell them about any situation in which you had to speak to an audience or persuade your friends into a new activity.

In the current climate most students can only make ends meet if they take part-time or vacation employment. It may be a chore, but you may find yourself in situations where customer care was important, where dealing with difficult clients was a problem you overcame. You may have thought how the business could be improved or worked in a team to achieve a particular goal. Tell interviewers what you did on that score. They will be impressed.

At university plenty of chances come your way to develop these skills. Over 80 universities now run "job shops". Some are organised by the students' union and some by careers services but they all seek out employment opportunities for their undergraduates. Manchester University has a "Workbank" (website: www.workbank.man.ac.uk).

Student unions offer numerous chances to be involved in clubs and societies, to develop teamwork and even leadership. Organisations such as the Student Industrial Society, AIESEC and university careers services help students to get closer to employers by participating in visits, skills workshops and awareness courses. Opportunities are there for the taking.

The Shell Technology Enterprise Programme is renowned for putting students into small businesses to do relevant projects each summer. Craig Scordellis, a student in business administration at Bath University, worked for IM Kelley, a manufacturer of leather-covered car accessories, through this programme and converted an empty warehouse into a manufacturing facility.

Many employers offer summer vacation work and internships. Ford takes on 200 students every summer. PriceWaterhouseCoopers is among the financial services companies which have vacation schemes. Most international banks and leading firms of solicitors also offer work experience to the brightest and best candidates. Glaxo Wellcome takes on more than 150 science students for an industrial year during their degree course.

Recently I met a student who spent his vacation in Australia selling door to door. Employers recruiting into the commercial functions of marketing, sales and purchasing were keen to recruit him.

Recruiters are not only interested in your qualifications when you graduate they also want to know what you have achieved, where you were employed and the things you made happen. People who have a "can do" approach to life, who get involved instead of being a spectator, are extremely attractive to employers .That's just what they want you to do when you join them.

Neil Harris is deputy director of the University of London Careers Service and Head of Careers Service at University College

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