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Go Higher: No substitute for experience

Gaining some key skills now will improve your job prospects when you graduate, says Philip Schofield
Most graduates today are recruited into jobs in which they are expected to make an early contribution. This means that to impress a potential employer it is no longer enough to have a good degree, be polite and well- groomed, and to show an interest in the job. You are also expected to have some basic vocational skills. And because these skills are useful in almost every type of job, they have at various times been called "transferable skills", "life skills" or "personal effectiveness skills". Today they are usually known as "key skills".

It is vital to develop a portfolio of key skills while you are a student. These skills are not only essential in helping you to win your first job and to move easily from student life to employment, but they are important for your longer term "employability". They will enable you to move from one type of work to another and from one employer to another. They are valuable in any career - whether in a profession, industry, commerce, public service, or the voluntary sector.

You should acquire some skills - such as analytical thinking, time management and prioritising your work - through your studies. Others can only be learned by getting work experience while you are still a student. The importance of getting good quality work experience before you complete full-time education was recognised in the Dearing report into higher education. It is now government policy that undergraduates should do so.

Dearing lists communication, numeracy, use of information technology and improving one's own learning and performance as skills which are especially valued by employers. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority also includes working with others and problem solving as key skills. The 1999 summer update of the Association of Graduate Recruiters Graduate Salaries and Vacancies survey found that the skills most in demand, in order of priority, are team working, interpersonal skills, motivation and enthusiasm, flexibility, customer orientation, business awareness, problem solving, planning and organisation and numeracy.

Most employers assume that in taking a degree you will learn how to manage your time effectively and prioritise your work because it is always important to deliver work on time. It is also expected that you will have acquired IT skills as a student. One skill you cannot get from your studies is business awareness. Most employers complain that such awareness is in short supply among graduates.

Many university courses now include core skills training and provide opportunities for work-based learning. The experience of doing a higher education programme which incorporates embedded or extra-curricular work experience is enormously valuable in career terms. Unfortunately, at present, only about half of all UK undergraduates benefit from doing academically recognised work experience, although most universities plan to expand academic recognition of work experience. Much will depend upon enough employers coming forward to offer suitable short-term vacancies and work projects.

If your course does not provide work placements or similar formal work- based learning, you can still gain valuable experience through part-time, weekend or vacation work. This will also help your meagre student finances. Even low-level casual work can teach you a great deal if you think beyond the mundane task you are doing - whether stacking supermarket shelves, serving in the student union bar, grape picking, waiting in a fast food restaurant and so on. Many students who do this type of work fail to recognise the lessons they are learning and so do not put this over to potential employers on their application forms or at interview. Take time to reflect on the skills you are acquiring in every job you do.

Working in a student bar, for example, you learn among other things to co-operate with your fellow workers (teamworking), listen to customers' orders, explain alternatives and special offers, handle complaints, deal with drunks politely but firmly (communication skills), and calculate the price of a drinks order and give change (numeracy). A valuable publication to help students who want to benefit from work experience which is not part of their course is the Student's DIY Guide to Undergraduate Work Experience. Produced by the National Centre for Work Experience (NCWE), the guide is currently being distributed free through student unions and university job shops.

The NCWE also offers an interactive Skills Tracker disk, also currently distributed free through unions and job shops, to act as a self-development tool. As well as containing much useful information, it will enable you to produce a detailed account of any relevant experience you acquire, show the problems you met and overcame, and provide evidence of the skills you have acquired.

Many graduate employers leave their vacancies unfilled rather than recruit graduates who lack the key skills they need. And last year 6.6 per cent of vacancies for newly qualified graduates remained unfilled.