Students get a lesson in social skills

Many of today's students lack the social skills needed to get a job with a top company. But now help is on its way. Lucy Hodges reports
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The news that almost one-half of Britain's leading firms expect to have difficulty filling their job vacancies is no surprise to Michael Hunting, head of graduate recruitment at Eversheds, the big city law firm. "We are unable to fill all 80 of our graduate vacancies each year out of the 4,000 applications we receive," he explains.

The reason is that young people coming out of university lack the essential skills needed for jobs that involve dealing with clients, according to the Association for Graduate Recruiters. They fall short when it comes to team-working, leadership and communication skills. In interviews they can speak too loudly, too softly or in a monotone. Sometimes they dress quite wrongly - in jeans and a T-shirt, for example, when they should be wearing a suit. They find it difficult to look their interviewer in the eye, to think of things to say, sometimes even to say their name clearly. "Two-thirds of the people we see really are unprepared," says Hunting. "Students spend a lot of time, effort and money getting their GCSEs, A-levels, their degree and sometimes a very expensive postgraduate course. But they're not paying much attention to how they market or sell themselves."

All that is changing. On Tuesday this week, students at Manchester University, the UK's largest research-intensive university, were invited to attend a course in social skills given by Rachel Holland, a former independent school maths teacher and housemistress, who knows all about grooming. Thought to be the first time that undergraduates have received a lesson in how to sit, stand, walk and make small talk, the class also covered letter-writing skills and how to dress.

Today's students, it seems, do not know how to present themselves in public. Part of that may be because a larger proportion of the age group are now going to university, many from families that don't make a habit of attending formal events or making conversation in a conscious way. Part of it may simply be that contemporary youth culture emphasizes informality and being in touch with life on the street and is simply unconscious of other lifestyles. Glottal stops are the way you speak and jeans are the way you dress.

What is clear, however, is that in today's competitive job market students need to present themselves as well as they possibly can. The interview is their opportunity to impress.

"First impressions are vital," Holland told her students, who had each paid £25 out of their own pockets to attend her three-hour class. "Non-verbal signals speak volumes."

The Manchester students were given a step-by-step lesson in how to "meet and greet" an employer or a colleague at work, how to walk into a room, smile, make eye contact, and extend their hand. "Clear pronunciation is very important," says Holland.

If this sounds like a throwback to some kind of 1950s finishing school, Holland is keen to say that it isn't. As someone who was state-school educated herself and has a PGCE, she says her heart is in education. "I am not going for the top-end finishing school market," she says. "I deliver core social skills."

She is convinced, however, that the world is becoming more formal again. People are dressing up more and fish knives are coming back into fashion, she says. "Things have come full circle. Formality is returning."

She is very keen on deportment - how young people hold themselves when they enter a room. Slouching is out. So is looking shy and hugging the wall as you walk in. Many students struggle with walking into a room, she says. "It's a real skill to be able to walk in with your shoulders back and your head up and smile and look approachable. Everyone wants to curl up into a ball. But you have to project that positive image."

Holland shows them how to do it. They then copy her and have a go themselves over and over again. Soon they are getting the hang of it. Until now her company, Rachel Holland Associates, has dealt only with school children. She has worked with pupils at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset, where she taught seven- to 10-year-olds, as well as school leavers, basic manners and etiquette. And recently she has been putting the final polish to a group of Oxbridge candidates at a comprehensive, Cotswold School, in Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire.

She teaches the students what they should be wearing in different situations. When they meet a client at work, the boys should wear a lounge suite, a clean shirt and tie, she explains. For a job interview men should wear a suit, a shirt and tie, and smart shoes, preferably lace-ups. Women should wear a blouse and suit, and a heeled shoe. She tells the women not to wear black, because it symbolises death. "If you are going for interview, you need to shine and it's very hard to shine in black."

When they are invited to sit down in the interview (they should wait until invited) they should not rush into the chair and "do chicken wings" - stick their elbows out to rest on the arms of the chair. Instead, they should let they elbows fall backwards because that looks neater. Finally, she tells them about letter writing, a practice that has become almost extinct. Most people prefer to make a telephone call, send a text message or an e-mail instead of write a thank-you letter. But if you are thanking someone for inviting you to a party in connection with work, it makes much more impact to write a letter. "A phone-call can't be shown to anyone else," she says. "A letter shows that you have put effort in."

As the university that is voted the best by top companies for its careers advice, it is not surprising that Manchester has introduced this pioneering course to its campus as a pilot. Terry Dray, the university's deputy director of employability, had been Holland's careers adviser when she had been a student at Chester College. He bumped into her again. "I had been to a presentation by a City investment bank. They said, 'We are recruiting some talented individuals but, boy, are we experiencing a problem with etiquette and social behaviour,'" says Dray. "They recounted a tale of people chewing gum in a presentation."

When he met Holland again he thought that she might be just the person to develop students' self-confidence and social awareness. "Our role is to help students make the best possible transition to working life," he says. "If we find this pilot has been successful, we might do it again."

Another university that has signed up Holland is Bath, but there it is the students' union that has hired her. "I hope other universities will do this," says Felix Cohen, features editor on Bath's student newspaper. "Especially with tuition fees there's a feeling that when you leave university you have to be employable now. There's a real drive for students to differentiate themselves."

The experts are positive about the new etiquette classes. "I would encourage other universities where students don't have some of the necessary social skills to think how their careers service might help them," says Richard Brown, the director of the Council for Industry and Higher Education.

Carl Gilleard, the chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, agrees. "If you don't perform reasonably well in an interview, you are not going to land a job, particularly as there are 37 to 38 applications for every vacancy in a top company," he says. He is worried, however, that those most in need of Holland's advice won't enrol on her courses.

Margaret Dane, the chief executive of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, says that some students won't be able to afford the £25 a head. She also wonders whether three hours is long enough for the students to learn the necessary social skills.

But all agree that new classes in etiquette can do no harm and might even do some good.