Graduate+: The skilling fields

No more cushy on-the-job training - graduates today must contribute from the outset. By Philip Schofield
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The Independent Online
Graduate recruitment was once the preserve of the large blue-chip companies, the professions and the higher grades of the civil service. Most graduates joined management training schemes as `high flyers'. However, now that 31 per cent of school leavers enter higher education, and company restructuring has eliminated many management jobs, graduates are no longer an elite.

Many of today's newly qualified graduates are hired by small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) directly into jobs where they are expected to contribute from the outset. Moreover, the majority of traditional graduate recruiters now have similar expectations for most of their vacancies.

The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) has now grown to 524 member organisations, 82 joining in the past year. In recent years it has consistently stressed the need for newly qualified graduates to have some "transferrable core work skills" which will enable them to fit into jobs easily and quickly. This theme was reiterated at this year's annual AGR conference held at Warwick University from 7-9 July.

During the past year the AGR, with the Department for Education and Employment and the Council for Industry and Higher Education, commissioned a research study into the views of employers and recent graduates "to identify the nature and extent of the knowledge, abilities and skills that graduates will need if they are to be successful at work". Professor Lee Harvey, the study's principal author, described his findings to the conference.

In delayered, downsized, IT-driven, innovative organisations there is likely to be less and less time for new recruits to get up to speed, he said. Employers now seek a range of attributes: the intellect to analyse, critique and synthesise; knowledge, especially of basic principles; an ability and willingness to learn; flexibility, adaptability and the ability to pre-empt and lead change; self-regulatory skills such as self-discipline and the ability to juggle priorities; self-activation; and self-assurance.

Professor Harvey said the most important skills sought by employers were communication, team working and interpersonal skills. The study found that employers and recent graduates agree that a degree course does not prepare people for work. Younger students, except those who have had a significant work placement during their course, leave university with little idea of the nature and culture of the workplace and initially find it hard to adjust. Professor Harvey and his co-author argue that if there is a single recommendation which emerges from the research, it is to encourage all undergraduate programmes to offer students the option of a year-long work placement, and urge employers to be less reluctant to provide placement opportunities.

Kate Orebi Gann of Marks & Spencer developed some of the findings in a workshop. She pointed out that employers want graduates who are initially adaptive, recruits who bring knowledge and skills into the organisation and who can work in a team and fit into the culture. As recruits gain experience they are expected to become adaptable, using their ability to learn and use their knowledge and skills to respond to change. Ultimately, employers want transformative employees who can anticipate and lead change through the use of higher level skills such as analysis, critique, synthesis and multi-layered communication.

Several speakers and delegates made the point that students often fail to recognise they have acquired `transferrable' skills. Helping in a family business, captaining a sports team, working in the student union bar, doing voluntary work and many other activities develop work-related skills. Experience valued by employers - such as teamworking, customer service, leadership and commercial awareness - is often omitted from application forms or treated in a way which shows that the student didn't learn from the experience.

The findings of a study into the experiences and career aspirations of over 5,000 final year students at 21 UK universities were presented in another workshop. This survey, conducted and described by Kate Purcell and Jane Pitcher of the Institute for Employment Research at Warwick University, showed that students are realistic in what they believe employers expect of them.

However, students and careers advisers were critical of the conservative recruitment policies of many employers. Many employers seem unaware that a large number of graduates today are mature students, often with significant work experience, and many enter university with non-traditional qualifications. Many employers still set the maximum entry age at 23 or 24, and many use A-level results as a filtering mechanism. This means that late developers and those who had come into higher education by non-standard routes are in danger of being excluded before they can enter the graduate appointment lists, whatever their degree performance.

These recruitment policies were also criticised by both Professor Harvey and Mrs Orebi Gann, the latter also noting that even where mature students are taken on, the literature and information given to careers services does not always say so. This is especially the case where employers are recruiting at local level rather than for group high-flyer training schemes.

The conference saw the release of the summer update of the annual Graduate Salaries and Vacancies survey conducted by the Institute of Employment Studies for the AGR. This shows that the forecast median starting salary will be pounds 15,500, up 3.3 per cent on 1996. Vacancies are up 18.2 per cent on last year and a quarter of AGR members anticipate a shortfall against their recruitment targets. A substantial proportion face problems filling posts in IT, various engineering areas, finance, science and research and development. The largest gap between skill needs and supply relates to interpersonal skills, initiative and proactivityn

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