Employers want graduates to be fully prepared for the world of work says Andrew Shanahan

If there’s anyone out there who thinks that simply getting a degree is enough to make you instantly employable, those sunny delights at the Institute of Directors have some bad news. In a survey of its members, 40 per cent said that they thought graduates were unprepared for the world of work; on top of this, another report from accountancy firm KPMG found that only 9 per cent of employers said that a relevant degree was the most important thing they looked for in a candidate.

So, if a degree itself doesn’t make employers happy, what does? The answer is to be found in another survey, this time from the CBI, who discovered that the leading requirement is in fact employability skills.

“All the feedback we get from our members is that a good degree isn’t enough any more,” says Richard Wainer, head of education and skills at the CBI. “Young people have to leave university with good employability skills, too.” That’s all well and good, but just what are employability skills? “Everyone has a vague idea of what the term means, but we wanted to get a really firm idea of the concept. So, we developed a seven point framework to explain it, ”says Wainer.

“The seven areas are: self-management; team working; business and customer awareness; problem solving; communication and literacy; application of numeracy; and application of information technology.”

You might have seen these labelled as “soft skills”. But don’t let the wishy-washy term put you off: there’s hard cash on offer for those skills. As a result, universities are increasingly working with employers to make sure that employability skills make their way onto the curriculum. Schemes which teach these sorts of skills, such as Coventry University’s Add+vantage, are fast becoming a staple of undergraduate degrees. Add+vantage modules are mandatory for most undergraduates at Coventry, covering a range of essential topics: pitching for business, funding and numeracy for business.

As you might have guessed, employers are keen to get involved with preparing students for the working world. One of the most direct ways that this happens is through formalised work experience placements, and surprisingly it’s not just the big companies who are getting involved. Neil Thompson, CEO of AppSwing Limited, has been offering summer work placements for several years with the Shell Step programme, and their scheme has been highly commended by the National Council for Work Experience.

“We try to give our placement students an idea of what it’s like in a real working environment, not the sort of experiences that you would pick up pushing trolleys around at your local supermarket,” says Thompson. “We hope that undertaking a work placement will help students to develop those employability skills that prepare them for work.

“We’ve taken on students from schools as well. I’ve never really thought of it as an employer’s responsibility to do this and we don’t necessarily get anything out of it as a company, but I see it as a necessary stage of development for all of us. I did it when I was that age and I found it tremendously useful, and that’s why we provide this opportunity to develop vital skills in others.”

If you are wondering how you identify courses and universities that are particularly good for developing critical employability skills, Wainer has some simple advice. “There are two elements to ensuring your course is good for employability. The first is a case of simply asking admissions tutors how they address employability on their course. If they struggle to answer then maybe they don’t take it as seriously as you’d like; don’t forget a degree costs a lot of money so you want to make sure it equips you with the right skills.

“There are also statistics you can look at, such as the percentage of graduates from a course in employment after university. Finding out those statistics can give you an idea of how employable your course will make you.”

Case study

David Randall, 21, is doing a graduate scheme with Procter & Gamble, having finished his business managementin-company degree at Nottingham Trent University

I think there’s still value to the whole university experience, but I was very much looking at university as a stepping stone into employment. The course was great for that because it offered me a year getting that experience and then for the rest of the time I was based at Rolls Royce, learning and achieving things. Employability was ingrained in the course.

In the first year you get split into groups and you set up your own business. You’re really thrown in at the deep end: within three weeks of starting we had to register our business with Companies House! For the remaining two years you do four placements in different areas of a company. For each of those six-month placements the university supports you in developing skills in four key areas: communication, teamwork, adaptability and leadership.

Once I came to the end of the course I wanted to see how marketable my skills were, and it was very strange because the interviews were actually enjoyable! Not only could I answer all of the questions but I had examples of everything they were looking for – it got a very positive response from recruiters.

Web watch

Universities UK
Employability is covered in “Policy areas” www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policyandresearch

Find out how employable your degree is www.unistats.com

The Confederation of British Industry
The results of a report on employability www.cbi.org.uk/pdf/timewellspentbrief.pdf