With employability skills the key to a first job, more courses are including them, says Steve McCormack

There used to be a time, a few decades back, when anyone with a degree could more or less guarantee to walk into a job: perhaps not their dream job, but certainly something to get started in the world of employment. But as more young people started to go to university, that certainty began to recede, and we approached the stage where a Masters level qualification was regarded as the minimum requirement to secure that first job.

Now, however, the reality is that, even a sheaf of academic qualifications does not guarantee automatic entry to employment. Graduates, however well qualified, also need to have to be able to demonstrate a set of what are called employability skills to show they can hit the ground running in the workplace. These include all-round communication skills, the ability to work in a team, and be a self-starter, to be versatile and have a creative approach to problems.

The need for universities to pass these skills on to students has been spotted by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), the government agency charged with raising the workplace skill levels of the population as a whole. In a recent report it bemoaned the fact that too many universities and colleges neglected to teach employability skills or, for funding or capacity reasons, found it difficult to develop them.

UKCES has called on all education institutions to put employability skills at the heart of almost everything they do, whatever the academic discipline.

But the good news, for prospective students, is that there are already plenty of universities where great strides have been made in this very direction.

"Across the board, for each course we are trying to put employability skills as part of the experience," says Sarah Juillet, director of postgraduate careers, at Cass Business School, part of London's City University.

Cass runs a range of specialist Masters courses, each aimed at a niche business sector, as well as a general management MSc for the student still to decide which area to target. "For each of our courses we have an advisory board, of professionals from the business sector corresponding to the course content," says Juillet, "and they talk to us a lot about the importance of these skills."

Every student on a Cass course has a "relationship manager" within the Cass careers department, who guides the student through a programme of sessions designed to land a job, and thrive once a job has started.

Topics covered include the art of cold-calling, something not only useful in the pursuit of job interviews, but also in carrying out the duties of a job itself. Likewise, the "influencing and persuading sessions" at Cass try to give students these soft skills that they can deploy once in a job, as well as in the job search.

"These skills are very important because it's not like 20 years ago when most masters students came with a view to moving on to a PhD," says Andrew Clare, associate dean with responsibility for all postgraduate programmes at Cass. "Today, they want to get the background that will help them get a job."

One ever-present way of bringing a real working environment atmosphere to Cass students is to insist that all coursework is done in groups, frequently placing students with peers they don't really know, and who come from another part of the world.

These skills are also shooting up the agenda of course designers at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) Business School, which runs undergraduate and postgraduate courses in a range of specific business areas, including marketing, HR, creative advertising and internet retailing.

"We are working hard to improve developing employability skills, particularly via internships with real businesses," says Dr Mary Meldrum, head of postgraduate programmes at MMU, "and our approach is always to combine the practical with the theoretical. For example, on the MA in international public relations, students have to devise a media campaign and do a real project with what's called a 'live client'."

And Kieran Maguire, who lectures on accounting and finance at MMU, says the days are gone when university could be considered a purely mind-expanding experience. Employment prospects have to assume central importance. "We're in the process of re-organising our course to ensure that employability is embedded in every unit," he says. "We have to ensure that our students' IT skills are high quality, which means can they move from presenting on a spreadsheet to verbal presentations."

In addition, a large number of assessments in the business school have an element of group work, with each member of the group taking on a real role that exists in the real workplace.

"Some of the students don't like this in the first place," says Maguire, "because they realise that in a team you have shirkers and you have workers, and they feel that, because they're being assessed as a group, their marks might be dragged down by the shirkers. But when they get outside university, they realise that this happens in real life too and that it is an important skill to have to be able to work with people like this and not let it affect your business performance."

At the University of Plymouth's Business School, all undergraduate and postgraduate programmes are shaped with a keen eye on the CBI's graduate-skills framework, which highlights key employability skills, including communication, application of IT, numeracy and literacy, team working and business awareness. For the school's associate dean, Hilary Duckett, presentation skills are particularly important: "We use every opportunity we can to engage students' presentation skills in a real setting. We find that it galvanises their capabilities when they have to make presentations to real clients."

And, given the increasing competition among universities for fee-bearing students, Duckett concedes that stressing the employability credentials of courses is essential these days.

"This has always been relevant for business school, but now it is increasingly important, and it is part of the sell to potential students."

'I learnt some quick lessons in office etiquette'

Thomas McKenna, 24, works for the management consultancy Dunnhumby, having last year completed a business MSc, branded as the Manchester Masters, at Manchester Metropolitan University.

"The course is based on real business experience, rather than textbook learning, and apart from spending two or three days in a lecture theatre right at the start of the course, the whole year is spent out on placement with real firms, with the business-school tutor coming out to see you there.

There are four three-month placements, each one in a slightly different business role. My first was working on a marketing strategy at a company looking into setting up a Manchester lottery. Then I went to a property developer, working on a communications strategy to reach consumers. Third was with a design agency looking at how they could use social media more effectively. And finally I went to a PR agency, where my placement had an HR focus, coming up with the ideal recruitment and training process to reduce staff turnover.

In that one year, I learnt more than I had done in four years of my undergraduate course. The thing I got out of my Masters year most was the art of networking: how to talk to people, how to flex your style according to who you are talking to; when to try to present something and when to listen; and I also learnt some quick lessons in office etiquette. These things seem straightforward, but until you can implement something in a real setting, you don't really learn it."

'My workplace skills were developed by my course placement'

Abbie Thomas, 23, is an HR advisor at the Vauxhall van plant in Luton, a job she went into after finishing a four-year sandwich course BA in business studies at the University of Plymouth Business School.

"Helping us pick up general employability skills was a massive priority for the university, which is why they gave us so much support. They stressed that you needed real life experience if you wanted to get a job. In the second year, building up to our placements, we had careers lectures in CV skills and interview techniques, and we had sessions talking to the students who'd just returned from their placements .But the main thing that helped me develop the workplace skills was the placement itself, which for me was in an HR role at Hays Recruitment in Bath. The nature of that position meant I had to do lots of cold calling, make sales pitches and hold business meetings, which is a difficult situation for an undergraduate to be put in, but it means you have to develop confidence, and I'm really grateful now that I had to do it.

I couldn't have imagined looking for a job without that on my CV. In our final year, when we returned from our placements, our lecturers used to bring in external speakers from businesses to talk to us about the workplace skills that employers look for. I remember that happened particularly on the module I did on organisational leadership."

'You must be proactive in seeking out employability skills'

Thomas Lynch, 29, last year completed a one-year MBA at the University of Leicester School of Management, a course he undertook after a 10-year career in the Royal Navy as a radio communications technician.

"The university laid on lots of courses and workshops that addressed general employability skills, such as how to write CVs and how to behave in interview situations. I also remember attending an event called Tomorrow's Managers, where the university got in representatives from some of the biggest names in business. This was a skills workshop where we worked in groups – like a mini Apprentice programme – for two days, and always with a representative from one of the companies overseeing us.

I went to as many of these events and workshops as I could, despite the fact that I was also working for a local engineering firm as well as putting in 25 hours a week on the MBA. However, I noticed that lots of my fellow MBA students, and lots of the other students eligible to attend these events, did not bother doing so. I think whatever programmes universities lay on in the employability skills area, it is still up to the students to be proactive and to show desire to be employed in as many ways as possible. For example, the job I am now in is with a company that came along to the university for a recruitment event that was very poorly attended. I was one of only two people there. And now, two years on, having worked elsewhere, I am in this job."