Play sport? Think about how you enabled your team to do better to make yourself a stronger candidate in the future

From her first day studying accountancy and finance at the University of Greenwich, Siobhan Shum was aware that she needed to acquire what are known as soft skills.

“I was encouraged to think about developing my CV and gaining work experience, so I made use of the employability office in the business school and joined the passport scheme which gives you points for extra-curricular activities,” Shum says.

Not content with that, she undertook a placement with the NHS at the end of her second year and signed up for a mentoring scheme with Barclays in her final year. “I would definitely advise students to think about employability from day one,” she says.

It worked for Shum: she has just landed a plum job with Barclays and believes that is down to the self confidence she developed at university.

Soft skills such as communicating well, presenting yourself confidently in interviews and in public speaking, getting along with others in teams, managing your time, being adaptable and being able to make decisions and solve problems are considered essential nowadays by employers.

It is vital for graduates to stand out from the crowd, according to the entrepreneur and former Dragons’ Den investor James Caan who is heading a new campaign led by McDonald’s UK to emphasize the importance of acquiring soft skills.

“When you interview graduates they tend to be a bit much the same,” says Caan, who has neither A-levels nor a degree but got where he is by the use of soft skills. “They all have 2:1s. The people who stand out for me are those who can talk about what they have done and what they can do.”

For Caan it is important that potential employees are good time keepers and can communicate well both orally and in writing. Rather than standing in a huddle at networking events, they should be confident enough to circulate and talk to people from different backgrounds.

In addition, employers want to hire team-players. “If they played sports, I would like to know how they added value and enabled their team to do better,”  he says.

A lot of people have soft skills in them, Caan believes. But they simply can’t articulate them. In other words, they are not aware of the importance and value of them.

“There is a direct correlation between your understanding of the importance of soft skills and your self-confidence, work ethic and attitude,” he says.

You can’t teach such skills. Young people learn them by experience and by having their eyes opened. “These are life skills,” says Dave Sherlock-Jones, general manager of the students’ union at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London.

“I would advise students to join several societies when they go to university. If you like sport, join a sports team. It is always worth taking a risk, so do something you are not entirely comfortable with.

“Throw yourself into drama. Challenge yourself a bit, otherwise you end up doing what you know already.”

There are different ways of developing soft skills: you can follow Siobhan’s example and sign up for employment-focused initiatives at university or you can join societies and clubs and take part in volunteering.

“Grades will get you on a long list for a job if you are lucky but what gets you an interview is what you are like and who you are,” says David Goodhew, headmaster of Latymer Upper School in London.

“Anything that gives you the opportunity to develop initiative is good. Rowing, for example, will teach you time management and self-discipline – and, of course, rowers don’t know the meaning of pain. Legal firms who need their recruits to work all night might like that.”

Increasingly universities are developing sophisticated ways to help students develop their soft skills with an eye to getting them ahead in the job market.

Greenwich is one. Coventry is another: its Advantage scheme offers a suite of courses to enable students to gain work-related skills.

The University of Leicester has a new career development service that takes students on a career journey via its  new website.

“You need to explore who you are and become familiar with the words that employers use and how they test for skills,” says Bob Athwal, Leicester’s director of student experience.

“Once you understand the skills you need, you need to acquire them and hone them. Then you can start to think about the industries you might want to work in.”

The University of East Anglia (UEA) goes to great lengths to encourage students to undertake extracurricular activities. “It’s about maximizing the richness of their time at university,” says head of careers James Goodwin. “They will have fun doing them and will learn a lot.”

UEA is launching an award whereby students are given credit for their activities and at the end receive a certificate. The message to students is: get involved from day one to set yourselves up for a job on graduation.