Why firms are "dangerously disconnected" with graduates

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Nearly half of all recruiters are not confident that this year's graduates will have the right skills for the jobs, according to a recent survey. Employers are anticipating recruitment difficulties and will be looking for more than just academic qualifications, the research by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) found.

The number of graduate vacancies is expected to grow by 15 per cent this year, compared with five per cent in 2005, but a significant number of the 222 organisations questioned said there were not enough applicants with the right abilities.

"Employers are likely to be looking to graduates who can demonstrate softer skills such as team-working, cultural awareness, leadership and communication skills, as well as academic achievement," explains Carl Gilleard, chief executive of AGR.

Other research confirms the outlook of today's graduates as not quite up to scratch. Many British university students are incapable of composing even the most basic English sentences, according to one report by the Royal Literary Fund. The study describes the writing skills of young people at university as a public catastrophe.

Meanwhile, MP Boris Johnson has accused universities of producing people who are unable "to have a sustained conversation". Speaking earlier this year, he said, "Too many graduates are simply not ready for the workplace, and it is terrifying to discover that some of them cannot even have a sustained conversation."

But is it really fair to place all the blame on graduates and on the education system that produces them for the recruitment difficulties that employers are facing? A new report from think-tank Demos suggests not. The Working Progress: How To Reconnect Young People & Organisations study of 539 graduates and 50 FTSE HR directors, found that employers may also be culprits in the current "war for talent".

Sarah Gillinson, report author and researcher at Demos, says, "While graduates need to improve softer skills, employers need to go back to school to learn what motivates their future recruits." Unless businesses in the UK start trying to understand what makes graduates tick, she concludes, they risk alienating potential recruits.

The job market is constantly changing, as are the expectations and values of young job hunters, states the report, which was commissioned by mobile phone operator Orange. For instance, almost four in ten graduates said they had issues juggling work-life balance in their new jobs, despite it being a high priority for them. Also of major importance to today's graduates is managing the increasing levels of debt that they are leaving university with, yet few employers offer financial advice to employees. In addition, a growing number of graduates place emphasis on wanting to work for a company that fits with their personal values, yet many graduate employers still don't take corporate social responsibility seriously.

A further issue for graduates is personal development, with many complaining that despite most employers insisting on a very high skill set, they are being placed in mundane and unchallenging roles - often being left to do admin, filing or answering phones. What they really want is to be trained so they can progress.

Lynsey Thorp, 24, says she became "increasingly demoralised" when every one of her ideas at the small advertising agency she worked for were rebuffed. Having been offered a managerial position, Thorp - who graduated with a 2.1 in business management in 2004 - found herself doing pure admin. "The employer had wanted someone very skilled, yet wound up treating me almost as a school leaver. As you can imagine, I did not stay at the company very long," she says.

Her experience suggests it's not just recruitment that employers may have a problem with as a result of the gulf of misunderstanding between them and graduates - retention may also be affected.

The Demos research also reveals that graduates are unclear about which skills employers are looking for. For example, most graduates (91 per cent) say they are well prepared for the workplace, but employers have serious reservations, with just over half (54 per cent) saying it is difficult to find university leavers with the right skills. And while employers expect creativity and innovation to be the most important skill for graduates in 10 years time, graduates only ranked this as eighth in their "must-have" skills list.

Sir Digby Jones, former director general of the Confederation of British Industries, says the research is a departure from the traditional skills shortage debate. "Understanding the personal and professional needs of today's university leavers is essential for the growth of UK business, as we cannot expect employers to connect properly with graduates when they are speaking in different languages," he says.

So what is the solution? The report makes several recommendations, which are outlined at the end of this article. Margaret Danes, chief executive of Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), adds that she would like to see employers provide more opportunities for work placements. "It would enable [employers] to get to know what graduates are all about in today's society. It would also enable them to equip graduates with the commercial awareness that they're always complaining they lack. I don't mean to be belligerent, but it really is only employers who can provide that," she says.

It's easy for employers to complain about all the things they feel graduates can't do, she says. "But higher education cannot give them anything more than a theoretical foundation for the workplace. If they want graduates to be more commercially aware, then why don't they do something about it?"

AGCAS was not surprised about the research, she remarks. "Universities - and certainly, careers advisers within universities - have already picked up on what the researchers found. There has long been a feeling that students don't really understand what employers are after, and employers don't really understand graduates either."

Mike Hill, chief executive of the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (Hecsu) says he is particularly keen to see smaller employers try to "get" graduates. "If you take the big blue chip companies, you'll find a lot of them are very good because they take on large batches of graduates every year. But if you consider the companies that don't have this ongoing process, they probably find it more difficult to come to terms today's university leavers."

Employers of all sizes should return to the days of holding focus groups for this very purpose, says Carl Gilleard of AGR: "There has been fewer face-to-face meetings between employers and graduates in recent years, although we are seeing a swing back to this, which I'm very pleased about."

John Brewer, a lecturer at the University of Gloucestershire, adds that universities should play their part too - for example, by providing courses that genuinely meet employer demand: "If you take design courses, for example, you have 140,000 people graduating every year and only 6,000 jobs. Inevitably, allowing this number of courses means many employers are going to wind up disappointing graduates."

He believes that universities should also focus on providing as many skills as possible that employers are demanding. Glasgow Caledonian University is already one step ahead in this respect. To avoid the feeling that anything other than formal study is a diversion, the students' union, working alongside the university itself, has been working to establish an accredited leadership programme for students. The programme is a way for students in existing positions of leadership - such as running a society - to develop their skills as young leaders in a series of seminars and workshops.

On completion, those who have taken part in it receive a letter from the principal to show prospective employers. The programme is designed to benefit all those involved - students with a chance to pursue opportunities for their personal development (and have something to show for it), a university with a more participative student body, and employers with a pool of young people more ready for the trials, tribulations and opportunities of the workplace.

Graduates can also help bridge the gap, says Gilleard - for example, by being prepared to stick out a job for more than 18 months before giving up and moving on. "It can take a year just to learn the ropes," he says. "I'd also like to see graduates taking more responsibility for their own learning - working out for themselves how they can gain specific skills."

He would like to see young people more prepared to take criticism too. "I sometimes think that we have created a generation of young people who find it very tough to be criticised. They've often been to schools with non-competitive games, they have parents who are not directly critical of them, and I think it does create in people a way of thinking and behaving that is not really in tune with today's world of work."

The key, he says, is for all parties involved to consider what they can do to improve matters. Sir Digby Jones agrees, concluding, "For too long the issue of the skills gap has been an exercise in finger-pointing and blame-avoidance. It is time to turn this around and create a positive sum game involving employers, government, the education system and of course the graduates themselves."

CASE STUDY

Katie Pojak, 24, says that if employers don't start trying to "get" today's university leavers, they will lose out on graduates like her applying to work for them.

"My university held loads of careers conventions where major blue-chips, as well as smaller companies, were present. But I had the feeling they weren't really connecting with anyone there," explains Katie, who graduated with a 2.1 in biology in 2004. "They put a lot of effort into putting up balloons and impressive-looking stands, but when I asked them what I as a biology graduate could offer their company, they were vague. They weren't much better when it came to what they could offer me. They didn't even make it clear what roles were available."

Upon graduating, Projak was hit with further disappointment. During interviews in a range of industries, she found that employers didn't understand what motivates graduates. "For example, work-life balance is really important to us, but clearly not to them. Friends back this up, saying sometimes they don't get home until 3am,' she says.

Likewise, employers appear to have no understanding about the levels of debt that people are leaving university with, she says. "If employees offered financial advice as a perk it would attract me."

Such was the disillusionment that Projak felt that she decided to go back to university to gain further qualifications. "I don't know what else to do," she says.

WHAT'S THE SOLUTION?

The Demos report, commissioned by Orange, makes several recommendations to improve the connection between employers and young people:

* The Government should introduce a Skills Portfolio, to help capture some of the learning, skills and aptitudes that are often not reflected in the more traditional qualifications.

* Schools should hold termly equivalents of "parents" evenings' for local businesses and community organisations.

* The Government should support the introduction of an Investors in Community accreditation for businesses, to encourage and recognise businesses' contributions to the wider community.

* Universities should draw on the work being done at universities like Glasgow Caledonian University and MIT-Cambridge to embed transferable, work-based skills into the curriculum.

* Companies should hold entrance interviews and skills audits for young people entering their organisations.

* Employers should treat work-life balance as a skill, if company policies are to be workable in practice. Employers should provide specialist training in this skill and monitor progress as part of performance appraisals.

* Employers should provide recruits with advice and guidance on issues such as student debt and accommodation.

* Companies and graduates should work together to create an open access resource that allows young people to build their own development programmes.

* Organisations should find ways to support the peer-to-peer networks, both inside and outside their walls, that young people rely on and value so highly when they enter organisations.

* Companies should consider organising themselves into networks, offering short-term "skills development" contracts for new graduates, involving placements in a number of different companies or institutions.

Comments