Carl Gilleard: Only by adding softer skills to their repertoire will graduates gain an edge

If the thought of graduate debt is making you consider whether it is worth going to university, it is useful to remember that employers see graduates as adding real value to their organisations.

The AGR Winter Survey 2006 - which surveyed 222 of our members - some of the UK's biggest employers of graduates - predicted a rise in vacancies and salaries for graduates entering the job market this year, indicating that the market is as buoyant as ever. Recruiters are using increasingly competitive methods to recruit the best, illustrating how important they perceive a degree to be. For example, our survey showed that 37 per cent of employers were intending to award graduates with a lump sum payment (an average of £2,000) when they sign on. The survey also predicted a median starting salary of £23,000 for graduates starting in a graduate level job in 2006, which is significantly higher than that for the average school leaver.

But it is not all about academic achievement. It is essential that students make the most of their time at university - increasingly these days, a degree alone is not enough. In today's highly competitive job market it is crucial that UK students make themselves as employable as possible through a combination of both academic and softer skills.

There are several attributes that employers perceive graduates bring to an organisation, which is often referred to as "added value", including: * Motivation - investing heavily with time, effort and money to gain a degree illustrates a worthwhile commitment by a graduate

* Maturity - in addition to their academic studies, by going to university a person will gain more independence and cultural awareness, making them more desirable for graduate level positions

* Work experience - although financial worries are a bane for many students, the upside is that many will have experience of part-time or temporary employment which many school-leavers will not. Although many students may not perceive working in a bar or shop as useful for the future, vital skills such as financial and time management and communication skills are often acquired.

* Potential - in a recent survey, Graduates in the Eyes of Employers 2005, (The Guardian and Work Communications) 88 per cent of those surveyed saw "future potential" as the key reason for hiring graduates. It is assumed that graduates can adapt easily to corporate culture and skills base required in more senior positions. And 49 per cent of those surveyed said they had a current board/senior management team member who had started on the graduate scheme, showing how these schemes are still a route to the top in many companies.

* Intellectual quality - going to university demonstrates a willingness to study and this will help those going into positions where continued study is required. Studying for a degree teaches you to learn quickly, reflect on what you have learnt and apply it which is a key skill in employment.

* Skills - studying for a degree often requires skills such as time management and an eye for detail. In addition, softer skills gained are becoming more valuable in future careers - such as team working, communication and leadership skills. Earlier this year, Manchester University students attended a workshop on social skills, including how to "meet and greet" an employer and it is likely that other universities will soon follow.

* Adaptability - flexibility is a key attribute learnt while at university - many students will have to balance studies with part-time work, sports and so on, as well as many experiencing the change of moving away from home. Although these may sound basic, learning to adapt to different situations will put you in good stead for a new job which may involve travelling and balancing work with home life.

Graduate recruitment schemes - as well as offering competitive salaries - are far more likely to offer other benefits than direct entry methods. Benefits may include excellent training packages, the ability to move across departments within an organisation and learn different skills as well as a chance to meet other people who may be at the same life stage as you and share similar interests. And in terms of personal perks - graduate positions are more likely to offer performance-related bonuses, good pension schemes and private healthcare as well as assistance for further study.

If you do decide to go to university it is important to live university life to the full. Making the most of the experiences will be vital for your success - not just at university but in the workplace and in life. Embrace the opportunities to explore new activities, meet new people and build your self-confidence. In today's competitive world you need much more than just qualifications.

Carl Gilleard is chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters

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