Following our blog post last week on the ‘work readiness’ of Ireland’s graduates, this week we return to the AHECS Biennial conference and report on observations from employers on how students and graduates can help themselves in this regard.
As we know from our surveys of graduate employers, work experience is the key to building employability skills in the eyes of Ireland’s graduate employers. This was reiterated at the conference, particularly the importance of having worked in a customer-facing environment.
One very large graduate recruiter stated that one of their key selection criteria is that a candidate must have a minimum of three months’ work experience in a customer-facing role. This is because they use competency-based interviews and, in their experience, students without work experience are unable to succeed at interview unless they have real-world experience with which to frame their answers. Competency-based interviews are popular with many employers so this is an important consideration.
Students were urged to research both their potential sectors of work and their prospective employers, to ensure they are both ‘employer ready’ and ‘work ready’. Students should not make the mistake of applying for the graduate programmes of companies who may be courting their class or prominent on their campus simply because of their high profile. It’s all too easy to apply for a well-known sector or company without fully thinking through the implications of your choice. You must be able to demonstrate that you have a very clear understanding of what that company does, and that you share these interests and have a clear desire to work in that sector. If you haven’t done your research, then, regardless of your academic record, the chances are that you will be unsuccessful in your application.
Relevant work experience is key to this, as it demonstrates that you have ‘road tested’ either the sector, the company or both. It can also help you by-pass the increasingly rigid minimum criteria. Many graduate programmes stipulate a minimum 2:1 entry criteria, but a leading electronics firm on the panel described how this year the company hired a significant number of graduates with a 2:2. This was either because they had completed an internship with the company (and so were known to them), or because through other work placements they could demonstrate their interest in and passion for the sector. Equally, candidates who could show their communication skills and had experience of working in a team were sometimes seen as more credible candidates than those with better academic qualifications.
The general truism is that your qualification will get you the interview but your skills will get you the job. An addendum to that now is that a relevant co-op placement or work experience can make you ‘work ready’ and considerably enhance your employability.
Our partners, the Association of Higher Education Careers Services (AHECS) held their Biennial conference last week in Limerick, and it was a great opportunity to hear some of the current debates around graduate employment.
The sessions included speakers from the HEA and Forfas, as well as a range of national, regional and local graduate employers including HP, KPMG and Northern Trust.
One recurring theme was the question of whether Irish graduates should be ‘work-ready’, and what is the role of universities in making this happen. The current rhetoric at policy level suggests that this is an important plank in the country’s economic recovery, but there were some dissenting voices – as well as some interesting debate about what ‘work-ready’ actually means.
Part of being ‘work-ready’ is about having employability skills, something that AHECS has long supported. Employability, at its most basic, is the awareness of how to contribute in a workplace, for example, having the street wisdom and confidence that result from a long-term, relevant work placement and the problem-solving skills to apply your knowledge in the real world.
One recruiter suggested that graduates needed to be ‘employer-ready’: having thought early enough about what they really want from a job and having done the research to understand what a specific job involves. ‘Know what you want BEFORE you get to the interview.’
Another aspect of being ‘work-ready’ is supplying the expertise to fill the current skills gaps – being ‘industry-ready’ – and this proved more controversial. While basic skills are important, industry needs will continue to change and part of being a competitive economy means being adaptable. ‘Lifelong learning’ then becomes as important as what you have learned at university.
One argument is that innate ability is more important than specific modules that may appear to be relevant to the job. With a basic grounding – regardless of content – knowledge can build over time. The value of well-rounded graduates who can find their niche later is, after all, the rationale for the tradition of the rotational graduate training scheme.
That opened the debate on how much employers can reasonably expect from new starters at graduate level. One view from the careers service side was that it is unrealistic for employers to expect graduates to be ready for action immediately – again, a rationale for graduate training schemes. The employers present tended to agree, with one commenting: ‘We hire for attitude and train for skills.’
Another question about employer expectations was around the emphasis put on academic achievement. Some recruiters could be losing out on good candidates by insisting only on higher grades, meaning that those with a 2:2. never get past the initial selection phase. Derek Daly, outgoing President of the University of Limerick Students’ Union, pointed out that a lower grade may be simply because a student has to work their way through college. This work will arguably improve their employability skills, possibly at the expense of a 2:1. This example highlights the dichotomy between qualifications and skills that faces both graduates and employers.
He also provided some anecdotal evidence that not all graduate employers actually make the most of the talent that they recruit. Speaking on behalf of the graduates, he made the provocative point: ‘I’m not sure that all employers are graduate-ready.’