Are Irish graduates work-ready?Posted: June 14, 2012
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.’