From the horse’s mouth: how to impress Ireland’s graduate employers

Last week in The Gresham Hotel, Dublin, gradireland and cut-e ran a Masterclass in Graduate Recruitment for Ireland’s graduate recruiters. 85 companies were represented, eager to learn how best to target, attract and develop graduate talent within their business.

However, it wasn’t all just free breakfast rolls, networking and nice coffee – given that we had employers in the room who between them recruit well over 50 per cent of Ireland’s graduate scheme intake, we wanted to find out from them what it was that you should be doing to impress them, and feed that back to you via this blog.

This congregation of graduate recruiters may well have contained in their midst someone who could have a profound impact on your life – a decision-maker who can bin (or progress) your application for a graduate job. So we asked them what competencies they most looked for in graduate recruits, and the top 10 are listed below:

Graduate employers' graph

It’s important to note that this is a top 10 – meaning that integrity/ethics is in the top 10 of ‘most important’ characteristics – not the least important of all!

When putting together your CV or online application, or preparing for an interview or assessment centre, it is really important that you consider examples from your life/study that you can use to demonstrate these important competencies.

The more of them that you can show you have, the better your prospects of making a positive impression on this important group.

Why you shouldn’t forget about soft skills

Recently, I have been interviewing graduates employed in a range of job sectors, to learn about their experiences of entering the working world.

Many of them said that when they began their careers, they felt they lacked the soft skills that their jobs required.

A graduate engineer at RPS said, ‘My degree prepared me well for the technical side of my job, but I had to work hard to improve my soft skills such as communication’.

Soft skills are a person’s behavioural abilities or interpersonal skills, and include:

  • Communication
  • Motivation
  • Analytical skills
  • Managing your own learning
  • Problem solving
  • Confidence
  • Independent working
  • Flexibility
  • Diligence
  • Team work.

Soft skills cannot be underestimated in the workplace.  What use is a graduate who can’t communicate with colleagues, who can’t work to deadlines, and who can’t work independently?

Employers in the gradireland Graduate Salary & Graduate Recruitment Trends Survey 2012 similarly recognised the lack of soft skills in their recent graduate recruits. They agreed that the skills their graduates typically lack are communication, motivation and analytical skills.

How, then, can students in Ireland best prepare themselves for job interviews and their future careers?

In our 2012 survey, employers rated doing an internship or placement as the most effective method for developing interpersonal skills.

Yet, they also agreed that soft skills can be developed through an endless range of activities. Travelling, being involved in a university society, volunteering and doing a sport are only a few of many activities that students can enjoy, while improving their interpersonal skills. They don’t have to be developed through serious, academic means.

The message to students is this: don’t forget about your soft skills. Get involved in as many different activities at university as possible, knowing that you are enhancing your employability. A primary degree is merely the first step towards gaining a graduate job position, but interpersonal skills are what will set you apart. They are also the skills that will help you to be successful in your career and to help you progress faster up the career ladder.

It doesn’t actually matter how you’ve developed soft skills, but most importantly that you have developed them.

In interviews and applications, people tend to focus on their qualifications or specialist knowledge. By explaining how you developed a range of soft skills, you will stand out to employers, showing that you have thought about your abilities, and it will make it clear to them why they should employ you.

How not to approach a job interview

In my first gradireland blog post, I talked about keeping positive after getting really close in job interviews. Sometimes, I haven’t been close – I’ve been way off. My usual problem is that I get nervous or completely blank out. Then there are times where I mess up virtually everything.

While on holiday one year, I received a call to come for an interview. I’d applied for the position months before and had by that stage completely forgotten about it. They asked to arrange it for a certain date. This also happened to be the date I was arriving back in Ireland.

After getting off the plane at about 8:00am, I had until 12:00 to get there. I hopped on a bus into Dublin and quickly rushed to Penneys to buy a shirt and tie – the rest of the clothes in my possession were well-worn by that time. I was sans shower, but made a passing attempt to freshen up.

When eventually I arrived at the interviewers’ office, I was absolutely exhausted. I’d been unable to sleep in the airport the night before, meaning it was about 40 hours since I’d last garnered shuteye. I was whisked into a room where three people were waiting to grill me.

Panic set in. I misjudged what to do and overcompensated for my difficulties by acting too confident and constantly boasting. I also talked a little too much about my holiday and gave the infamous ‘I’m too much of a perfectionist/hardworker’ answer to the ‘what’s your greatest weakness?’ question.  It went down like a lead balloon.

I was so disorientated that by the time I left the interview, I actually thought it had gone well. My salutation to them was about how much I enjoyed it. When I woke up the following day, after about 14 hours of sleep, realisation set in and I cringed. My fears were confirmed two weeks later by a stock email.

In retrospect, I should have tried to rearrange it for a different time and prepared a little. I basically tried to wing it and you should never wing it in an interview.

The unfortunate thing about it though is that I’ve actually had worse.

Is a degree a help or hindrance for job seekers?

image of shopper

Many graduates’ first job is in retail.

There’s a lot of talk in the media these days about graduate unemployment. And we all know how hard it is to get a graduate job. So those who have spent three or four years studying may well wonder whether it was all worth it.

The brutal truth is that it’s harder still if you don’t have a degree. According to the 2012 National Skills Bulletin, published last month, employment rates are significantly higher for graduates than for those without a degree.

This is borne out by CSO figures from the 2011 census, also released in July. This records that 39 per cent of those aged 15-24 were without work in April 2011, but unemployment among young people with third-level qualifications was much lower at 18 per cent. The average rate of unemployment for those with a third level qualification (of any age) was 8 per cent compared to the 19 per cent unemployment rate for the State overall.

Figures from the National Skills Bulletin show that the lowest unemployment rate in the Republic is among older graduates. Young graduates are still likely to get work in professional occupations but a growing number are taking up lower skilled jobs, for example in retail. This suggests that although you might need to get a stop-gap job straight after graduation, your prospects are likely to improve in the long term. The report also showed that for many jobs a third-level qualification is often a prerequisite.

So what lessons can you learn from this?

Firstly, don’t listen to the gloom-mongers talking up graduate unemployment. You are still better off with a degree than without one.

Second, think of your degree as a long-term investment. It may not pay off immediately – in the sense of getting a traditional ‘graduate job’ straight away – but it will help in the future.

Third, employers do value graduates. The National Skills Bulletin also noted ‘some concern among employers that graduate emigration has begun to adversely affect the supply of skills and the labour market’.

What do Ireland’s students really think about fees, their University education and their future?

illustration of a graphThe trendence European Graduate Barometer surveys third-level students across Europe and their attitudes towards education, careers and other more general topics. It gives a unique glimpse into the thinking of Ireland’s current generation of students and contrasts it with their European peers.

This year, 5,780 Irish students completed the survey. When asked whether they thought students should pay for higher education, 16.6 per cent agreed, while the majority (62.2 per cent) disagreed. This places Ireland’s students firmly in the ‘mainland Europe’ camp, in line with French and German students’ opinions. Students in Germany and France are used to making a relatively small contribution to their undergraduate courses (although some Masters courses can cost several thousand euros). In contrast, UK students have been paying substantial fees for third-level education since the 1990’s, and yet over a third agreed that they should pay fees.

Given that the Irish government’s National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 explicitly states that ‘a new form of direct student contribution’ will be introduced to part-fund higher education, the findings suggest that a future conflict may arise between Irish students and the government. The extent, timing and nature of this ‘direct contribution’ will undoubtedly have a massive impact on the educational and social landscape of Ireland in years to come.

Given that fees will be introduced in the not-too-distant future, it is relevant to ask students whether they feel further education will equip them with the necessary skills to be successful in the labour market. 58.8 per cent of respondents from Ireland believe their course will provide them with these skills, while only 16.1 per cent disagree.

This is a positive response in comparison with our European neighbours (and competitors in an increasingly global jobs market). Only half the students surveyed across Europe believe that their course will provide them with the necessary employability skills, with this figure dropping even further to 33 per cent in Germany. This supports a finding in the recent gradireland Graduate Salary & Graduate Recruitment Trends Survey, which indicates that over 35 per cent of Ireland’s graduate employers consider Ireland’s graduates to be better prepared for employment than graduates from other countries.

Despite displaying confidence in their qualifications and ability, the trendence European Graduate Barometer reveals that Ireland’s students are highly aware of the contraction of the graduate jobs market, and are pessimistic about their future. Two-thirds of respondents stated that they were worried about their career prospects, ten per cent more than the European average.

In fact, 27 per cent of Ireland’s students believe they will have to emigrate after graduation in order to find their first professional position (this is on a par with the European average). This figure is a startling illustration of the mobility of the graduate labour market within Europe. Yet again, it highlights the challenge that the next generation of Ireland’s graduates, and indeed many students across Europe, will face to secure a good job and a bright future.