Employer Branding

Are Graduates *Really* Not Skilled Enough?

You probably saw many articles circulating, quoting a press release from the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) reporting that half of graduate employers believe graduates are not skilled enough.

Do graduate employers genuinely believe that graduates aren’t ready for work, or is this just a sensational headline? We speak to talented and bright graduates and students every single day, we were therefore curious about the claim and wanted to investigate further.

So, are graduates skilled enough to enter the jobs market?

Yes, and also no…

Steve Agace, director of Graduate Recruitment at GRB says:

“The headline here should really be: ‘Any young person won’t have all the skills they need to be good at a job’ or ‘graduates will never be the finished article.”

You go to university to get a degree, which is essentially knowledge. As a student, there is a choice to be made: spread your time thinly, pursuing extra-curricular activities in the hope to become well-rounded for the future, or dedicate your time entirely to your studies. There is therefore a trade-off between knowledge and real-life experience. If you want a graduate to get the best grade possible, isn’t it unrealistic to expect them to also have commercial awareness or negotiating skills too?

Looking at the data…

We found a breakdown of the ‘skills gap’ from the recent AGR Selection & Assessment Trends survey, which shows a clear divide in the commercial skills employers want, and the more academic skills that graduates actually have. The data presented for the latter three skills show very little gap between the employer’s expectation and the reality, as Teamwork, Inter-Personal Skills and Problem-Solving are all part and parcel of going to university and getting a degree.

On the other hand, the five ‘commercial’ skills (Managing Up, Dealing with Conflict, Negotiating/Influencing, Commercial Awareness and Business Communication) are quite clearly skills that you learn on the job. No employer should expect a graduate to come out of university with these skills unless they’ve undergone work experience, or perhaps studied a degree in Business. And even then, they’re probably not that good at influencing people or business communication, because they’re still an entry-level employee.

Now of course there are going to be those select few graduates that have it all, and land a job with a huge corporation, with an amazing salary and excellent benefits. But that’s an example of the crème de la crème, and there are a finite amount of ‘super’ graduates out there. But are you fishing in that pond? There are hundreds and thousands of graduates with other skills that could be beneficial to your company, so we encourage you to be a little more open-minded and hire on potential. If everyone you hire had 100% of the skills needed in the role, you would have a very bored workforce. Look for the employees that can “stretch” in the right direction and become the full package.

What were you like as a fresh graduate? Most of us would accept that we had very few of the ‘commercial’ skills quoted in the AGR survey when we left university, but learnt them whilst working. It’s far better to see graduates as excellent raw material with great base level knowledge that you can mould to behave in a way that suits the company and employer. The good news is a graduate is unlikely to have bad working habits which, as you know, can be very difficult to retrain.

How do students and graduates feel about the skills gap?

Deanna Noble, a Business Management student at the University of Brighton, weighed in. On top of her degree, she recently completed a Project Management Industrial Placement Year at Transport for London. We questioned whether her placement year was important to her graduate job hunt, and how this affected her final year of her degree.

“Choosing to go on a placement to complement my degree was always something I knew I needed,” she explains, and this year in industry has not only given her “skills and knowledge of real business scenarios, but also personal confidence.” In terms of academic performance, “before my placement I was attaining marks in the low 2:1s (60%) but since being back, I have not attained anything below a 1st (70%).” However, despite all this experience and personal growth, Noble and others in her position are still struggling to find graduate work; “the bar is set extremely high, even for those of us with placements.”

Clarification of the facts…

We spoke to Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive of the AGR. He clarified for us:

“Half the graduates that employers are looking at don’t have the right skills. 20-25% of the graduates that these graduate employers hire are considered ‘skills deficient’. That doesn’t mean to say they don’t have skills, but not the skills employers expected.” He also maintains that “half of all employers don’t fill their graduate vacancies,” so there is quite clearly a mismatch between unemployed graduates and unfilled graduate vacancies.

When asked whether he thinks it is fair for these companies to think this way, he agrees, but argues the point that graduate recruiters aren’t expecting graduates to be “oven ready.” There is a lot that can be done, he explains, for example, by employers in terms of training and development, and by schools and universities in preparing and/or encouraging students to seek work experience.

So what do we need to do?

“Invest in development in schools,” explains Isherwood as “the balance isn’t right”. This skills gap has been brought about by “not enough access to careers skills”, or at least “a way to articulate these skills to employers”. More support is needed along the entire “supply chain” (school-university-work) in order to ready university students for the world of work.

Furthermore, companies should embrace placement and internship schemes, as these not only allow for a ‘try before you buy’ scenario for both parties, but you are helping more graduates widen their skill sets, in exchange for hard work, and quite honestly, a lower salary.

By Lizzi Hart

Lizzi Hart is a Linguistics graduate from the University of Sussex and a Marketing Executive at the Graduate Recruitment Bureau. She has had work published through the Guardian, the Independent, Metro, The Huffington Post and Elite Daily.