Graduate Employability

Employability uncovered

In this section you can find information on:

What qualities do employers expect?

All jobs require an employee to have certain skills and attributes that enable them to do their work properly and effectively. Graduate jobs in particular are conspicuous in their need for such qualities. To be truly employable, the graduates who fill these jobs should be capable of doing not only their own job, but at least a hundred others besides. They must possess a portfolio of skills such that they are flexible enough to adapt to any number of roles and situations.

As well as the standard qualities such as:

  • work experience;
  • degree classification;
  • A-level grades (or equivalent);
  • computing/IT skills;
  • and numeracy

Employers also look for a number of other attributes, such as:

  • verbal and written communication skills;
  • enthusiasm;
  • personal/transferable skills;
  • self-reliance;
  • and problem solving.

You may be thinking, 'Fine, but what is problem solving? Does enthusiasm mean what I think it does? I can talk, but is that the same as good verbal communication skills?' And you would be right to ask these questions. Too often do such concepts receive mere lip service, glossing over their true meaning and significance in favour of simplistic rhetoric. To get to the bottom of employability, you should take some time to think about what these sometimes abstract skills and qualities actually mean and how you can demonstrate to a potential employer that you possess these skills.

How can I develop my employability at university?

Broadly speaking, we can break the many employability development opportunities of the higher education experience into three:

  1. The chance to learn subject-specific and vocational skills. Many careers require that you have certain, often practical, skills and knowledge before you start working e.g. medicine, engineering and teaching.  Therefore, by pursuing these careers and degrees you will automatically develop specific skills with minimal additional effort
  2. The chance to develop general, softer employability qualities. There is a whole range of less tangible qualities that are applicable to all careers that are not as easy to spot on a CV, nor develop, as the skills from the more vocational degrees mentioned above.  Such qualities include: communication, teamworking, problem solving, etc.  Taking a university degree in itself will help you to develop some of these qualities, as will some of the additional activities that go on at universities and colleges
  3. The chance to get to know and understand yourself. While it should be easy to understand your motivations, ambitions, strengths, weaknesses, etc. it is actually surprisingly difficult.  Fortunately, going to university or college will shape this understanding and students will come to know their likes and dislikes, and will find friends who share these views.

How can university affect my employability?

In a perfect world, the university you attend would make no difference to your subsequent employability. In this kind of world, a 2:1 in English from the University of Oxford would mean exactly the same as a 2:1 in English from Manchester Metropolitan University. Of course, in reality, this is not the case.

For the right or wrong reasons, there is a hierarchy of universities and colleages, largely based on tradition but also on particular strengths and weaknesses, which moves employers to favour certain institutions and reject others. Regardless of whether or not it is a legitimate recruitment practice, the truth is that courses do vary a great deal between institutions. Different syllabuses, teaching staff, facilities, levels of student support and so on mean that the defining characteristic of a university degree course tends not to be the subject but the institution.

But why will the university you attended make such a difference to your future employability? It might help to break the general concept of employability into two: actual employability and perceived employability. Actual employability is the collection of skills and qualities that an employable individual has about them. While it is largely down to the specific person, individual universities have differing effects on your actual employability because they each have their own unique set of characteristics. By way of example, consider the following factors:

  • Course content - some institutions choose to emphasise the vocational/employability elements of a degree in their course content, e.g. a work placement.
  • Clubs and societies - there are many ways in which you can develop your employability while having fun. The Oxbridge institutions, for example, pride themselves on the many hundreds of committed clubs and societies that can potentially provide a valuable network of contacts.

Perceived employability is the element of employability that is largely out of your hands, otherwise known as 'reputation' and it is defined by the beliefs and opinions of employers of your institution. These opinions/judgements can be based on traditional views, league tables and personal experience, either first-hand because the employer has studied there, or from employing other graduates from the university.

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