'Whatever you learn, learn about yourself'

December 13, 2002

Employers offer advice on how graduates can impress in job interviews. Alison Utley reports

Some £100 million has been spent over the past decade on graduate employability but companies still complain about the quality of graduates, according to Peter Hawkins of Liverpool University. They are unhappy because, despite the cash, government pressure and numerous initiatives, many believe universities are neglecting the employability factor.

Mr Hawkins of Liverpool's Graduate into Employability Unit told a conference of careers advisers last month that the mismatch between what companies wanted and what they got from graduate recruits was as real today as ever. "Something must have gone very wrong," he said.

But what, exactly, do employers expect and how can universities help them get it? After all, almost half of all new graduates seeking work have yet to make up their mind about what career they want.

"Behaviours, not knowledge, are what employers are seeking," said Paul Farrer, managing director of the Graduate Recruitment Company. He stressed that firms needed competences rather than degrees. He cited as examples of "how not to get a job" three recent graduates who, at interview, asked what the employer did. "Preparing for the interview is the most basic requirement for landing a job, but we are amazed at how often graduates fail to do this," he said.

Julie Williams, graduate recruitment manager at Thames Water, said: "Major faux pas happen all the time in interviews - at least they could pretend to be enthusiastic." Asked why he wanted the job, one applicant said: "I was really keen to work for BP but I didn't get through so I applied to you."

Another said his girlfriend lived in Reading so he'd like to be based there too - hardly the commitment Thames Water was hoping for.

Leadership is another scarce commodity, according to Kate Aspinwall, education liaison manager at Tesco. "We really don't see much in the way of leadership skills among new graduates who we need to be able to demonstrate natural presence and the will to succeed."

Other vital attributes include self-sufficiency, innovation, teamworking and brave thinking. "We need people who have helicopter vision, who can rise above everything to see the whole picture," Ms Aspinwall said, adding that her company also looked for "drive, empathy, adaptability, communication skills... definitely not indecision".

But isn't this asking too much of someone who has just spent three or four years immersed in history, physics or media studies and is making a first tentative step on the careers ladder? Ms Aspinwall said not, because many job-seekers had simply not taken the trouble to link valuable skills acquired through everyday activities, academic or otherwise.

"We are surprised how often people dismiss the experience they have gained as 'just a Saturday job', or 'just bar work'. They need to be working out how to harness that experience to make it relevant."

Or, as the personnel manager of clothes retailer Next said: "It is far more important to understand yourself than your subject while at university."

Having a degree is just the starting point. Sir Geoffrey Holland, former director of the Manpower Services Commission and vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, told the conference that graduate careers were no longer a straightforward line of progression in which employers were the principal sponsor.

"Graduates need to be able to manage their own career development and be able to move from project to project," he said.

In the UK, unlike mainland Europe, there is a substantial "any discipline" job market. More than 50 per cent of all vacancies are open to graduates of any discipline. The danger, according to Sir Geoffrey, is that graduates are becoming more specialist in their choice of degree. "This closes down the world rather than opening it up," he warned.

Recruiting a graduate is an expensive business - up to £15,000 for the selection process alone, according to research in From Learning to Earning . The report, produced by Trotman Publishing, contains a survey of 200 diverse employers - including the BMW Group, Logica, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Canvas Holidays - which rank the qualities they most seek in graduate recruits. Top of the league is verbal communication, closely followed by enthusiasm and written communication skills. Problem-solving ability, numeracy, business awareness and group working also rank highly.

Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, stressed that graduates must be able to demonstrate their skills to employers since there is little point in possessing skills if you are unable to show that you have them during the recruitment and selection process.

"There are those who claim it is unreasonable of employers to have such high expectations, to which I respond that employers who spend vast sums in recruiting and developing graduates want to be as sure as possible that they will get a good return on their investment. The age of the graduate who can hit the ground running is here to stay," Mr Gilleard said.

One student 'hits the workplace running'
Alexandra Davies, 21, is in the final year of a BA in English language and literature at the University of Leeds and is planning a career in public relations. She has already developed contacts in PR and has researched career opportunities. "I have had to take the initiative myself, but I think that's a good thing as I have learned so much along the way," she said.

Ms Davies already has an impressive amount of relevant work experience under her belt. "A six-week placement with APCO/GCI in Hong Kong over the summer has confirmed my wish to seek a long-term future in PR," she said.

She also worked at Future Events News Services and at Abacus Research and is president of the university arts society.

In addition to a millennium volunteers award for her involvement in local charities, Ms Davies has been a volunteer teacher in rural Kenya, where she began a weekly personal development group to raise aware-ness of Aids.

"I am well travelled and have spent much of my life living in other countries and learning to fit in while keeping my own core values. I believe in putting yourself in a situation where opportunities arise - then making the most of them."

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