Wish list for workers

March 20, 1998

Anthony Hesketh asked employers to rate the skills they wanted graduate recruits to offer. The result was surprising

The demands made on our universities by employers are set to move into a new era. Employers have always wanted their graduate recruits to possess a portfolio of so-called "key" skills. Soon every new fee-burdened undergraduate will also be seeking access to these prized talents. But what exactly are these skills?

We recently asked employers to rank the importance they ascribed to nine skills: verbal and written communication; problem-solving; numeracy; information technology; teamwork; self-management; capacity to learn and technical ability. They were then asked to indicate on a similar scale the extent to which they were satisfied with the mastery of those skills by graduates they recruit.

We found wide variation in the importance employers attach to different skills. Communication skills are highly valued, as is the ability to learn new material and apply knowledge to workplace problems. Given the importance ascribed to technical skills by recent education policy, the low rating of this attribute was surprising, as were the lower than expected rankings of IT skills and numeracy. There are also differences between those skills employers value and those they think higher education does best in developing (see graph).

As a result of this research three long-standing axioms about the output of our universities should be closely examined. The Dearing report on higher education emphasises four key skills; communication, numeracy, the ability to learn new material and IT skills. But a quick glance at our data raises doubts over the massive future investment in IT called for by reports based on employers' perceptions of the shortfalls of higher education.

The apparent success of our universities in producing graduates with the requisite IT skills, as measured from the prospective employer's perspective, generates two possible scenarios. First, if we accept our data at face value, higher education deserves much praise for providing industry with a workforce equipped to meet the new information-handling demands of the next millennium.

A second, more plausible, scenario suggests that it is the IT demands employers make of graduates, and not the latter's capacity to meet these demands, that is falling short of expectations. The extent to which graduates are engaging in IT work beyond the level of perfunctory word-processing is debatable. Their older contemporaries at the workplace are the ones experiencing problems with the new medium.

A second axiom now fighting for its life concerns what exactly most employers mean by their calls for universities to enhance their graduates' preparation for work. Sir Ron Dearing translated the signals from the labour market in terms of the increased "vocationalisation" of university curricula. In many ways this has been the defining emblem used by government to justify the expansion of higher education.

Yet again, our data raises serious doubts about this assumption. When asked to rank the importance of technical or vocational skills required for the work graduates would be engaged in, the majority of employers ranked such skills least important.

Whichever way we compile the skills preferences of employers, so-called "hard" or technical skills are clearly not in the ascendancy. Indeed, the reverse is true. This should reassure students (and lecturers) on degree courses that shy away from a more "technical" content, yet play a major role in developing the interpersonal skills so keenly sought by employers.

Once we have taken the ascendancy of interpersonal skills on board we may then avoid the ludicrous conclusions reached by the media when manufacturing companies report that they cannot recruit managers with a balance of technical and management skills. This is not a failure to provide enough engineers but the right kinds of engineers. More accurately,it is the failure of the sector to attract graduates of other disciplines who would make excellent managers of just about any company. The provision of such skills is complicated by the fact that half the time people are acquiring interpersonal skills without even knowing it.

Employers were also asked whether they ever target universities when recruiting. We found that 26 per cent of employers always target particular universities and a further 41 per cent sometimes do. They prefer those that command high A-level point scores, such as Edinburgh, Durham or Oxbridge, over the post-1992 universities.

The final axiom to be exploded therefore concerns the alleged equality of opportunity all graduates are entitled to in the eyes of the labour market. Given that some two-thirds of all employers engage in some targeting of institutions, it is hard to see how the case for a flat tuition fee across all universities and courses can be defended. Employers clearly have preferences and set about recruiting graduates on the basis of them. How prospective students will reconcile in their own minds paying a standard course fees for a qualification from an institution at which few employers recruit graduates remains to be seen.

The author is lecturer in education, University of Wales, Cardiff.

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