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An article in the Sunday Times from the Head of UCAS states that ‘Being a graduate is no longer a free pass to a graduate employment’. I think it is fair to say that most undergraduates know this by now. My experience is that the majority of undergraduates are focusing on doing and offering more than just a degree (and yes, I fully appreciate a significant minority are still over relying on their degree!). The challenge for graduates today, and for employers, is to look beyond the degree and at what more they can do, and offer, to secure that highly sought after graduate role.
In years gone by (and I fear I am talking about decades now!) the degree itself was the differentiator, back when the 2.1 or 1st was what helped employers shortlist efficiently (this was my graduate era!). But since then the huge increase in volumes of graduates with a ‘good’ degree, and the growing evidence that academic performance is not a guarantee of work based success, has lead employers to seek other ways to shortlist, and ultimately hire, the best talent.
“The challenge for graduates today, and for employers, is to look beyond the degree and at what more they can do, and offer, to secure that highly sought after graduate role.”
So what is the key, as an employer, to identifying the best suited talent quickly and effectively as most graduates look the same on paper? Work experience is obvious, but again more and more graduates know this, so lots have got that ‘badge’. Extra Curricula activities seems to be the growing focus as this provides evidence as to where students have taken the initiative to do more (such as volunteering, achievement in sport or music etc, or joining / becoming leaders of students societies, and what better on than the Bright Futures Societies, the largest network of career focused Societies in the UK!).
But when assessing graduates in terms of their work experience and extra curricula activities what is key as an employers is to look beyond the ‘badge’ they put on their CV, and focus on the graduates understanding as to how these additional ‘experiences’ make them right for the role. More often than not this ‘understanding’ and ability to convey or verbalise it cannot always be seen on a CV, so it requires someone to actually speak with them and / or an online application form which forces them to provide more of that evidence. So the truth is that recruiting graduates is not just a case of place an advert and the flood gates will open with masses of great applicants (although there are a lot of grads). Doing it well requires a time investment and knowing what to look for, but that investment will significantly improve the quality of graduates you ultimately hire, as the best suited talent will have taken the initiative to do more of the right things, and know how to showcase that at every stage of the process. At Bright Futures we see this every day with the employers we support, in the battle to compete for, and retain, the best graduate talent.
“Extra Curricula activities seems to be the growing focus as this provides evidence as to where students have taken the initiative to do more.”
And going back to what UACS had to say, perhaps this message is more directed to school leavers ahead of go into University. My experience is that this message is being heard loud and clear in High Education and now needs to be heard in the same way in Secondary Education; the sooner young people in school find this out, the quicker, and more effectively, they will take action on arriving at University to improve their chances of securing that all important graduate employment.
‘What are you going to do when you leave school?’ How many times do young people get asked this question? And why is it that we expect all young people to know what they want to do when they leave school? I hate this question as the message it gives to those young people who don’t know what they want to do, is that there is something wrong with them and that they should know – and that is no way to encourage them to do anything about it.
When I speak in schools, colleges and universities across the UK, I tell young people that it is absolutely okay to not know what they want to do when they leave school (and even University), BUT it is probably a good idea to do something about it. In other words don’t worry if you don’t know and as long as you are taking genuine action to find out about careers and FE & HE options, asking questions, meeting and talking to people who can help and have knowledge, then you are on the way to finding out what you want to do.
I would rather a young person who left school not knowing what they want to do, took some time to actively find out what they want to do, rather than went straight to uni, as that’s what their mates do, or get a job as that’s what their mates do – as there is a fair chance those options might not be right for them.
Universities want students to come to university because they have consciously chosen to do so. Employers want employees who really want a job and career in their industry and company. I know any smart university or employer would look very favourably upon anyone who said to them ‘I took time out after school (or Uni) to find out what I really wanted to do, and I now know this is what I want to do. This is what I did to find that out and this is why I am in front of you now…’
You can always apply to university next year and you can always apply for a job when you are ready and know what you want. People who know what they want are much more likely to make the right decision and gain their ‘success’ they want, and if it takes a week, a month, a year to find that out I would argue that is time well spent.
PwC have recently announced they are dropping UCAS points as part of their criteria to apply for their graduate programmes. But let’s not forget that a number of other firms have been doing this for some time such as IBM & Grant Thornton to name but two. The overall massage from the graduate recruiter and university community to this news is very positive, as we all know UCAS points, like the degree classification, are a very blunt instrument to assess future performance and fit to an organisation.
But in discussion with another employer we started talking about it from another point of view…
If you are a student who has worked really hard to get ‘top’ grades at A level and then are told they don’t matter so much, as those with lesser grades than you will now be able to apply to these top firms. How would that make you feel both about that firm and your efforts to get top grades?
We will be conducting some research on this question across our huge network of schools and young people. Let me know if you want to see the results first!
But all this is proof that things are never as easy or clear cut as we might think!
A recent article from the head of an all girls school, made the point that we need to move away from obsessing about getting A grades and that a B or C was good too. Her point being that not getting A grades led young people to feel they have failed or to not even try if they felt they would not get an A.
This got me thinking…
If as a student, they fairly naturally do well academically, that that success alone will help motivate them to do more and do better – i.e. strive for those A grades. But what about those for whom academic success does not come so naturally? What is the motivation for them to do better? Telling them ‘they might get an A if they try really hard’, or worse still, just be told ‘you have to do well at school or college if you want to get a good job’?! But if they don’t know what a good job is or are not excited by that thought then it seems we run a risk of them then disengaging. And with a generation who are increasingly vocal in asking ‘why?’ and challenging convention, when they do not get that success, many will start to question what is the point, or in the immortal words of Catherine Tate’s ‘character Lauren Cooper’ … ‘am I bovvered’?
So how can they be better inspired?
Young people need to know much earlier about the different jobs available and be excited by them. It is unlikely disengaged young people are going to be excited by dry academic subject matter, but the application of that subject matter and what ‘cool’ jobs it can be used in stands much more chance of inspiring them to then bother and do well in their education.
In short they need to be shown how what they learn can be applied in the real world of work – not just learning for learning sake.
We, as an organisation, have seen very recently a great example of this, with an unengaged student in an FE college, who was not performing well and had low attendance rates but through the experience given to him in one of our SPACEs, engaging with employers and the opportunities in the world of work, his attendance rate moved to 100% and his performance significantly increased. And why? Because he had a motivation and reason to bother!We have seen this too with our Bright Futures School Societies, where a student who was struggling with confidence and to achieve in the classroom, but by engaging with the society activity and employers, his performance and impact grew significantly.
In short we run a high risk of not maximising the potential of many young people who have great untapped potential, if we expect them to do well at school and college because that is what we expect them to do. We need to invest much more time showing them how their education can be used in exciting careers that previously they just did not know or were bothered about.
The latest AGR magazine (http://www.agr.org.uk/Graduate-Recruiter) has an article from Paul Redmond, Director of Employability at the University of Liverpool, ‘Dancing in the Dark’ which makes some key points:
– University is about learning to think, develop opinions, process information and grow as a person but it is also about work AND study.
– The Careers Services ‘task is to prepare students for the world of work, while employers provide the opportunities’. But this is not enough, he says, employability cannot be done to people (a point I have been making for years), ‘students have to engage and take responsibility’.
(I agree with both his points, by the way!)
And not by chance, employers want to hire graduates who will also take responsibility, in this case for their personal & professional development, their career and their future – in essence employers want their new ’emergent talent’ to take a lead and drive their own futures.
This ‘taking of responsibility’ it would seem is thus an agreed key theme and attribute that students need.
It is for this reason I am so passionate about our Bright Futures Societies, in Universities and Schools. Through these Societies students are taking responsibility for their employability and taking a lead on what they do when it comes to careers, skills and their future for their peers.
However does ‘taking responsibility and taking a lead’ get the profile at University that it clearly needs to? Through our work in schools, we hear more and more about ‘student leadership’ and the Schools that are establishing Bright Futures student Societies, see what a great opportunity for student leadership the Society presents. For some reason I just don’t hear that message as strongly at University. The University ‘Experience’ absolutely provides huge amounts of opportunity to take responsibility & to a lead but it seems that the important trait is not highlighted enough and made much of.
Students know that to get good jobs they need to demonstrate key skills such as team work, communication, flexibility etc, but do they realise how important ‘taking responsibility’ will make on their futures?
So 83% employers think young people need better career advice and to develop skills for employment, according to yet another survey – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-24873223 – shock horror!
Employers have risen to the challenge and opportunity of offering more apprentices and career opportunities to young people and this is very much what is needed. The UK has an increased supply of career opportunities & jobs for young people, and that is both with the big employers and the SMEs too – by way of example a friend of mine who runs an SME is about to start recruiting two. BUT not nearly enough is being done to create the levels of demand for these opportunities, again I was at a meeting with a quantity of SMEs locally just recently and one of the companies has had unfilled apprenticeship vacancies for over a year!!
Why is this?
For most School leavers the only post education option they really are fully aware of & understand is University; the alternative of work opportunities are mixed and confused with dated ideas about apprenticeships, not to mention the range of apprenticeships. It is this area of creating demand that now needs effort and focus.
How can this be done?
The government quote that caught my eye was the statement that their new reforms are ‘putting employers in the driving seat’, which is all well and good for the government to show itself as being pro-business but what about the young people in schools themselves. Why can they not be put in the driving seat?
Provide students with the opportunity to find out for themselves about their career options post-secondary education, because realistically no career advisor (however knowledgeable) can be expected to know about all the careers available. Encourage the students to set up job / employment clubs at School, like our Bright Futures School Societies, and create career events for themselves and their peers which brings them into contact with employers who offer those range of career opportunities (be that graduate post University or school leaver and apprenticeship post school) and thus put them in the driving seat for their own futures.
You may have seen the recent press about a graduate being asked to dance at their interview for a role at Currys (to Daft Punk, in case you are wondering!) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-23972952
The graduate was rightly surprised by the request and felt very uncomfortable. There has been various comment on the back of this event about employers seeking to make the interview process more fun and to be innovative in how they recruit. I am sure Currys want to be see as innovative & hire fun people in a customer facing role, but is this the way to go about it?
Dancing graduates may show their have confidence (not to mention little or no shame!) but will it really give you an insight into their passion for customers and your products & services? Getting good people is key for any organisation and how you engage with them before they start with you will play a key part in the calibre of those you hire.
This then got me thinking about some ideas on the recruitment process for graduates and how to do it well.
Interviewing is a two way street and no matter how tough the job market is, alienating candidates through the process risks not just losing good candidates (the graduate in question turned down an offer for another interview with said retailer) but causing a lot of damage to your brand.
The whole purpose of a selection process is not for it to be ‘fun’ nor for it to be ‘innovative’ – those might be nice extras but not the focus when designing how companies bring great people into their business. It is for recruiting organisations to find the right talent, AND for the applicants to find the right role for them.
So what would just some of my tips be?
1. Employers should have a selection process that reflects the culture of the organisation and gives the candidates the best chance to show their natural abilities, talents, behaviours and attitude and how that links to what is needed to achieve in the role.
2. Worth also giving thought to how you reject applicants. Don’t just email them ‘thanks but no thanks’ and ‘wish them luck in the future’! Instead offer them some tips or advice for their future job hunting. If you are going to take the time contact them and say ‘no’, there is an opportunity to do it more usefully for the applicant. It can be standardised advice so take no extra time.
3. When inviting them to interviews give them some tips and advice so they can prepare as best as possible – even if it is to say that they should take the time to prepare!
4. Make the selection process a learning experience for the candidate, where they learn more about the business and the role, which ideally will lead them to wanting to work for you more. So for Currys they could have applicants spend 15 minutes just walking around their store before the interview and then feedback what they saw, with comments and suggestions, that in itself would lead to a good, useful & relevant discussion for both interviewer and interviewee.
5. Stop obsessing about how to make interviewing ‘fun’, because let’s face it on the whole it is not fun for the applicant nor do they expect it to be. They take their job hunting seriously (more so than ever) and expect it to be demanding (but fair). So provide opportunities for the candidates to get a feel for the culture of the business, by meeting others in the team for example. Graduates, we know from feedback from them, are fully aware that the world of work is not easy and not all fun, so don’t try and pretend it is – show them how it is, what I call being ‘positive but honest’!
6. My final comment would be that there are many opportunities for recruiting organisations to themselves stand out to applicants and thus increase the quality of hires, through ‘moments of connection’. These are opportunities to show the human side of the organisation and connect with the applicant making them feel like an individual, not just someone to be ‘processed’ or go through a series of selection activities.
So if you want to be innovative find ways to ‘connect’ with your applicants as far too many organisations just process them like numbers. Those who do not, and create ways of recruiting people that reflects the organisation, makes it is learning experience for recruiter and candidates alike, and truly ‘connect’ with their applicants will be taking another step to ensuring great & relevant talent join the organisation.
With tens of thousands of graduates melting their way through graduate ceremonies this summer it begs the question as to who will hire them.
A small % of the total number of fresh graduates will have secured themselves employment but the majority will be job hunting now or about to start.
Some employers might feel that the ‘best’ graduates will already be hired, and whilst that in part is true, many very talented graduates will not.
So as an employer why should you be confident that there is still lots of good talent available now & through the summer (or indeed year round)?
1. There is huge pressure on students (from their University, family, peer group etc) to achieve that all important 2.1 and get the very best academic results; as a result many will purely focus on that outcome and put off very time consuming job hunting until after exams
2. Students want to make the right career decision and will decide to make the time to do their searching and choosing for their future in a considered & focused way, with no other major distractions; we all know how time challenging it is to personally job hunt when we are in employment (todays students face similar time challenges). I know I would much prefer to interview a graduate who said ‘I was not sure what I wanted to do for a career whilst at University and so made a conscious decision to not apply then but wait until after exams and get the decision right; rather than apply to jobs in my final year because that is what I was told to do and all my mates were’ I want graduates who are applying to my organisation to know what they want to do and can articulate why – if they cannot do that be they an undergraduate (who has applied during their final year) or graduate (who applies in the summer) they won’t get past me! So making the time to get that right gets an applicant a ‘tick’ from me.
3. Graduates today are potentially facing 50 years of work, with the pensionable age getting later and later, so many will want to go travelling and enjoy their last long holiday until they retire! I am not sure we should begrudge them that?
And linked to this point and if you are thinking they should have wanted to start their career already, delaying it a few months is kind of understandable, isn’t it?
There is a caveat to all this in that at this time of year there are plenty of graduates applying for jobs, who have not been so decisive in their job hunting plans during University and the trick is to be able to differentiate one from another.
So is the summer a good time to recruit graduates? Yes there is plenty of great talent but you need to know what you are looking for – and part of that will be evidence of that considered thought during University.