employability

A degree does not equal a graduate job… do graduates know this by now?

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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!).

Students investing their time into increasing their employability post education

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.

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Not knowing what you want to do on leaving school is okay…

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‘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.

IMG_5321I 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.

How do we help more young people to ‘succeed’ at school and college?

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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!SPACE_Logo_FINAL_BlueWe 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.

What apprentices bring that graduates ought to…?

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There has been a lot of talk in the media about the word ‘apprentice’ and that it still harks back to the old days of what apprenticeships were, as opposed to the huge variety of different apprenticeships today. So should it be given another name as it still has negative connotations?
This may make you think again, it has certainly got me to alter my view…

Following the recent AGR Student Development Conference and various discussions I had there with other delegates I am wondering whether an individual seeing themselves as an ‘apprentice’ as opposed to a ‘graduate’ could actually make an individual more attractive to employers, and here is why….

When an individual starts an apprenticeship they know they are at the beginning of their journey, they have lots of learn; need lots of training and will have to work hard and as they progress on this journey they will become more and more useful and valuable to your employer. As their usefulness grows their career moves forward and salary with it.

Whereas still too many graduates on landing their first graduate job (especially when it is a formal graduate programme) believe they have arrived, they’ve ‘made it’ and their career will ‘happen’. Becoming a graduate may be the end of the academic learning journey, but it is the beginning of the next journey of learning to become valuable for, and really contributing into, their employers’ organisation.

And so why does this ‘entitlement’ attitude still occur with so many?
1. Something (and don’t ask me what it is!) happens to students at University to make them believe this; that they are special in some way (I will be honest it did for me and it came as quite a shock that I was in no way special –yet!)
2. So much of the recruitment advertising and marketing attracting students to formal graduate programmes talks about ‘future leaders’ and has case studies of current Main Board Directors who started as graduates and achieved this in record time, with not enough focus on what those now Board Directors did to achieve this (especially focusing on the attitude they had to demonstrate to get to that position)

I know that individuals, who land places on formal graduate programmes are ambitious & have significant debt so need their career and thus earnings to move upwards as fast as possible, but it does seem to me the ‘attitude’ of working for it, the need to be constantly learning and improving their skills can and often is lost.

Being an apprentice, in part, means ‘I need to learn to become useful’, so employers will need to make that investment but that investment will be falling on fertile ground because the apprentice has joined the organisation to learn, whereas too many of those on (expensive) graduate programmes still just expect all that training as a matter of course and forget why it is being given to them.

I am not saying recruit apprentices and not graduates, I believe both are and can be hugely valuable, but with graduate programmes perhaps some thought can be given to the recruitment messages being used, and with the activity employers do on campus (with our Bright Futures Societies, for example) as opposed to yet more CV & Interview workshops, why not share insights into what it takes to succeed when they get into the work place?

The Future for Employability…Personal Responsibility?

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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?

Career Opportunities – lack of Supply or lack of Demand?

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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.

Thoughts after the 2013 agr graduate conference

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The strongest AGR conference in some years I felt and there were some key themes that came through strongly from it on what Universities and Employers were focusing on and they included:

1. AGR survey results – vacancies down 3.9%; salaries unchanged on last year (so only risen once in the last 5 years); 85 applications per vacancy (the highest ever, it was 30 in 2007!) – 75% of firms use a 2.1 as a cut off and 35% use UCAS points (more on this later) – Salary progression for graduates after 1 year is 5%, after 3years it is 25%, and after 5 years it is 50%

2. Employability, according to a Guardianjobs survey, had 60% of employers saying students were primarily responsible for developing their own employability; 42% of careers services believing it was primarily their responsibility (38% thought it was up to the students); and 42% of students thought it was primarily their responsibility (with only 24% thinking it was their careers service who should shoulder the responsibility). So as our Bright Futures Societies absolutely empower students to take responsibility for this, we need to help them to strengthen what they do for more and more students.
But a disconnect was still clear between students and Universities, of whom only 21% & 24% respectively thought they were unprepared for the world of work BUT 40% of employers thought students were unprepared.

Some other key messages included:
– ‘Employability Skills’ is becoming a phrase that risks it becoming too narrow and giving the impression to students it is just about skills, it also needs to include issues such as career motivation (what is the right career for me and what do I need to do to secure that right career)
– Employability goes beyond getting a job and needs to include building a successful career, so employability does not stop when you get a job
– The obsession by both students and employers has moved on over the last few years from just needing that 2.1 to now it being all about work experience. The overriding message students hear from employers is around the need for work experience and they are listening and acting, but it risks work experience becoming simply a ‘tick list’ or ‘badge’ which students believe mean they are now employable, without the reflection on why it makes them more employable. The risk also is that the students do not then take advantage of the wider student experiences that University life offers (such as volunteering, being involved in Student Societies etc) and are not then the rounded, grounded individuals that employers will want ultimately hire. So does the message need to be more, “Securing a good career is about more than good academic results and work experience, you need to take ALL your experiences and show how this makes you stand out & more employable”?
An idea from a law recruiter was to introduce a question on the application form which asks ‘If you have not worked over the summer, what have you been doing?’, great for those students who have been doing something different but potentially equally valuable from a personal development point of view.
– When addressing the issues of skills we need to move on from the traditional ones such as teamwork, communication, analytical skills and get the message to students that they also need adaptability, creativity, understand the value of being networked etc
And finally a point re-iterated by an impressive 1st year from the University of Leicester, ‘students live in the now’ so to affect their behaviour and actions early enough we need to bear that ‘now-ness’ in mind.

3. Social Media. ‘Community’ is the new source of talent. Rather than thinking about ‘push’ marketing i.e. advertising, instead create talent communities by sharing information and insights. Enlist (people) – Empower them (with tools and training) – then Engage with them. Make it Personal (so what they want) – Make it Social (when they want it) – and finally Make it Mobile (where they want it). Our Bright Futures Societies are just such talent communities, that we have enlisted across over 50 Universities and empowered; they now just want and need to engage with employers…

4. The debate around the 2.1 and UCAS points as cut offs for applications. The need to question this was well made with just 2 stats:
a. Use of UCAS points excludes 58% of maths and computer science undergraduates
b. Use of the 2.1 excludes 42% of maths, computer science and law undergraduates
Not to mention the diversity and social mobility issues that are impacted through these cut off levels

And my final and lasting memory will be of my colleague Jackie up on stage with the ventriloquist!