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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.

Currys, Dancing Graduates and How to Interview

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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.

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!

It’s about demonstrating, not writing or talking, about skills that counts

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At a recent event I attended hosted by TMP we were told,quire rightly, that companies need to give students the opportunities to experience the skills they need for the world of work and the values of an organisation “in action”, so they can really understand what is required.

For the really forward looking companies, who genuinely want to win the competition for talent, they need to find ways to see students demonstrating their skills and values far earlier than at assessment days. So we need to take this one step forward and give students the opportunity to demonstrate those skills so, as employers, we can see them. The obvious route is through internships and placements but that will never give companies exposure to enough students, hence the rise of on campus competitions and challenges, such as L’Oreals Brandstorm; Npower’s  Energy Challenge or the UBS Challenge (for 1st Years). But these are just one way, others include working with Society Committees; involvement in the curriculum, the list goes on..

And for students the message is, get involved in activities where employers can actually ‘see’ your skills in action, like those mentioned above, do this and you will stand out far ahead of and in advance of the hordes of unaware students!

There really are jobs for graduates

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Communication and the ease of it today is great but it has a huge downside. There has been so much doom and gloom, reports dominated by redundancies and companies going out of business that this has affected the new graduate workforce of the UK. They believe there are no jobs so they are not job hunting – so instead even more are going travelling or taking up post graduate study.

The rationale being that come 2010 – when they return to the job market things will be better when it comes to jobs. But this is just not the case.

So many finalists are not applying that many of the big firms still have vacanies to fill – so there are jobs out there now! Taking on the costs of a post graduate degree just to put off job huting is an expensive mistake.  Employers wants graduates with real world, work based skills not more academic knowledge. And come 2010 there will be another 300,000 graduates leaving University to compete against for jobs. 

So what’s the message? If I were a finalist today or a graduate from last year, knowing what I know, I would apply to as many companies as I could and if I did not secure the job I want this summer, I would get work experience and apply again for next year – as that work experience will help me stand out for the rest.

Why does the BBC think graduates are stupid?

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The BBC today (Sat 28th Feb) ran an article about there being too many graduates for the jobs available. That the ‘mickey mouse’ degrees are worth nothing. The truth is employers care less and less about the degree subject itself and indeed the University itself but rather focus on recruiting graduates based on the skills they have.

With this well worn debate no-one ever seems to consider the students themselves and their awareness of the whole situation. Undergraduates across the UK are hugely conscious of how tough the graduate market is and are developing the real world skills they need to maximise their chances of getting a graduate job.
The BBC &  media in general must stop talking about graduates as if they were small children in need of looking after and recognise that huge numbers of them are taking personal responsibility for what happens to them after University.