Career Building and why it matters NOW

Through the bleary haze of post-Finals celebrations, many of this year’s graduates will emerge with trepidation onto the job market.  So it seems timely to impart some top tips on how to get a foot on the first rung of the employment ladder.

In research published in May by the Association of Accounting Technicians, new graduates are shown to have been among the worst hit by the economic downturn.  Six months after leaving university, almost 40% of last year’s graduates were “underemployed” in lower-skilled jobs.  The report forecasts a worsening situation.  It warns that 55% of this year’s university leavers will either be working in non-graduate jobs, or unemployed, six months after Finals.

On a brighter note, the research shows that over a longer period graduates are less likely to be unemployed compared to the national average.  The Association of Graduate Recruiters reported a growth in job vacancies earlier this year after “many months of misery for graduates”.  But competition remains intense – last summer many graduate employers set a 2:1 degree grade as a minimum entry level.

In his excellent book “The Graduate Jobs Formula:  How To Land Your Dream Career”, Paul Redmond writes “no matter how well you do in your academic studies, when 400,000 degree holders graduate from universities every year, qualifications alone are not enough to guarantee employability.”  (Top tip:  this book is a great resource for Year 13 UCAS applicants and their parents!)

So what can you do, as a graduate, to stand out from the job-seeking crowd?

Answer:  get work experience.

Work experience ticks all the boxes for both applicant and recruiter.  Whether temporary or long term, paid or unpaid, you will still gain value from the time spent.  You will develop knowledge of the workplace and the sector you’re in.  You will learn what you like and don’t like and this helps you assess career options with greater understanding and insight.  Most essentially, you will develop “employability” skills which will become the core evidence for your CV, application form and interview.

In the CBI/EDI Education & Skills survey 2011, 82% of businesses said that employability skills were a key factor when recruiting graduates, followed by degree subject (68%) and relevant work experience (67%).

What exactly are “employability” skills?   The most sought after skills by employers are:  communication, teamwork, self-management, problem solving, planning and organising, adaptability, commercial and customer awareness, and technical knowledge.  Underpinning each of these attributes should be a positive attitude:  a “can-do” approach which drives results.

Beware: applicants are consistently weak on commercial awareness.  Failing to demonstrate commercial awareness on an application form or at interview is sloppy.  The employer simply wants to find out if you’ve bothered to research their organisation and industry and for you to demonstrate your understanding of business in general via any work experience you’ve had.

Unfortunately, you can’t just download an employability skills app.  Developing these skills takes time, effort and determination. Another top tip:  The earlier you obtain work experience the quicker your skills will grow and the more marketable you become.

I’ve screened too many graduate applications where the candidate has little evidence to support their employability.  Their examples centre on school or university exclusively which gives the recruiter a shallow pool from which to fish for evidence.

Granted, stacking shelves at Tesco is not “The Apprentice” but still, through this one experience alone, you could accrue ample evidence of teamwork, adaptability, communication, and commercial and customer awareness.

Internships could provide all of this and more.  Yes, employers get cheap (often free) labour but for the internee, the placement is typically within their field of interest, so they develop valuable and relevant work skills.  They also gain a dramatic rise in self-confidence and a positive outlook, whilst building a network of useful industry contacts.  They may also get the offer of a permanent job.  There are a number of internship websites which list a huge array of opportunities but two of the best are The Graduate Talent Pool and Inspiring Interns.

Never underestimate the value of voluntary work.  Employers rate it highly.  When screening graduate applications for a high profile insurance company recently, applicants were asked specifically for details of any voluntary work they had undertaken. I was impressed by the range of evidence candidates presented.  Examples included supporting children with learning disabilities at summer camp, teaching English to Chilean teenagers and being a personal carer for a physically disabled man on a trip to Lourdes.

You don’t need to have chosen your career path to start building your employability.  Take advantage of the impending long summer break and do something that will make your CV stand out.

“To be employed is to be at risk, to be employable is to be secure” – Peter Hawkins, author of The Art of Building Windmills (1999)

(This article featured in an earlier edition of the HUB Magazine)