Work-ready graduates

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Written by Gary Weinstein on 1 June 2014 in Features
Features

How do you get your graduate employees up to speed? Gary Weinstein has some suggestions

According to the YouGov survey conducted at the end of the last academic year, more than half of graduate employers feel that none or few of their new graduate recruits are work-ready upon leaving university1. Another survey conducted by OnePoll showed that 65 per cent of 2000 UK graduates said they were not prepared for the world of work, with 52 per cent indicating that their universities did not sufficiently help them with preparation for the world of work2.

Approximately 788,000 students graduated at the end of academic year 2012/13, so this data suggests that in excess of half-million (512,000) graduates were not properly prepared for work.

When I reflect on my first corporate job after leaving university it became clear that I was being hired for my computer programming skills. Naively, in my mind, I translated this into “congratulations Gary, we need experienced programmers like you on our team”.  What experience? I had none!  It took less than a week for me to realise I was the least experienced programmer, and didn’t know anything about working as a team member to deadlines. 

My formal education might have finished but my real learning was just beginning.  Fortunately for me this company had a structured graduate recruitment programme in place to teach me many of the business, soft and to some extent hard skills (BSH) I still use to this day.

So what can undergraduates and graduates do to make themselves work ready? What should Higher Education (HE) institutions be doing to prepare graduates for employment?

At the beginning of 2012 Woods Bagot, a leading global architectural company commissioned Global Strategy Group3 to ask: “Are recent college graduates ready for the rigours of today’s workforce?” Almost half of the 500 business decision-makers surveyed believed that graduates were less prepared for work than they were in 1997. In January 2011 a survey by the TotalJobs4 recruitment website found that 49 per cent of recent graduates believed their university education did not adequately equip them for the world of work. While a quarter of graduates went on to say they wouldn’t recommend higher education to those currently studying A-levels.

In March 2009, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in conjunction with Universities UK (UUK)5 published an extensive report entitled Future Fit: Preparing graduates for the world of work. The report looked in detail at what employers want from graduates, what universities are delivering, what students want and what they get, what initiatives employers are undertaking and what improvements are required. 

Employers want to recruit graduates with employability skills, by which they mean a combination of business, soft and technical or hard skills. These can be categorised as shown below but not necessarily in any order of priority.

Many of the above skills are developed in students throughout their primary, secondary and tertiary education, however in the opinion of employers not well enough. A lot more must be done to prepare graduates better for business while they are in higher education.

According to the CBI’s Future Fit survey 82 per cent of employers said universities should prioritise improving students’ employability skills, which implies this should be a key focus for universities. Yet, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development 2013 Annual Survey Report for Resourcing and Talent Planning,6 only 13 per cent of respondents believe that schools, colleges and universities equip young people with the skills their organisation needs to a great or very great extent. More than a quarter believe they are poor at equipping young people with the skills they need.

If universities are to take more responsibility and a greater role, then in order to achieve this, employers and universities need to work together to define what the BSH skills learning purpose and objective must encompass, or in other words what is the expected outcome from the learning experience.

Universities need to clearly understand what the attributes and qualities, skills and capabilities are that employers are seeking; and why and how these are relevant and important for them. In order for universities to do so, employers need to articulate them clearly.

Universities then need to identify which of these skills are already incorporated into their existing course curriculum, and for those that are not, plan effective ways of embedding them into the curriculum, or create an explicit programme for BSH skills. 

While lecturers and tutors are highly skilled and experienced in their chosen subject, they will almost certainly benefit from more support on identifying and incorporating the above skills into their lectures, tutorials, group and individual assignments. They should be provided with expert assistance where needed, to facilitate this.

It is simply not enough for these skills to be embedded into the course curriculum. It is necessary to conduct formal training sessions on a number of these skill categories utilising online and classroom-based teaching methods, with consideration given to the learning methods used by today’s students.

The CBI report acknowledges that some universities are taking the initiative to improve students’ employability skills through the development of personal development plans in conjunction with the careers service.

However, it is not enough to simply embed BSH skills into the curriculum without defining and implementing a process for the measurement and assessment of how effective the teaching of these skills is, as well as testing how well students are utilising these skills and applying them to their day-to-day activities.

This is a great opportunity for universities to capture and create some baseline measures that can be used to compare the effectiveness of these training programmes against the success of the graduates gaining employment, and employers acknowledging that significantly more graduates are joining them with a good foundation level of knowledge, skills and capabilities suitable for the workplace.

Additionally, these baseline measures can be compiled into benchmark indicators (like league tables) that help students applying for higher education to identify those institutions that are better at preparing them for their post graduate careers.

Knowledge acquisition and learning is a continuous process. In fact many organisations operate continuing professional development (CPD) learning programmes that promote personal career progression. Thus, it is definitely the responsibility of the employer to provide opportunity and access to learning programmes covering the above skills, and these must be made available at appropriate points in the progression of an employee from subordinate to manager through executive and leadership roles. Each time the learning will be taken up a notch, and the content will be in context to their new role.

Therefore while universities can provide a good introduction to BSH skills, it is very much the responsibility of the employer to continue the development of their employees. Employers must acknowledge and accept that there is a limit to how well a university can equip a graduate with these skills. University is not a corporate   workplace environment.

During the first couple of years of a graduate’s working life is the best time to invest and develop the BSH skills that every employee should master in order for them to be effective workers, managers and leaders as they progress their career.

However, this is easier said than done.  According to the CIPD, the percentage of organisations operating a structured graduate recruitment programme varies dramatically with size.

Not surprising the smaller the company the less likely that they will have the internal capability to provide a formal BSH skills training programme. Most small and medium sized companies will need to rely on external training providers and programmes for their employees to learn these skills. However not all training providers have experience engaging with students and therefore may not be very effective at adjusting their skills teaching to the appropriate level for recent graduate employees. 

Many larger companies have good internal skills programmes, including the opportunity for new graduates to rotate through three or four different functional departments before choosing in which role they wish to pursue and develop their career.

HE institutions should take the opportunity to partner with these larger companies and utilise their graduate training programmes either by inviting the companies on to campus to deliver their programmes, or arranging for undergraduates to participate in off-campus programmes being held at corporate learning locations.

Summary

In a recent discussion with a colleague on how we gained experience in the work environment. We recalled about 10 years into our careers, being frustrated with the lack of business skills and experience of our newly recruited graduates, and had to remind ourselves that they couldn’t possibly have our experience to apply. This clearly shows it does take time to gain useful experience for which there is no substitute.

For UK businesses to compete in the worldwide knowledge economy then much more can, and must, be done to teach undergraduates foundation BSH skills that will make them more desirable graduates ready for, and eager to engage in, the world of work.

Figure 1 shows HE institutions, undergraduates, graduates, employers and training providers partnering and working together.

 

In the words of Donald Rumsfeld: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Most undergraduates will fall into the unknown unknowns category, therefore it is the responsibility of the business community and universities to make them aware of how important BSH skills are to their future success, and provide them access to necessary training by integrating it into the curriculum.  Additionally, work experience programmes should also emphasise the acquisition of these essential skills.

We can give our young graduates a chance to gain that know-how quickly by working in collaboration to build a successful framework that enables the UK to produce the best work-ready graduates in the world.

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

Gary Weinstein is founder of Akonia, a training management, implementation and delivery services partner to Corporate and HE Institutions. He can be contacted via www.akonia.com

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