The soft skills that successful students need

AGR Blog SamGuest blogger Samuel Gordon joins us from the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), a membership organisation that supports UK employers in how they recruit and train young people across the country. In his role as Research Analyst, Samuel captures the industry-wide trends and regularly shares these with members so they can make well informed decisions about students.

Here’s a question to ponder in a moment of spare time. How many of you remember your first day at work? Do you remember the feeling of arriving, the process you want through, and what the building looked like? The first person you spoke to? Can you hear the sounds of the cars and the doors? Can you visualise the faces of the people you were with?

For me, it's years ago now, but I can still mentally flip back to the start of my first day at a relocation event to meet my peers. I still have some sense of the experience of getting off the train and into a taxi and even the first two other graduates I met at the time. The experience was a formative one. An adventure, of sorts.

The learning curve we all went through is harder to remember, but it is formative too. Young people who move from university to work these days often find themselves experiencing a major culture shock. The routines are different, the expectations are more ambiguous and the goals and interests of colleagues are far more diverse. Anecdotally, I hear that it can take people 6-12 months to fully adjust, and even longer to reach their full potential. It takes a while.

Improving skills in young people is going to take targeted and coordinated work. Half of employers think collaboration with other firms and suppliers is key.

What’s more, today’s young workforce is less prepared for work than they ever have been. According to a report a few years back by the UK Commission on Employment and Skills, the share of students doing Saturday jobs has been going down steadily for the last ten years, as students focus more on their studies and other extra-curricular work. By the time they start their working life, it’s a bigger culture shock for many than it has been in the past. It’s harder for us to put ourselves in their shoes.

This matters. It matters for employers and also those of us working with young colleagues. To provide great learning opportunities and to help them to adjust, we need to be paying more attention. They are still as capable and bright as they were in the past. But they are likely to require more support as they move through that first transitional phase of their career.

To help, AGR has been doing some work on the skills that young people do and do not have. Half of our employers – which are both large and small and recruit over 35,000 young people a year – tell us that university graduates generally don’t have the soft skills they expect. That’s a big challenge.

But organisations are starting to solve this challenge too. They offer ten days of formal soft skills training across a two-year graduate development programme, 42% use experiential learning as part of this, and three in four run employability workshops with universities to improve the soft skills of students pre-hiring.

Graduate soft skills gap

The chart below shows the estimated share of graduates with a particular skill, to help identify the areas that are worth investing in. These include “managing up”, which broadly speaking is knowing how to work with a manager, and self-awareness, which is about emotional intelligence, understanding your impact on others, and being able to pick up clues from body language. Whilst this is not an exhaustive list, it does provide a guide in terms of where to focus.

AGR Graph 1

Source: AGR Development Survey 2017

Apprentice soft skills gap

For apprentices, the key soft skills to invest in are slightly different. Apprentices are generally young people recruited directly from school, so they tend to be younger and still developing more basic work-readiness. In particular, they need help to tailor the way they talk and write in a business environment (“business communication”) and to improve the way they manage their time. The chart below shows the skills that apprentices lack as viewed by employers.

AGR Graph 2

Source: AGR Apprenticeships Survey 2017. Note: share of employers who identified this skill as a common skill which apprentices lack. Open-ended responses have been grouped by common themes.

Improving these skills in young people is going to take targeted and coordinated work. Half of employers think collaboration with other firms and suppliers is key. In some cases, they feel that the training for specific skills should start at secondary school. All of us can be exploring ways to help.

Starting work will remain an adventure for many. We want them to remember that learning curve as an exciting, formative and positive one. Using data can help us to do that.

You might also like...

For more trends and insight from AGR please visit their website

If you would like to feature as a guest blogger for The Outward Bound Trust please contact us.