Wednesday, December 24, 2014

What Gets You Hired In 2015: Top 10 Skills for Graduates

I came across an interesting survey by National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), a not-for-profit group, which aims to determine what the employers want in graduates they hire. The survey draws upon a relatively small group of employers, there are only 260 respondents as reported in the Forbes article, and this includes a number of large corporations.

The information coming out of the survey, as reported in Forbes, are somewhat obvious in itself. The most preferred degrees for the participating employers are in business, engineering and computer and information sciences. The skills that the employers prefer are the following (in order of preference):

1. Ability to work in a team structure
2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems (tie)
3. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
4. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
5. Ability to obtain and process information
6. Ability to analyze quantitative data
7. Technical knowledge related to the job
8. Proficiency with computer software programs
9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports
10. Ability to sell and influence others

(Quoted from the Forbes article)

Before I make any observations on the listed items, it is important to state that one must take such survey outcomes with a bit of skepticism. It is a mistake to treat them as proof of some universal concept, as such results purport to be. By its very design, it is a very North American survey, limited to a very small sample of employers (260 businesses out of 9 million businesses in US alone, which employ more than 1 staff member, and of 100,000 medium and large corporations) and skewed very much for the large companies (which may employ a lot of people, but their share in new jobs being created is less than 10%). Those of us who deal with employers every day and wonder how the employers came to agree on such a specific list of skills should note that, following the survey methodology, the participating employers ranked items on a list of skills on a 5-Point scale. 

Allowing for these limitations - and accepting that this does not represent an universal truth - there are some interesting, if obvious, observations there. The most obvious, and yet counter-intuitive for many educators is the lowly seventh position accorded to 'Technical Knowledge' while they toil away on that one alone. Ability to work in a team structure is usually accumulated through extra-curricular activity, whereas all curriculum remain focused on individual abilities. The two areas where the current academic work puts a lot of focus on are 'Ability to plan, prioritize and organize work' and 'Ability to obtain and process information' and the institutions should feel vindicated for this. A good academic education should also prepare pupils for the other skills listed here - proficiency with computer software programmes, ability to write reports, and ability to influence others (most academic programmes are strong on rhetoric) and ability to analyse quantitative data - and therefore, this survey represents good news for those worrying about the education-to-employment gap.

Except that there is work to be done in the top three skills listed here. Most collaborative work still fall outside curricular boundaries, and the ability to make decisions and solve problems on their own remain the academic holy grail. Ability to communicate, particularly with people outside their own setting, is one of the skills which may actually reduce through good education, because of the social and cultural environment that most people live in when they are at the university. In fact, the greatest complaint about an academic education is that this may create some kind of academic insularity, a tendency to fall back on theorising, rather than practical problem-solving, and to develop an arrogance and limited worldview due to one's education. This is indeed not a black-and-white problem as the critics of the academia make it sound: But there is some truth in the observation, particularly as far as methods and approaches in some academic disciplines are concerned.

The report recommends that the students take extra care in highlighting their skills and abilities along the lines of this list, and particularly mention their extra-curricular involvements. This has always been an important discussion area in the interviews, with employers wanting to know more about the graduates' leadership skills and social engagements. However, there is also a problem here: Most people are prone to exaggeration while talking on achievements in extracurricular activities, and recruiters have somewhat developed a discounting method for such claims. Given this, it is actually quite difficult for the graduates to make meaningful claims, and one should be looking at collecting and presenting evidence - ranging from portfolio of work to Linkedin recommendations - to back up any claims made.

Finally, this list may be different for small and medium enterprises, where technical skills may be somewhat more important given the shorter learning cycles afforded to new hires in those settings. Ability to sell and communicate outside may also be far more important in such settings, and the requirement to plan, prioritize and organize work (and be able to work on one's own) may be of great demand in such settings. Motivation is barely mentioned - motivation in large companies is mostly a process-driven thing - but this may loom large if we talk about smaller firms. Overall, this survey is a good pointer - as the Forbes columnist mentions, 'the wisdom is sound' - and this should start a conversation among the educators and the employers.



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