The importance of understanding and demonstrating skills employers look for, beyond just academics

A personal reflection by Prisha Bhandari, 1st year BA History, Politics and Economics student, based on work completed with Dr Cloda Jenkins as part of a UCL Laidlaw Scholarship research project  on Employability Skills in Social Science Degrees.

Students studying arts, humanities and social-science disciplines, broadly speaking, face a hurdle which students of other disciplines don’t usually face- the negligible interest of employers in technical skills developed through the degree programme itself. Of course, this is a very subjective statement. For example, archaeological firms- which hire students from the concerned disciplines- do require specific so-called “hard” skills inculcated through degree programmes. However when we look at the industries which graduates from these disciplines are disproportionately hired in- Accountancy and Financial Services, Policy and Government, and Charities, NGOs and International Development- it is evident that most graduate roles don’t require students to be from a particular degree background. Moreover these industries, as well as divisions within them, may prioritise different skills altogether. Demonstrating a passion for lifelong learning is a skill employers in Financial Services look for in graduates, while organisations within Policy and Government do not place the same level of emphasis on it. These two remain the top industries where graduates of MSc Economics are employed.

Graduates of the same social science course are hired in disparate industries and divisions, which may have different skill requirements, and more often than not are employed not based on their degree discipline, but rather on the possession of industry knowledge and soft skills. Unsurprisingly, given the far more importance most students place on academic performance over employability skills in university, employers have long felt a gap between the skills possessed by students and the skills they require. In other words, a heavy focus on theoretical knowledge in degrees without the development of sufficient soft skills in university students is harming graduate employability, as students do not display the skills actually required to a satisfactory level.

However, this gap has not gone unnoticed. Professors and Programme Directors have recognised this gap and have made conscious efforts to improve degree programmes, inculcate soft skills in students and make them more employable. If you compare your own degree programme’s structure and assessment style over the years, it would be unsurprising if you notice changes in these to help develop common employability skills. Having said this, it is a huge mistake to rely solely on your degree programme to make you an employable graduate due to two key reasons. Firstly, it is extremely hard for degree programmes to be structured in a manner which promotes the development of skills required for all the graduate destinations of its students- across disparate industries, divisions and individual roles. Even if efforts are made into developing the most common employability skills required across industries, the success of these efforts would depend on the student. Degree programmes can only provide an opportunity, and often a requirement, to express these employability skills. But it can only be nurtured and fully inculcated by the student. Secondly, what employers mean by a particular skill can be interpreted in different ways. For example, a skill most employers look for is the ability to communicate ideas clearly. Your degree programme may develop this skill by grading your success in conveying your ideas clearly and coherently in an essay, but this wouldn’t develop your ability to think on the spot and convey your ideas verbally in a structured manner- a skill many employers do look for.

Therefore, we need to understand these employability skills and actively seek opportunities beyond just academics. Departments at UCL provide ample opportunities and resources for students to understand and develop career-specific skills, and fill the gaps which academics may not have covered. The Student’s Union gives plenty of opportunities to demonstrate virtually any soft skill and give back to the UCL community. Moreover, your own degree programme will certainly give you a platform to develop important employability skills through the nature of assignments and assessments. It is up to you to give your best and make full use of these available opportunities and resources. To improve one’s employability in today’s extremely competitive job market, we need to acknowledge that career specific employability skills are as important as our academic performance, instead of choosing to be blind to this and continuing to exhaust all our efforts only into scoring well.

This does not mean good academic performance is not important for employability. In fact, a large chunk of popular graduate destinations and competitive graduate schemes make it explicit that good academic performance is a necessary requirement for securing a job. It should come as no surprise, that performing well in your degree significantly improves your employability. However, it is not enough. If you have made it this far and managed to get a gist of my argument, I understand many of you may have the same question plaguing- how exactly do I go about identifying and understanding the skills I should start developing?

To do this, it is important to understand the range of roles, divisions and industries you see yourself working in after graduation. If you are stuck, UCL Careers is a great place to start, and you can consider scheduling an appointment with UCL’s career counsellors if you’re unable to find clarity regarding this. After identifying these, make use of online resources to gauge the skills the industries, organisations, divisions and graduate jobs of your interest require. Company websites usually provide comprehensive information about what they look for in graduates, and highlight skills individual divisions and specific roles require. It would be helpful to keep these skills in mind when reading job descriptions, to get a better sense of how organisations interpret these skills as well. It is a good idea to make use of insight events which organisations in your industry of interest may hold, as well as talking to UCL Alumni in relevant positions via LinkedIn and making use of the various networking events your department may hold. Once you have a clear idea of what skills you should be working towards, and what these mean, you can identify where there is a skills gap. Look at your past experiences and achievements, and identify which skills you are not able to demonstrate confidently. Once this gap is identified, you can make use of opportunities in and out of UCL to make yourself more employable after graduation. By having a thorough understanding of skills employers are looking for, and being able to demonstrate them, you will also reap the additional benefits of being more confident in yourself and your abilities in your interviews, and align your resume better to the roles you will be applying to.

As reiterated above, employers acknowledge this skills gap. It is fairly common to find the bulk of applicants for graduate roles lacking the skills employers are looking for, and by not making the effort to understand the skills required students risk sacrificing their employability. Hopefully, I’ve managed to convince you to look beyond just theoretical knowledge learnt in university and place an equal level of priority on understanding the skills employers look for in graduates. Leverage all the resources your department and the university community provides- whether in the form of events, positions of responsibility or even projects as part of your assessments- and by the time you graduate there should be nothing stopping you from securing the job of your dreams.


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