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How to spot a 'workplace ready' graduate

Graduates are often caught in a catch-22 situation when hunting down their first job: the qualifications they hold may be essential requirements but so is the one thing they cannot possibly have: solid experience of working in a similar role. It’s just as much a problem for employers; they want graduates but also need someone whose experience makes them ready for the world of work in a way that a course of education cannot.

In fact, according to a survey by Pearson Business School, 48% of employers and HR leaders feel that graduates often aren’t ‘workplace-ready’, lacking critical soft skills such as leadership, negotiation and strategy & planning.

The Pearson survey says…

  • 48% of businesses are looking for relevant work experience when recruiting (and of those, 61% saw work experience as more important than academic grades).
  • 69% of HR professionals felt that graduates were “somewhat ready” for the workplace (damned with faint praise!).
  • Just 13% said that graduates could “hit the ground running” in their new role.

As for the graduates themselves:

  • 18% felt that university did not fully equip them for the workplace.
  • In terms of specifics, they felt they lacked leadership (34%), negotiation (25%) and technical skills (23%).
  • Few had prepared for the recruitment process: only 24% had done a mock or practice interview, and almost two-thirds hadn’t used their university’s careers advice service.

What does ‘workplace-ready’ look like?

There are two key elements to ‘workplace-ready’. First, having the skills to do the job. This includes more than the obvious technical skills and knowledge relevant to the role. There are a whole host of soft skills that are essential, including teamworking, negotiation, collaboration, leadership, problem-solving, and interpersonal communication. Second, there is the need to understand the working environment and its peculiarities. For instance, students are used to working to deadlines (e.g. essay due by the 4th of December) but the deadlines in a complex project are subject to a variety of pressures and dependencies, requiring a more nuanced approach.

Though your list might differ depending on your business needs, the following is a good starting point for assessing workplace-readiness.

  • Commercial understanding – including contracts, negotiations, NDAs, risk assessment, customer relations, etc.
  • Finances – understanding basic business financials, inc. profit & loss and cashflow, forecasting and budgeting, etc.
  • Self-management – personal time management, prioritising, initiative.
  • Communications – assertiveness, knowing when and being able to say ‘no’, feedback (receiving and giving), written work, presentation skills, being able to structure an argument, etc.
  • Teamwork – discussion and meeting behaviours, understanding how managers manage, collaboration techniques and strategies.
  • Problem-solving – analysing the situation, identifying and assessing options, considering impact on relevant parties, assessing risk.
  • Numeracy and literacy – the use of basic mathematical and literacy skills as applied in a business environment.
  • Professionalism – with both colleague and customers, knowing how to behave, balancing the personal and professional, respecting confidentiality, etc.
  • IT – use of the common applications for word processing, spreadsheets, and internet use.

All that said, do not expect to find graduate recruits who tick all of those boxes. What you’re realistically looking for is some experience together with a wider awareness of what they need to learn – if they know what they don’t know, that’s a good starting point.

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