Are graduates lacking the skills that employers need?

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Written by Lyndon Wingrove on 10 December 2014

By the year 2020, the millennial generation – those born between around 1980 and 2000 – will make up roughly half the global workforce. Whichever label you decide to attribute to them, be it millennials or generation Y, these are the people who will be running our economy in the decades to come. It is essential, then, that we as organisations and L&D professionals are proactively developing this generation of future leaders in the right way, giving them the skills that will enable them to help our businesses thrive when the time comes.

This is particularly important when you take into account the looming skills gaps in sectors such as construction and engineering, but the skills gap is not limited to those industries; 60 per cent of organisations report a shortage in leadership talent, for example. Much of this can be attributed to an aging workforce, without the necessary talent pipeline to fill the gaps that highly skilled people are leaving. It is not too late to avoid disaster, but time is running out fast, and developing the next generation should be a key priority for all of us.

Educated into unemployment

While development begins at education level, the reality, sadly, is that many entry-level candidates are simply not properly prepared for the working world. A recent Totaljobs survey found that employers are increasingly struggling to fill entry-level jobs, because graduates are quite often lacking the key skills required for the roles. One in seven firms have been unable to fill an entry-level position within the last three years, with 15 per cent of recent graduates remaining unemployed. By contrast, only five per cent of those with trade apprenticeships struggled to find work.

It is probably fair to say, then, that many graduates are not being taught some of the skills and behaviours that employers expect from their staff within a real, functioning business. So while on paper these individuals are well-qualified, the reality is that many of them are simply not ready to be effective in the workplace. Or, at least, they are perceived by prospective employers as not being so. From the graduates’ point of view, they are frustrated by not getting the quick progression they were expecting, instead being given non-challenging tasks and limited responsibility. When both employees and graduates become frustrated, high turnover is often the result.

What can we do about it?

Knowledge is something that schools and universities can teach graduates. Social skills they can learn from living and interacting with people during their time in education. Behaviours, however, particularly the behaviours that will help them in positions of responsibility, are an altogether different matter. We often discuss the 70:20:10 approach, where 70 per cent of learning is through ‘doing.’ No amount of classroom theory on leadership, change management, strategic planning, resilience, or any of those important traits that great leaders, and indeed great employees at all levels, exhibit, can be truly effective without the opportunity to apply that knowledge through experience and exposure.

Experiential learning opportunities can be very effective, as can any structured learning intervention where the learners are put into challenging situations, outside of their ‘normal’ working environment, that enable them to develop skills such as leadership, resilience, or any other traits that are valuable to an organisation but not necessarily prevalent in an educational environment.

This is not about bashing graduates or the universities that educate them; it is about looking at the wider picture and working out what can be done to make the transition from education to the commercial world smoother for everyone involved. Some companies are already taking steps to help young people get a head start through useful workplace experience, but an increase in opportunities like this could have a huge impact. Of course, employers would rather take on graduates who are going to be competent and effective in their role, but university leavers, too, would surely rather be able to make a positive contribution from day one, rather than finding they are faced with a steep learning curve the moment they step through the door.

If employers and educational institutions work together, there is no reason why graduates cannot be better prepared for the working world in future. But we all need to help each other. Whether this means organisations providing guidance or opportunities, or whether it means universities doing more to put students into situations where the lacking traits can be brought out, there is a real opportunity to create a generation of confident, high-performing young workers. Ultimately, a stronger partnership between educators, organisations and L&D professionals will lead to a whole generation of more effective workers and a better future for all.

Lyndon Wingrove is director of capabilities and consulting at Thales L&D []


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