Graduate Answer Time 2013: how can graduate recruitment address skills shortages?

The great and the good from the world of graduate recruitment gathered yesterday for the fourth Graduate Answer Time event. Hosted by ITV News’ Faye Barker at the plush Royal Society of Chemistry in London, the event focused on the perceived skills gap in graduate candidates.

Research recently conducted by totaljobs.com entitled ‘Mind the gap in 2017′ identified that 61% of companies are having trouble recruiting entry-level talent. Add this to the fact that there are going to be fewer 18-year-olds in four years’ time, and you have the beginnings of a fairly hefty problem.

So we persuaded a lofty panel of experts to discuss the situation: Carl Gilleard, Chief executive of the AGR; Jonathan Black, Director of careers services at Oxford University; Alex Bols, Executive director of the 1994 Group; Jessie Buscombe, Head of development at the National Apprenticeship Service; and Dr Norman Apsley, Chief executive of the Northern Ireland Science Park.

Time to go easier on graduates?

The two main themes that emerged through the discussions were that employers and educators are simply expecting too much of graduates these days and that everyone needs to pull together to help fill the skills gap.

Firstly, the panel debated whether graduates are coming through with a lack of technical skills. Carl Gilleard commented that this isn’t the biggest challenge facing graduate recruiters at the moment (candidate drop-out is), but that it will be a significant issue in the future.

Jonathan Black countered with the information that only 30% of engineering graduates from Oxford last year actually went into engineering jobs, and instead ended up in banking, finance and a host of other industries. Why? Because “graduates go to the most interesting, most-well paid jobs”.

There was a general consensus on the panel that graduates don’t always leave university with a career firmly in their mind. As Carl Gilleard put it: “Graduates eventually move towards the job they feel their degree prepared them for. But it can take years”.

Alex Bols went further, asserting that the problem sets in much earlier: “universities could and should take a greater role in shaping content of A levels”.

Problems with soft skills

This theme continued when the panel debated the perceived problem in graduate’s soft skills, with careers advice coming in for a pasting. As Carl Gilleard put it, “we have an appalling record on career guidance in the UK. Every person in every school should get careers advice, but 1 in 5 headteachers don’t bother with it because it isn’t statutory”.

But what advice should schools be giving pupils about work? For Dr Norman Apsley, there’s a problem with the content being given. He feels that careers advice should go way beyond tips on how to find a job, and that we should be showing pupils the best way to manage their career and dealing with bosses.

Jonathan Black agreed that our careers advice structure is flawed, but suggested that there should be a much more practical element to the whole thing – “a ‘show me, don’t teach me’ approach is needed to engage students with developing employability skills”.

But there was agreement that the lack of careers advice is not only limiting graduates’ vision and skillset, but is also having a negative impact on their ability to sell themselves effectively. Part-time jobs, volunteering and travel (Alex Bols believes international experience is hugely valued by employers) all commonly feature in graduate candidates’ past, but are often portrayed confusingly on CV. According to Carl Gilleard, “many graduates have the experience required, but have no way of articulating it to employers”.

Dr Norman Apsley suggested an additional problem caused by poor careers advice, namely that graduates’ desire just to get that first job is leading to short-term thinking. “Graduates and apprenticeships should be thinking of their whole career, not just their first job.”

Replacing the aging workforce

So, as the pool of school leavers continues to shrink while recruiters simultaneously try to replace an aging workforce, we asked the panel what can be done about this. Apprenticeships came to the fore at this point, and Jessie Buscombe pointed out that “most employers are looking for apprentices to fill entry-level jobs that graduates might not want”, but also suggested that we shouldn’t look at university and apprenticeships as mutually exclusive. In Germany, for example, apprenticeships are given equal billing to university education, but they don’t compete with each other.

The panel then discussed the spectrum of young candidates, demonstrating that there are pros and cons for every option available to people. Dr Norman Apsley asked: “How do the kids who leave school with no qualifications get into the system?”, showing that there’s an increased need to get advice and experience to people as early as possible.

When it comes to recent graduates, the question usually comes down to further study or entering the world of work. But Carl Gilleard believes the system doesn’t cater for the latter adequately, expecting them to immediately choose their long-term career. “Some graduates don’t want to settle into a career for 3-4 years. We need to be more flexible.”

And for those who opt for further study, the situation is no less confusing, with Jonathan Black commenting that consumer companies actually want undergraduates more than postgrads. It seems that there are pitfalls whenever you choose to end your education these days.

So what is the state of play?

As Carl Gilleard summed the session up, it was clear that there is a graduate skills gap in the UK at the moment, but that the blame lies squarely at employers and educators, who simply aren’t effectively preparing school-leavers and graduates for the world of work.

Thanks to everyone who took part, and to Faye Barker for her excellent compering of the event.

 

Want to see more on the Graduate AnswerTime session? Check out the Twitter hashtag #AnswerTime.

And check back to the blog soon for full details of the ‘Mind the gap in 2017’ report.

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