Evidence: Is there a skills gap?

National Research

The world of work has changed significantly over the last few years and a degree is no longer enough to secure graduate employment. Students are entering Higher Education (HE) in order to get graduate level employment: "It is clear that, as a more diverse population chooses to go to university, greater emphasis is being placed on long-term employment prospects when choosing institutions and courses". (Futuretrack Survey 2006, Professors Kate Purcell & Peter Elias)

The student expectation is that HE will provide employability. Employers are also demanding that graduates have developed ‘employability skills' and can ‘hit the ground running' when they enter the workplace. The Institute of Directors (IoD) Briefing 2007 said employers find most graduates are unprepared for employment and suggested that universities have a role to play in this. The same report highlighted that employability skills (in a generic sense) are perceived by employers as more important than subject specific skills.

Employers are being more explicit in the skills they expect from graduates. The Top 10 most important skills and capabilities when recruiting new graduates are:

  • Communication skills
  • Team work
  • Integrity
  • Intellectual ability
  • Confidence
  • Character / personality
  • Planning and organisational skills
  • Literacy (good writing skills)
  • Numeracy (good with numbers)
  • Analysis and decision-making skills

(Graduate Employability: What do employers think and want? The Council for Industry and Higher Education 2008)

Carl Gilleard, the Chief Executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) in Feb 2007 said: "Much more effort needs to be made.....to get the message across that going to university and coming out with a 2.1, while an achievement, is not enough to land a graduate level job. You have to develop your skills and experience. People who put in applications full of spelling mistakes on online application forms deserve what they get".

The definition of employability Carl uses on behalf of AGR is: "Twenty-first century graduates need to demonstrate to employers that they can ‘hit the ground running'. In addition to working hard to gain a good degree, students should engage in extra curricular activities and obtain work experience in order to develop skills that will make them better prepared for the world of work."

The issue that Higher Education is battling with is how, in the crowded market place of the university experience, do we help students to realise all of the above? Universities recognise the need to facilitate the development of skills that lie outside the core subject, termed "transdisciplinary" skills by Jackson and Ward (2004), but which deserve to be treated as related skills in that the successful application of subject skills in the context of employment will be founded on proficiencies in areas such as communication, planning and the interpersonal.

How do employers find the right graduate?

Research (Edwards, HEA, 2005) shows that employers from across all sectors use standardised application forms with a striking similarity in ‘open' skills questions the most common of which are as follows. Percentages in brackets indicate the proportion of forms in the sample which included the question:

1) Overcoming difficulties and sticking to a task (100 per cent)
2) Description of the candidate's ‘most significant achievement' (83 per cent)
3) Team working and organisation of others (67 per cent)
4) Reasons for applying and career interests/aspirations (67 per cent)
5) Extra-curricula activities (50 per cent)
6) Strategic/broad questions relating to employers' business (50 per cent)
7) Positions of responsibility and details of responsibilities (33 per cent)
8) Customer service and behaviours displayed (33 per cent)

From the application forms employers shortlist and candidates are interviewed and / or undertake an ‘assessment centre' where skills are tested in such a way that they can be observed and analysed.

What do employers want from graduates?

Job applications from graduates "... [which] are not simply focused on the academic subject the candidate has studied. They demand consideration of career aspirations and knowledge of the employer's business. They also allow (and demand) reflection and description of both academic and non-academic activities. Overall, the results give a clear pointer to where candidates should generally focus their initial PDP and reflections as a basis for filling out application forms (Edwards, HEA, 2005)


Gordon Edwards - Connecting PDP to Employer needs and the World of Work - HEA 2005

Gough, D. A., Kiwan, D., Sutcliffe, S., Simpson, D. and Houghton, N. (2003) A systematic map and synthesis review of the effectiveness of personal development planning for improving student learning London EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit

Harvey, L. et al (1997) Graduates Work: Organisational Change and Students' Attributes. Birmingham: Centre for Research into Quality.

Hawkins, P. (2005) The Art of Building Windmills: Career Tactics for the 21st Century Liverpool: GIEU

Influence through Collaboration: Employer Demand for Higher Learning and Engagement with Higher Education

Jackson, N. & Ward, R. (2004) ‘A Fresh Perspective On Progress Files - A Way of Representing Complex Learning and Achievement in Higher Education' Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education Vol, 29, No 4, August 2004 (423-449)

QAA. Getting the job you deserve, progress files for students