Episode 3: Get the skills employers want

Posted
October, 2019

This is a transcript of Episode 3: Get the skills employers want, from Future You - the careers podcast from Prospects

Contributors

Host: Dan Mason

Guests:

  • Amy Carpenter, University of Suffolk
  • Francesca DiTano, Explore Learning.

Note on transcripts

These transcripts are produced using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. The audio version is definitive and should be checked before quoting.

Episode transcript

Dan Mason: Hello, and welcome to Future You. I'm Dan Mason, and this is the podcast from graduate careers experts Prospects. If you missed our first two episodes on graduate schemes, and on how to become an entrepreneur, do head to the website prospects.ac.uk/podcasts to listen to those, or find them in the Future You feed on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And while you're there, don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss any more episodes. Before we get going, just a quick reminder that if you have any questions about graduate careers, do send them over by email to podcast@prospects.ac.uk or get in touch on Twitter, we're @prospects.

Now today we're talking about skills. When you're a student and when you're looking for graduate jobs, you hear a lot about employability and making sure that you have the skills employers want. Some of these are specific skills that you need for a particular job, things like writing skills for journalists, or medical knowledge for doctors, or being good with numbers if you want to be an accountant. But just as often you'll hear about transferable skills or soft skills, more general things that graduate employers look for in their new recruits. These are a bit more about your character - communication skills, leadership, time management, resilience, that sort of thing. And these can be a bit trickier to understand. It's not necessarily easy to know whether you already have these skills. So how do you identify them? If you don't have them, how do you go about getting them? And if you do have them, how do you demonstrate that to employers when you're going through an application process - beyond just writing on your CV that you're a good communicator or whatever it is?

And that's what we're talking about on the show today. Later, we'll get the employer perspective from Francesca DiTano from Explore Learning. But first, here's our regular guest careers adviser Amy Carpenter on getting the skills that employers want.

Hi Amy.

Amy Carpenter: Hi Dan.

Dan Mason: First of all, it can be quite tricky sometimes for students to understand or identify skills that they already have when they come in to look for jobs and apply for jobs. Do you have any techniques or tips on how to sort of do that self-assessment of understanding the skills you've already developed as a student?

Amy Carpenter: Yeah, so one of the first things I often recommend to students if they really don't know where to start is to perhaps undertake some self-assessment activities and tools. There's lots of free ones out there online, and a lot of universities will be paying subscriptions to platforms, which have these resources within it. So within our university, we've got a platform which has about 20 different assessments on working out your strengths, how resilient you are, looking at your Myers-Briggs personality types, there's also free ones online. And they're really great tools because then you can read back the results that you get and think, do I agree with this? Do I not? Why do I agree with this actually? Is this a way that I behave in the workplace or at university? Do I like that kind of thing actually? Or do I disagree with that, and I don't see myself as a leader, it says that you have leadership qualities, but perhaps actually, you have got leadership qualities, you've just never realised it. So I think that's a fantastic way to start if you're really not sure.

And then I think in other ways, if you've done some work experience, had jobs, internships, depending on where you are in your career, or in your university degree, think about things that you really enjoyed in those jobs or in your assignments as well. Perhaps if you did presentations, did you enjoy the presentation? Or did you really really dislike it? What were your reasons for that? What went well, didn't go so well. And then you can start to identify just what sort of work or industry you might want to work in because if it's people-facing, is it a certain type of role? Or if you think actually I don't want to communicate with people too much is it more of an office-based role that you want?

Dan Mason: And so once you have an idea about the skills that you've got, obviously then you also have an understanding of skills that you feel you might want to develop or improve on, having looked at job adverts maybe and seen skills that that employers expect you to have. While you're still at university, what are the best ways to go about getting new skills?

Amy Carpenter: University is just such a fantastic time to try lots of different things. I think it's an opportunity that you won't have in many aspects of your career in the future or you won't have had before, because you've got your students' union you can get involved with, you could be a course rep, you could volunteer with a society, get involved in sports. Often they have volunteering opportunities in general with the community. Internships are a fantastic way. They don't always have to be in the summer either businesses sometimes will offer part-time internships so you could actually be doing an internship alongside your study, which is really fantastic because you're actually earning salary, you're applying your skills that you're learning in your degree and then going into the workplace almost the next day, and practising what you're doing, testing the theories, do they work, do they not.

And I think also just getting involved, often universities will have opportunities to be mentors or you could become a student ambassador for your university. And you can just volunteer within your local community as well. If you've got extra commitments, perhaps you've got caring responsibilities, or you have to work part time or full time because you need to have an income, then you could perhaps volunteer, even if it's just once a month, because it's an additional thing for your CV, an extra way to learn some skills, build your network, and really start to think about what you want to do when you get to the end of your degree as well.

Dan Mason: And when it comes to actually applying for jobs, what are the best ways in application forms or on your CV to actually really demonstrate that you have the skills that the employer's identified in the job description, you know, really show off that you, you're the right person for that job?

Amy Carpenter: I think it's so important to not just use the same CV for every job you're applying for in the first instance, and really target it to that job application and the skills that they want. So have a look through their person specification, the advert, the job description, what skills are they seeking, and then bring in lots of evidence and examples that you've got, from your degree from your work experience, volunteering, hobbies as well, and bring that to life through it. So for example, if you just say that I can work in a team and on my own initiative, that's great, but it doesn't really give any evidence of that. Whereas if you can show that you've had to do projects, perhaps in a team, and you can actually then bring the two together, then it's going to give you a much stronger chance of demonstrating to the employer why you're the right person for the job.

Dan Mason: And finally on this, as you said before, university's a fantastic time to do all of these different activities and things to gain new skills. What about those who've recently graduated? Maybe they're applying for jobs, perhaps don't feel like they're getting anywhere with the applications, want to carry on developing their skills, building new skills. How can they go about doing that?

Amy Carpenter: I think if you're finding that the first thing I would say is definitely go back and speak to your careers service. Most careers services will offer support to their graduates, my university will help graduates for three years after they graduate. I know some other universities will offer it on a lifetime basis as well. So definitely get back in touch with them. Get them to review your CV, see if they can give you some feedback on where they think you might be going wrong. And then I think if you've got that window where you finished your studies, finished your exams, finished your dissertation, go out there in the market and see what's available. Could you volunteer? Often charity shops are looking for volunteers, there's always charity shops in my town that are looking for volunteers. Projects, summer is a fantastic time, perhaps work in a festival, or there's always loads and loads of events in parks and things like that, that you could perhaps get involved with.

And whilst they're keeping you busy, they're also giving you a great way to start enhancing your skills and giving you extra things to actually include into those applications, and helping you to reflect a little bit more on what it is that you do, and don't like, I think as well, because the more you try, and the more you realise what you will and what you won't like to do moving forward. And I would also say as well that get your family and friends to have a look at your applications as well because you know yourself the best. And when you're writing an application, you can forget that the other people don't know what you've done, and you know what you've done. Sometimes you can just write in a way that you forget that. So get people who know what you've done, or perhaps even don't know what you've done, just know your job title and get them to have a look and give some feedback and say what do you think of what I've said there? See whether they understand what your job perhaps is compared to what you've written. And they might help you reflect on some things that you've missed as well.

Dan Mason: Fantastic, that's great. Amy, thanks very much. And we'll see you again next time.

Amy Carpenter: Thanks, see you soon.

Dan Mason: Now, just before we hear from our next guest, Amy talked there about using online tools to assess the skills that you already have to really understand where you are and what jobs might be available to you with your skillset, or with the skillset that you expect to have by the time you complete your degree. One really good tool that you can use is the Job Match quiz on the Prospects website. It only takes about ten minutes or so to complete. You just need to answer a few questions about your skills and interests. Things like can you explain technical information in a clear way? Are you able to motivate and inspire others? Are you resilient when faced with rejection? That kind of thing? So you just answer those questions and get your results, which will be a set of jobs of graduate careers that really suit you based on your responses to the questions. And it's worth taking some time to look through those results, the job profiles that you get back, because that will really help you understand how they match your skills, what qualifications you need to get into those careers, and a description as well of what those jobs actually involve. It's a really great way to get some career ideas based on your skills and interests. And you can find that at prospects.ac.uk/job-match. So do take a look at that.

Now the key to all of this is making sure that you have the right skills that employers want when you come to apply for a job. So let's hear now from an employer about the skills that they look for, how they assess whether you have them, and what skills also that they think too many graduates are lacking at the moment. Explore Learning takes on graduates in his assistant director roles all around the UK, and I caught up with its attraction manager Francesca DiTano over Skype to find out more about the skills they want to see in the job applications they receive.

Francesca, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us.

Francesca DiTano: Thank you.

Dan Mason: Could you just tell us a little bit about Explore Learning what what you do and what kind of opportunities you have for graduates there?

Francesca DiTano: Yeah, sure. So and at Explore Learning our mission is to is to develop and nurture fearless learners and ultimately be the best possible complement to a child's school education. So we have a cluster of award winning tuition centres, designed to support four to 14-year-olds with their maths with their English skills, but also developing their confidence, their learning habits, and their self-belief. So we've been doing that really well for about 18 years and and ultimately our success is down to the incredible people that live and breath our visions and values. So we've expanded rapidly over over recent years. So we've got 145 centres now across the UK and we're growing every single year. So you know to help us achieve that we're looking ultimately for passionate and ambitious leaders to join the Explore family and and help us make a meaningful impact on both the lives of the children that attend the centres, but also the growth of our business.

So we have two key roles and to enable us to do that. One is a graduate role, which is the assistant director role and and that basically entails joining our close knit management team with the ultimate aim of growing the centre and the membership and raising our profile with families, with schools, with the local community. It's a very unique and challenging role, where graduates combine the love of working with children and education within quite a dynamic and fast-paced commercial environment. But we also have a fantastic part-time role, which is a tutoring role, and we recruit tutors for each local centre, and it's a rewarding part-time job where you know, our employees really form, are really part of a close knit team dedicated to bringing the children's learning to life and helping us create those fearless learners and, and provide that incredible tuition that we offer.

Dan Mason: And those graduate roles in particular. Could you talk a little bit about the skills that you look for in recent students, new graduates, applying for these roles? Maybe start with... some of the skills will obviously be job specific, and others will be more more soft, transferable skills. Could you just talk a bit about what you look for?

Francesca DiTano: Yeah, absolutely. I think what our job, the specific role that we've got is so broad, and, you know, as an employer, we can't expect graduates to be an expert in all aspects of the rules. And I think more and more now degree subjects provide quite a broad base of subject matter, which, you know, at face value, some may think isn't relevant to certain roles. However, for us, it's the broad skill exposure that we look for and I think, you know, this role is so multifaceted and in general, I think roles are becoming more multifaceted and, and therefore, employers are seeking those who are really able to adapt, to use their initiative, and to turn their their hand to lots of different, lots of different things. And in terms of, you know, an initial application, I think we really, really drill into those past experiences, especially those experiences with candidates working in teams, whether it's in sports or uni societies, or maybe part-time roles in retail or hospitality, and then how that candidate is able to draw on the skills that they've gained from that experience within that application. Because for us, this shows a real understanding of the value of the experience we've had and an ability to self-analyse and develop skills to take forward.

But for us, I mean, soft skills are incredibly important. I think also other employers as well. You know, face-to-face communication is so important to aid brand buy-in and I think more and more in business and, and even in kind of other work, you know people buy into people. So the people providing the service or selling the product or running the event or managing the team. And so those inspirational qualities including confidence and conviction, communication for us are a top priority. And I think, you know, ultimately most businesses, companies, schools will provide training based on the roles. So, again, I think that willingness and that trainability, receptiveness and initiative are so important. We look for people who are very proactive and resilient. And at this end we can then help our candidates master the ins and outs and the intricacies of the rule based on that amazing attitude.

Dan Mason: Absolutely. And with some of those soft skills in particular, it can be can be really hard for graduates to know how to demonstrate that they have them. Like, many, many students and graduates will have these skills and not really be to know how to show it. You touched on it there in terms of experience on your CV and societies and part-time jobs. But beyond listing those things on your CV, how can you show that you have those skills?

Francesca DiTano: Yeah, that's a good question. I think specifically within interviews, I think the key is to bring those past experiences to life. And I think some candidates need to rely on the fact that the interviewer has read their CV and has got a list of their experiences. And actually, what's so important is for that candidate to tell us what they've learned, what they've gained from it, and how they're going to use the skills in the specific role, and why the skills are transferable and valuable. And I think, you know, candidates can do that by by demonstrating and detailing how they might approach a task or responsibility within the role perhaps instead of listing the skillsets which they think may be relevant. It's kind of merging those two together and highlighting transferability of the experience. But I think as well in the written application, there's definitely ways that they can demonstrate those skills. You know, for us, it is obvious when someone's copied and pasted the responses or maybe used a template CV without adapting their responses. So for us, though, that attention to detail is really key. And it's a big, big part of the role that we're doing. So we go through every application thoroughly and assess that written communication. So making it personal, highlighting those personal experiences and, and tone of voice, is really important to try and convey that enthusiasm, drive and passion that we look forward as well.

Dan Mason: And you've already mentioned a few things there that students can do while at university to build these skills. Part-time jobs, societies. Do you have any more examples of things that would really stand out on a CV or an application form in terms of things that students have gone out and done proactively while at university alongside their degree?

Francesca DiTano: Yeah, I mean, I think definitely societies and it's something that we always look out for even things extra-curricular activities like Duke of Edinburgh awards or NCS: The Challenge is always a fantastic thing that we look out for. Definitely part-time roles if you know if that student has the capacity to be able to do that, I think getting a part-time job and unlocking those skills in customer service and leadership and teamwork and it really shows our ability to balance you know, university work and also and also a part-time job. But for us the the way a graduate can really stand out above others is is to show that you know a graduate is really well-informed about the role so they've maybe got a background in the specific sector and that spark and that passion for the sector really comes across. You know, the market is the job market is picking up and and there's more choice out there than there was maybe ten years ago. And so when we meet a graduate who has this kind of extra-curricular background but it has also done their research and taken the time to educate themselves in the wider sector,the culture, the vision of the business. And we know that we've really thought about it. And already somewhat invested, I suppose in what we do. And we find that that those informed candidates tend to perform much better in the interview process as well.

Dan Mason: Yeah. So really knowing about the job they're applying for is just as important as the skills they're showing on the on the application.

Francesca DiTano: Absolutely, yes, definitely a balance between the two because again, it takes me back to the point of those skills being transferred into the role. You know, we want to, it's difficult to you know, assess because this role is so unique, it's difficult to assess the suitability, you know, of that person being able to actually perform but we're looking for that potential. And I think the best way we can do that is by assessing the transferability of the skills and the attributes that they've got into the roles and responsibilities of being in this case an assistant director with Explore.

Dan Mason: Yeah, and obviously you recruit graduates, a lot of graduates there at Explore Learning. Over recent years, have you noticed that there are particular skills that you find graduates are lacking at the moment, that seem to be missing from CVs and application forms or that aren't being developed at university that you think, you know, any skills that are missing really?

Francesca DiTano: Yeah, I mean, I would see there's there's definitely a thread of leadership skills that at times we don't tend to see coming through as strongly as other skills. And you know, it's challenging because at this early stage, you know, of a graduate's career, and you know, those candidates don't often have the exposure to leadership or managerial scenarios. So as a recruiter, we need to kind of pick apart and assess their potential to lead rather than than relying on experiences. You know, however, having said that, again, our top performing candidates tend to seek out those opportunities to increase their exposure to leadership and certainly those skills will really shine through the interview process.

Dan Mason: Yeah, so anyone who can demonstrate those kind of skills early on is going to stand a good chance.

Francesca DiTano: Absolutely.

Dan Mason: And you've touched on this as well. But obviously, many of these goals are for new graduates it'll be their first graduate job. And of course, learning new skills doesn't stop at the end of your degree does it? It really carries on throughout your career and in particular in the early stages of your career. Could you talk a bit about how you develop new graduates' skills once they start the role?

Francesca DiTano: Yeah, absolutely. So you know, we're very proud and fortunate to have been named the number two in the best companies to work for in The Times for the past two years. And really that's come down to our training platform which gets fantastic and reviews based on our employees that use it and you know, for us, we know that it's not one-size-fits-all, and we know that our graduates are coming from lots of different walks of life, we've got a really diverse pool of employees. And therefore, I think the beauty of the training that we offer is it's very tailored, it's very employee-led. And there's also a real mix of different opportunities for our employee to learn and to grasp elements of the role. So some of our training we provide is online, we've got a brilliant platform where our employees can logon and upskill themselves on knowledge or theory behind something that they're going to be doing.

But we also have kind of formal training that our employees can attend on a regular basis to upskill themselves and a specific aspect of the role and bring back to their centre. I mean for us though, the vast majority of our training is done on-the-job, it's hands on, it's you know, that exposure to all the different elements of the role it's learning from people around them, mentorship, and that's why our managers are so so important because they're inspiring the next generation of, of managers who will be then inspiring the learners that come into our centres. So it's a really, really varied approach. But, you know, the vast majority of our training is very hands on on-the-job through expedience, and I'm making those mistakes learning from those mistakes and and, and, and then taking that forward to bettering themselves and improving and progressing within the role as well.

Dan Mason: Fantastic. And of course, the way that applicants will be demonstrating these skills will be through your application process. Could you just talk a little bit about the process itself? Do you use CVs or application forms, what style of interview and just take us through your process?

Francesca DiTano: Sure. Yep. So the application is is nice and easy actually/ It's through our website. And so for our graduate role, for the assistant director role, we ask for a short application, so it's two questions and then that candidate will attach their CV as well. We will then process that, we provide feedback for every single candidate, every single application that we receive, whether they've been successful or not. And we'll get back to every candidate within one week. And then if they are successful, some of our candidates will have a short telephone interview so we can delve a little bit deeper into their experiences, and probe on those areas that we'd love to find out a little bit more of, and then those candidates will come and visit a centre for that first-round interview. For us that's so important because we get to see them within this environment, but also the candidate gets a real flavour of how the centre works, what the role's like what we have to offer and they get to meet our managers first-hand and, and, you know, ask them what it's like to work for Explore. So it's a real kind of day in the life experience. And it's a chance for us to see you know, what that candidate is like within the environment, working with children and within pushing and testing for those leadership, managerial and commercial skills.

And then the final stage is an assessment morning, which is based in our head office in Guildford. So we'll invite our candidates to Guildford where they'll spend the morning taking part in lots of different activities designed and tailored around what they're going to be doing within the role so we can assess the competencies and the attributes that they've got that would be relevant. And then we'll, we'll obviously, then give them a call within two or three working days. But for us, we really pride ourselves on the communication that we have throughout the process for our candidates so that they feel nurtured and ready and prepared to tackle every stage of the interview. And that communication for us, you know, sets the tone for what they're going to get within the role as well. So it can be quite a quick process from application to job offer.

Dan Mason: Ok, that's all we've got time for today. Thanks again to Amy and Francesca for coming on the show. Show. I hope that's helped you get your head around some of those questions about how to get the skills employers want, how to show that you have them and how to understand your existing skills. I really do recommend you try Job Match on the Prospects site. Just one more time the website for that is prospects.ac.uk/job-match. And you can find that link in the description too. Don't forget to subscribe to Future You wherever you listen to podcasts and send your questions to us by email to podcast@prospects.ac.uk or on Twitter @prospects. And for advice on everything to do with graduate careers and postgraduate study as well, head to Prospects.ac.uk. You can also search for graduate jobs there too. That's it for now, thanks very much for listening and I'll speak to you next time.

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