78 applicants are chasing every graduate job, according to a recent report from the Association of Graduate Recruiters. Mary Clarke, CEO of global employee assessment and development company Cognisco argues that candidates need to stand out from the crowd and academic qualifications are not the end game – it’s the core competencies and employability skills that count.

When graduates hand back their gown and mortarboard, and their degree certificate is safely in their hands – they often think they will sail into a well-paid graduate position. However, sadly this isn’t the case today, graduates have to work harder than ever to stand out, gain vital employability skills and market themselves to get a foot on the career ladder.

According to an annual survey on the graduate recruitment market from High Fliers Research http://www.highfliers.co.uk/download/GMReport12.pdf the UK’s leading employers expected to increase their graduate recruitment by 6.4% this year, following a rise of 2.8% in entry-level roles during 2011 and an increase of 12.6% in 2010.

However, competition for jobs is tough. With the graduate unemployment rates at just under 20% – or one in every five new graduates – according to recent a Office for National Statistics report; graduate employers are faced with a high volume of applications, made worse at this time of the year as more graduates enter the job market.

Another issue for employers is that many graduates lack the competencies most companies are looking for today. According to research from the Youth Enterprise charity published in October 2011 amongst businesses like HSBC, KPMG, Santander and Proctor & Gamble, many young people lack ‘vital employability skills’ such as having a suitable grasp of English language, good communication skills and a ‘can do attitude’.

This problem is having an impact. Earlier this year the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) issued research, which suggested as many as 32 per cent of businesses fell short of recruitment targets last year because graduate skill levels did not meet requirements. Factors such as not having the time or money to retrain graduates also featured in the lack of uptake. In short, the survey of 214 major employers (including Barclays and Tesco) found that the standard of applicants was “not always good”.

The truth is that most employers today simply want someone who can do the job and can demonstrate they have the right core competencies. They also want to ensure their new recruit will fit in and have the right attitude and behaviour. The degrees graduates work so hard to achieve could be worthless if they don’t have the right employability skills.

The Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST), in partnership with consulting groups and organisations like the BBC and Microsoft recently developed a list of ‘employability’ skills and came up with eight key areas. These included verbal and written communication skills – how well people can articulate and express themselves, team working, commercial awareness, analytical skills, initiative, drive, time management, planning and organisation together with flexibility – how well a person will adapt to a working environment.

To find the right candidates, employers could be using interviews and assessments to tease out evidence of such skills. However, the onus should also be on government, schools, universities and colleges to work with young people and job seekers to better equip them with the right skills to improve their employability prospects and help businesses get the best candidate on board.

Employers also need to consider using assessments in conjunction with interviews to screen talent. Putting potential candidates through an ‘intelligent’ online assessment process which measures a combination of a candidate’s skills, knowledge and confidence by asking them a series of questions based on realistic work-based scenarios will enable employers to spot talent and potential quickly.

We offer online assessments that measure a person’s skills, knowledge and confidence against the criteria needed for specific job roles. Questions are mapped against ‘ideal’ competencies and desired behaviour – candidates are then measured to see how close they match the ideal. The assessment results provide rich data for managers and a ‘well rounded’ picture of a candidate. They reveal not only how competent a person is but their likely attitude or behaviour, which is then a good indicator of how they might fit into a company’s culture and if they have the potential to do well.

The results also reveal skills and knowledge gaps so managers can see where additional training and support is needed and this information can form the basis of a future training and development plan. Having such accurate data also means that training in the future can be very targeted and cost effective.

Many companies now use online assessments in the recruitment phase; however, it is also important to have on-going assessments as a person progresses through their career with a company to ensure they still have the right skills and knowledge as they move into a more senior role.

Graduates are commonly keen to be promoted quickly and companies often do this without ensuring they have the correct competencies and confidence – just because they are graduates. If they aren’t assessed for the new role, managers can’t be sure they are competent or even understand their new job which could be a big risk for the company.
The recruitment process is evolving fast as a result of technology. In the future more candidate screening and interviews will be done online, by telephone and by Skype or video.

However, what is still needed is a job matching service to manage the screening and initial filtering of candidates. If candidates were matched to a job by their competencies in conjunction with their academic qualifications, it would save a significant amount of time and money for prospective employers and whilst far fewer candidates would have face to face interviews, those that do will have the desired skills and fit for the job.

With such careful screening, employers will be confronted with a better choice of candidates at the interview stage so that they can focus on a candidate’s employability skills and whether they are the right fit for the job. Situational judgement assessments are an essential tool when work needs to be done in assessing how graduates will behave in real work based scenarios.

So for young people graduating this year ‘Don’t get left behind make sure you make every effort to prepare for full time employment by acquiring and demonstrating your employability skills’.

About the Author

Mary J Clarke has served as Chief Executive of Cognisco since January 2004. Under her leadership the company has achieved sustained profitability and implemented a new operating model, developed a more customer and market driven culture and expanded the role and reach of Cognisco.