The unquantifiability of soft skills has long been a problem, especially within the graduate recruitment sphere. Often, it’s noted that graduates come to interview and don’t possess the expected level of what employers may consider basic skills.
There is no sole cause of the skills gap; it exists because of a multitude of reasons. Many sectors such as STEM suffer doubly from both a skills and gender gap. Here, addressing one issue can lead to the solution of the other; by overcoming gender bias and encouraging women into the STEM sector, the skills gap can eventually be plugged.
When it comes to the soft skills gap specifically, it comes down to communication. It’s not the case that graduates simply aren’t aware of the importance of soft skills. They know employers value a candidate beyond their academic achievements. Where it becomes difficult for graduates is knowing exactly which soft skills to prioritise; or even how to ascertain and prove they possess these skills. Therefore, we should place less emphasis on a lack of soft skills in our graduate cohort, and more on a lack of awareness from both sides of the hiring process – employers and graduates are dealing with a communications gap.
According to Milkround’s research, graduates tend to prioritise different skills to their prospective employers. Of over 5,000 respondents to our annual survey, only 23% believed employers consider managing up a hugely important skill to have. However, according to the ISE, 50% of employers train new hires in this skill. Clearly, this is deemed important by a large proportion of employers, evidenced by their investment into developing this. We just need to ensure this is clearly communicated to candidates during the recruitment process.
Locating the gaps
Self-assessment of soft skills
There is still low confidence when it comes to students and graduates self-assessing their soft skills: only 16% of our respondents believe they can problem solve, and 14% think they are self-aware and possess interpersonal skills. These findings imply that it’s not necessarily the case that young people don’t possess these skills – as these certainly will be developed at university. Instead it seems graduates may lack the ability to articulate their soft skills in the way employers want. It’s likely that if graduates had more examples of these skills in a more relatable context, we’d see an uplift in graduates asserting they have these traits.
Contrary to the popular belief that graduates want roles with added quirky benefits like ping pong tables in the office, beanbags and designated yoga zones, Milkround’s 2017 research offers different conclusions.
A number of our respondents claimed they wouldn’t expect any benefits from their employer beyond a fair salary. In fact, the top two benefits graduates expect are really a given: a pension (74%) and healthcare scheme (54%). Following these are a subsidised canteen (31%) and subsidised gym membership (30%) – far from rarities.
This shows there’s still a way to go when it comes to understanding millennials; and even with this insight we are still speaking in very general terms. By speaking directly to graduates as Milkround does, we can guide recruitment processes more accurately – while remaining wary of applying a “one size fits all” policy to the incoming cohort.
It seems these gaps between employers and graduates exist in part because of low confidence levels in candidates, arising from concerns over competition as well as misunderstanding what soft skills employers value most – or simply not knowing how to communicate these skills.
Considering this, employers can develop a recruitment process that is exactly that – a process. A recruitment drive that doesn’t exist purely to fill vacancies, but one that clearly identifies and holds the development of soft skills in high esteem.
Overcoming the gaps
Assess and encourage soft skills
While age certainly shouldn’t act as an excuse for poor quality of work, employers must remember that a graduate’s lifetime has largely consisted of education. They cannot be penalised for not grasping the significance of, for example, managing up – as long as they show respect and a willingness to learn.
Showcase your working environment “outside of work”
Insight days are a great offering for students as they give them a taste of company culture, lets them see the office environment, and hone their soft skills in the process. Workshops, question and answer panels and group exercises encourage candidates to be themselves, as nerves will be less likely to take over in these contexts.
Set a pre-interview task
Creating a challenge in advance of an interview allows the candidate to prove their soft skills in a more concrete way, perhaps by making a presentation or providing a competitor analysis or case study. Although their commercial awareness will not reach beyond that of internet research, this technique is a great way to frame interviews as more of a discussion, rather than rapid-fire questions.
Learning depends on feedback
If you can take the time to pass along positive and constructive feedback to candidates, it will aid candidates in self-assessing themselves more accurately. Graduates are always keen to learn and after putting their own time into the application process, it’s incredibly helpful to feel like there’s some human communication even if they’re unsuccessful.
Overall, identifying, improving and developing a graduate’s soft skillset firstly depends on recognising the nature of this “gap” between candidates and employers. Understanding the market begins with listening to students and graduates, to create the best recruitment process for both your company and incoming youth talent.
Rebecca joined the HRreview editorial team in January 2016. After graduating from the University of Sheffield Hallam in 2013 with a BA in English Literature, Rebecca has spent five years working in print and online journalism in Manchester and London. In the past she has been part of the editorial teams at Sleeper and Dezeen and has founded her own arts collective.