Despite the emphasis on the need for computer software and programming skills in today's technology-driven environment, the most important qualities employers look for are teamwork, problem-solving and the ability to plan and prioritise. According to Forbes.com, effective teamwork is the skill that employers most desire when recruiting new graduates. This is followed closely by the ability to learn quickly without being constantly 'spoon-fed' and the ability to make decisions and solve problems independently.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers ran a survey in which hiring managers were asked what skills they prioritise when they hire graduates. The consensus was that new and recent graduates should pay attention to the following five skills, in order of importance:
- Ability to work in a team
- Ability to make decisions and solve problems
- Ability to plan, organise and prioritise work
- Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organisation
- Ability to obtain and process information
So, does it matter what you studied? The good news is, no matter what you graduate in – be it psychology, engineering or law – you will have had to learn the top five skills on the list. The trick is to demonstrate that you have those skills through your cover letter, CV and finally the interview. In other words, you could think about class projects where you have been a team member or leader and times when you solved a big problem.
Of course you have solved big problems in your life – everyone has. Even before you start primary school, you have already conducted thousands of physics experiments (often using water, mud and dog food as materials). Go ahead and tell a story about a problem you solved. Perhaps you found a better way to organise something or you improved a process that did not make sense or was not working effectively. In the best job interviews, the interviewer will see your brain working and you will see his or her brain working too!
The funny thing about the recruiting process is that if you read a job advertisement, you would think that employers are strictly looking for people with very specific types of experience.
This is what we tend to get stuck on when reading job descriptions – long lists of bullet points with several essential requirements, such as years of experience with certain tools and multiple industry certifications.
Once you get to a job interview, though, the whole picture changes. Employers are looking for qualities in their new hires that are seldom listed in the job advert. In a nutshell, they want to meet people who are self-directed and responsible. How will you demonstrate these skills during the interview? You will bring out qualities relating to these skills through your answers to the questions and through the questions you ask. The stories you tell in a job interview will bring out your sterling qualities, too. You do not have to explicitly state your best traits; they will shine through if you let them.
Many hiring managers use behavioural interview questions – phrases such as 'tell me about a time when' or 'give me an example of' – to assess a job candidate's skills. The underpinning belief is that past performance is likely to predict future performance. Thus, you will want to prepare anecdotes that paint you as possessing those skills.
Finally, the ability to work hard and willingness to do what it takes to get ahead while understanding the notion of delayed gratification, is vital to employers. We all know you want a good salary with lots of predictable increases and bonuses, but employers want to see that you are willing to do what it takes to earn this. Once you have the job, it is a good idea to ask your employer what is necessary to earn that next reward, pay raise or promotion. Do not make your own assumptions about what is good enough. Hard work in your eyes may not be hard work in theirs.
Of course, you might be thinking, 'It is tough showing employers what they want to see when you do not have work experience yet.' You might not have much work experience (or perhaps none at all), but that does not mean you have no experience whatsoever. After all, you must have experienced something at university. And the good news is: it definitely counts!
- Author Ms Suzanne Gericke, PhD student and part-time lecturer: Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences