Making graduates more employable: the gap between university and work

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The gulf between education and business is not helping struggling graduates, argues co-founder of Eyes Wide Opened Alastair Creamer, and young career-seekers sometimes need a practical bridge between the two.

Employers aren’t happy. Bright, hopeful, under-employed graduates are confused. Their parents are certainly not happy. A generation of graduates is emerging from education saying “I have no idea what I want to do” and it would seem that there is no concerted, collaborative effort being made to address this.

Employability

Universities are under pressure to play a more pivotal role as nurturers of employable “can-doers”, not just of subject-specific learners. With employability statistics becoming a decision-making factor for many parents and prospective students, this connection into the world of work has momentum and won’t go away. Academics in universities are divided about how much preparation students should be given to help them move between the worlds of education and work. This is the final phase of formal education for many and it should be ring-fenced from the distraction of skill sets, competency frameworks, interview techniques and CV formatting.

Others say the buck stops with employers, which have a responsibility to offer more and better internships, apprenticeships and other forms of work experience and to develop students in a way that prepares them better for any type of work.

Meaningful skills

But the way to start is by getting graduates to help themselves. Many have yet to translate their education into meaningful skills and capabilities for the workplace. Coming from the digital-native generation, their interpersonal skills are dramatically variable, whether it’s their ability to listen, to accept feedback, to dicuss or to empathise.

It’s my belief that UK graduates need access to practical, meaningful cross-sector employability guidance. Coaching – not just the odd hour, but a comprehensive, intensive coaching opportunity – is no longer the preserve of executives or top sports people.

Employers often say they want candidates who are more self-aware, who understand exactly what they have to offer their chosen industry and how to offer it. You can’t deliver this material effectively online or out of books.

Under-employment

The long-term problem is the under-employment of talented, capable graduates, who are treading water in very limited roles. Someone somewhere needs to take action. We have just begun to tackle this challenge with the launch of Eyes Wide Opened (EWO), a five-day coaching course for unfocused and under-employed but determined graduates. It is run by professionals who understand what employers need and can help graduates become clearer about their own direction in life, while making them more prepared for the world of work.

EWO turns on its head the idea of soft and hard skills. Young adults are as likely now to get a job because of their people skills. We use coaches from business, the arts and even a former Metropolitan Police hostage negotiator to help graduates identify their set of signature strengths and to translate their own knowledge and experience into transferable qualities that are relevant and attractive to employers. Decision-making, writing skills, teamwork, presentation and articulation, empathy, reflection, curiosity and listening are some of the skills being demanded by all businesses. Many graduates have these skills, but often don’t know it.

Careers services

Pockets of excellent advice and guidance are offered by some universities, but careers services often fail to connect with the majority of students. There is clearly room for more bespoke guidance and I hope that business, the arts, government and the education and voluntary sectors can collaborate more closely than they have done up to now in order to provide it. As many young adults leave the structure of education for the last time, where is the support to guide them in a different structure, that of work?

Graduates are typically heading for a working life of 10,000 days. They need to help themselves quickly, because preparation for work and careers advice will take time to change within universities. It’s not just a question of more resources or timetabling sessions. It’s a fundamental re-think about how to prepare young adults for life.

Who’s going to help them? For many it’s a leap into the unknown and we need to re-evaluate how we support and guide young people at this crossroads.

Alastair Creamer is co-founder of Eyes Wide Opened. Its next coaching course for graduates begins on 25 February 2013 in London.

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