Graduate employability is also about employers

Alex Acland, Head of the Education Practice, Odgers Berndtson, on global initiative CEO for the Day

Universities are approaching a crunch point. Falling numbers of students from the European Union and a demographic trough has heightened competition for new students – piling pressure on university funding. Young people, under the shadow of student debt, want good job prospects – and favour universities and courses that deliver them. Employability has always been a concern for Vice-Chancellors and universities but it’s never been more mission critical. Employers, however, could also do more and, as our experience suggests, have much to gain.

Anecdotally, there’s little doubt that experience in the professional world is an important pathway into work. For the most part, however, work experience gained at university is ad hoc and largely dependent on a combination of luck, individual get-up-and-go and personal connections.  This, in our view, is what most needs to change.

Work experience gained at university is ad hoc and largely dependent on a combination of luck, individual get-up-and-go and personal connections

Odgers Berndtson is a leading executive search firm working across education and the public and private sectors in the UK. A while back we decided to do what we could to use these relationships to strengthen links between employers and academia, launching CEO for a Day to the UK in 2016. The goal is to create a personal connection between business leaders and a younger generation, via a scheme almost unique in offering undergraduates a direct insight to the very top of organisations. Young people about to enter the workplace shadow a CEO for the day, one on one, gaining extraordinary insight into what it takes to lead.

Since CEO for a Day launched globally, just over five years ago, over 18,000 students in thirteen countries across our network have applied to take part. More than 400 have shared a day with as many top leaders in countries ranging from Brazil and Canada to Singapore, Turkey and Spain. Companies include the likes of Google, Twitter, Adidas, Cisco, Ikea, Thomson Reuters, Unilever, Sony, Vodafone, Toyota, Jaguar Land Rover, Nestle and Coty – plus not-for-profit and public sector organisations including (this year in the UK) Barnado’s, University of Lincoln and the Department of Transport.

Life-changing experiences

Feedback from both students and CEOs has been very positive – for a young person the experience can be life-changing, and the CEOs find it a useful way to engage directly with the different, challenging mindset of a new generation. Last year, for instance, Helen Ghosh, CEO of The National Trust, told us that taking part in CEO for a Day was an “opportunity to reflect on my role as CEO, and see what it looks like through someone else’s eyes”.

Haydn Mursell, chief executive of the engineering and infrastructure company Kier Group, said: “Young people come to problem-solving with a fresh perspective and can challenge traditional leaders – that’s refreshing.”

Each year in the UK, we’ve included a university Vice-Chancellor in the CEO line up, also giving them a new perspective on student employability. This year, Professor Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor of University of Lincoln, is among 20 leaders taking part. Like others, Professor Stuart is keen to encourage young people to think outside the box about their future careers – and applying for something like this is one way to try that.

“Taking initiative demonstrates autonomy, leadership and a keen willingness to further an organisation’s objectives,” says Professor Stuart – touching on another key point. Increasingly leaders are focused on how to find people to help them meet future challenges when the world could look quite different, with new technologies transforming how companies and whole industries work.

Importance of mindset and character

Few will have proven experience in dealing with the unknown, so mindset and character is becoming especially important – and young people can help themselves by finding opportunities to demonstrate this. Curiosity, proactivity, a willingness to challenge thinking and work collaboratively on complex problems are all highly prized.

Any undergraduate currently studying at a UK university can apply for the 2018/19 programme and has until the end of January 2019 to do so. Going through the application process will give students a good taste of what to expect from a rigorous selection process, which many students say is helpful in itself. We realise the demand and need is far greater than this initiative alone but, hopefully, it may help to inspire others.

In the end, more engagement between universities, students and employers must hold the key to raising student employability.