Employers! Tell us what you want, what you really, really want

What does “work-ready” actually mean? What do employers really want from graduate hopefuls? Employers, careers advisers and graduates themselves tell Cris Warren that in the post-pandemic workplace, character, opinion and grit are just as important as a mastery of spreadsheets and a polite telephone manner

2021’s graduating cohort – and to an extent this will likely apply to 2022’s as well – have entered the job market with a right royal bruising, courtesy of the pandemic.

Lockdowns, isolation, closure of resources, remote learning and paralysing uncertainty have thrown up confidence-zapping electric fences around the once swaggering certainties of completing your degree, acing an interview and being shown to your desk.

Narrowing down those frustrations, one of the biggest bugbears has been about access, or rather lack of access, to the high-quality workplace experience so important to preparing for a career.

Helen Smith is head of careers and deputy director of academic programmes and student engagement at The University of Sheffield. “That vital experience, whether it’s working in part-time roles, short-term internships or year-long placements in industry has just disappeared. All of those opportunities, certainly in the past year, were pretty much decimated. There were still some work openings around, clearly, but just not in any way like the range and volume they typically would have been.”

Self-knowledge gives students confidence in interviews


Where’s all the fun of the jobs fair?

That lack of dress rehearsal for the office theatre has led to careers advisors at Sheffield urging students to look at how their pandemic experiences – lockdowns, remote learning, embracing an ‘online’ life – have unexpectedly reshaped their character and suitability for roles.

“They might have been denied the work experience they might normally have expected, but they’ve still had experience. It’s just been different to what they anticipated – but not necessarily worse. These different experiences have enabled them to develop the same skills, but in different ways.”

Helen’s team – “and I’m sure this is being done in the careers services across higher ed…” – are encouraging their student and graduate clients to think laterally about their experiences. They’ve had to think critically and adapt to a rapidly changed environment and by doing so they’ve learnt resourcefulness and developed some unexpected grit, too.

“In many respects, you know, this current cohort of graduates are our most adept online learners ever” Helen Smith, University of Sheffield

“In many respects, you know, this current cohort of graduates are our most adept online learners ever,” she says. “They should use that fantastic range of learning, those skills they’ve been forced to learn through their online learning experience, to their advantage. How they articulate those new skills is what we’ve been focusing on.”

In a positive spin, the lessons learnt from the pandemic and the honest ways of expressing them might give employers what they want to hear from graduates.

Those conventional life-experience staples – captain of the netball team, gold Duke of Edinburgh awards – have, opines Helen, already become a bit of an interview cliché in an age where students come from a far greater range of socio-economic backgrounds, and may have to work part-time between lectures. “Students of the last decade or so have navigated tough times, but that life experience, learned resourcefulness, hasn’t necessarily been considered as an attribute or a transferable skill – when it quite clearly is.”

Helen, with some relief, says employers have now started to wake up to the benefits of real-life experience to their companies. The pandemic flung open the curtains.

Says Helen: “I think employers are increasingly looking for students who have a sense of self awareness, an understanding of what skills and attributes they possess and how they translate to the workplace. To an extent, that’s a trend that predates the pandemic, but those students who have a good grasp on who they are and what they’ve got to offer the world are the ones who make sensible career pathway decisions based on self knowledge – and, likewise, that confidence comes across in applications and interviews. I think you can definitely expect employers to be looking for those attributes now – academic achievements are, obviously, incredibly important, but so is character and part of our job is to make sure students make that as much of an asset.”

Out-of-the-box thinking

This all chimes with Stephen McQuillan, creative director of Humblebee, a leading television production company based in Bristol.

Working in independent factual TV production – the companies commissioned to make shows for public broadcasters like BBC or Channel 4 or private subscription streaming platforms like Netflix – attracts a huge amount of applications from non-technical (eg camera operators and editors) graduates of all disciplines.

“Some degrees are a natural fit,” says Stephen. “Zoology graduates tend to apply to natural history producers, history and English graduates click with history and arts documentaries, but really there aren’t any rules if you can prove you’re as keen as mustard.”

The usual graduate career path is to start as a researcher on a commissioned show or in development (coming up with ideas and then proposals for series) and progress towards actual field production roles such as assistant producer and director.

“I’m looking for character, life experience and definitely, definitely, someone who’s not shy of opinions,” says Stephen, who himself entered the industry after graduating and worked his way through BBC current affairs shows to running huge natural history series with global audiences.

“The fact that they’re a graduate tells me they can put the work in, can focus on a single topic for a long period – that’s important, but opinions tell me they think widely, have ideas they want to share. That’s not just a bonus, that’s an essential for programme-making. Clearly the pandemic has been tough for students, but university has changed, today’s students have lived and coped with a lot more, struggled more to get their degrees… I don’t think the future’s bleak.”

The TV industry is a popular choice for graduates – but do they have enough opinions?


TV, especially in the factual spheres, is undergoing its own demographic change – and it’s to be welcomed, says Stephen. “Literally, and not that long ago either, the industry was posh and white, with graduates coming into it because, for whatever reason, they felt they were entitled to, not because they had any passion for making television. There’s still a skew towards the private sector-educated kids who do that sort of ‘disengaged’ thing of being quite polite, circumspect, not really expressing any opinions. That might work in the civil service, but TV actually needs toughness of intellect and forthright, sometimes devil’s advocate, opinion. A bit of assured swagger, confidence in yourself… it can go a long way. You want a sense that, even though they’re still young, they’ve got a hinterland.”

And you have to want to make TV?

“I was going to say that goes without saying, but yes, I’ve interviewed people who’ve told me they don’t watch TV – and then wonder why they didn’t get the job! It goes back to developing your own voice and having the confidence to use it. A lot of TV content is tailored to speak to a generation, so you need people from that generation and with that shared experience, to make it – I think that’s relevant across all industry.”

Part of what’s driving that change is access to technology.

“Film-making equipment used to be hideously expensive, you’d have to specialise in areas if you couldn’t afford it. Now it’s all in your phone so kids are making TV from a really early age. I’ve certainly noticed more confidence in applicants from diverse backgrounds. They’re driving the change-making content that relates to them rather than it being made for them.”

Brought to book

Rina Gulrajani is head of human resources at general book publishing giants Pan MacMillan.

The current graduate cohort experienced unprecedented, pandemic-caused circumstances during their final year. Has it been a noticeable disadvantage? Any tips to mitigate for the mess?

It is a fact that the pandemic has reduced the opportunities for recent/soon-to-be graduates especially during the lockdowns. We recognise that the pandemic has been very difficult for so many but, where possible, if candidates have continued to work on their development during this period, this will give them a boost. Finding creative ways to learn – shadowing, mentoring, self study, MOOCs (online courses) through local councils or educational institutions. The thirst to learn, grow and develop is always something we look for in our graduates.

So, is a first-class character better than a first-class degree?

It’s a bit of both. Being dedicated to learning, new experiences and challenging oneself, alongside being committed, a ‘can-do’ attitude, willingness to muck in, and being creative with ideas as well as about resources and time, are all important.

Saying you love books isn’t enough for publishers


Are graduates packed and prepped for the journey to the real world of work?

Those graduates that understand that there is a difference between what they learn in formal education and what employers need in the world of work – and those who find ways to fill in that gap by building their digital skills and knowledge – are more likely to be preparing themselves for success.

What’s the worst strategy to adopt when applying for graduate careers in publishing?

When candidates apply for all the roles a company has on their website, this is a bit of a red flag. Recruitment software is now quite sophisticated and lets us know when a candidate has applied for more than one role. If someone has applied for different roles that don’t have anything in common, then this creates a concern that the individual isn’t really focused enough on a specific area of work, and the graduate is less likely to be invited to an interview. Be targeted and let your application tell your story even if you don’t have all the skills on the job specification. Finally, stating that you have a love of books and reading also isn’t enough; we want to hear more detail about the personal attributes and relevant learning and experiences you can bring to bear on a role in publishing.

Managing Expectations

Twenty-five-year-old Lawrence Chung has just started his career as inpatient development project manager for children’s mental health care at the NHS East London Foundation Trust. He came to the role, just ahead of the lockdowns, via the NHS Graduate Scheme.

The lack of workplace experience opportunities because of the pandemic has been noticeable. How important was it for you?

For me, I’d say it was essential. It gave me so much confidence and real experience. It’s been really tough for this year’s cohort, though. But they still managed to do their studies and get their degrees – my advice would be tap into that, everything was against you and you still managed to do it, that’s impressive resourcefulness, tenacity and stamina that employers will really hook onto.

What was the interview process like?

I was surprised by how much of an onus was put on my character and personality. It’s all based on what’s called the ‘healthcare leadership’ model. So you’re assessed on how well you meet its dimensions, like are you someone who’s good at connecting people and services together? Can you inspire confidence in others? Are you someone who takes pride in engaging your team?

There are quite a few stages. The online interview was quite straightforward stuff, but when I got to the assessment centre, the questions were really thought-provoking – and they include these dramatic scenarios. In mine I had to try and calm down a really angry consultant who didn’t want something to change and I had to work and negotiate with him for a solution. Terrifying, but looking back it was such a good scenario because it tests how you react in that moment. That’s not something that you can really learn from textbooks.

Experience as a barista helped one graduate ace a recruitment test with the NHS


Were the interviews probing you for more than just your book smarts?

There were two things that I remember talking about, one of which was that I had worked as a barista at Costa. I talked about how that gave me a lot of customer-facing experience and developed a retail attitude – which I think compares to being able to engage with different stakeholders. So going back to that reconstruction with the angry medical consultant, that was me with my customer-service voice on trying to resolve a difficult situation. But another thing was that I was a president of a society at university (The Association of British Chinese Students) and that had given me loads of project-management experience and advertising experience, again, working with loads of different stakeholders. All the time the questions and the tasks were focused on things that I’d done that were suited, or could transfer across, to working in the NHS.

Any advice for future interviewees?

Know yourself. Reflect on your own experiences and think about how they contributed to making you who you are today. It’s so cringey, I know! But it’s genuinely the interesting stuff that captures a recruiter’s interest because they don’t know you and they need to know if your values fit in with their own. You can have amazing grades, amazing postgraduate degrees but it’s who you are that puts you in front.

You might also like: Graduate employability: One in five UK graduates not workplace-ready

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