In today’s competitive job market, you’ll need more than just a degree to grab the attention of employers. There are thousands of graduates like you, so to really stand out in the graduate employment arena you need to be proactive and take initiative in developing your skills and experiences.
To start, you need to have an understanding of the different types of skills employers are looking for and, most importantly, how to develop these skills during your studies. So what exactly are the qualities employers look for? Every year, Graduate Careers Australia (GCA) surveys employers from a range of industries about the skills, attributes and experience they value most in new graduates.
The top 10 graduate attributes or ‘employability skills’ (2011) were:
1. Interpersonal and communication skills (both written and oral)
2. Knowledge of industry/drive/commitment/attitude
3. Critical reasoning and analytical skills/problem solving/technical skills
4. Calibre of academic results
5. Work experience
6. Cultural alignment/values fit
7. Teamwork skills
8. Emotional intelligence (including self-awareness, confidence, motivation)
9. Leadership skills
10. Activities (including intra and extracurricular)
To successfully communicate your employability skills to employers, you first need to understand them. It’s not enough to tell an employer, ‘I have great communication skills’ – you need to be able to back it up with evidence.
Start by analysing the skill, breaking it down into the micro-skills that make up the broader skill category. For example, think about the specific components that make up ‘Interpersonal and communication skills (both written and oral)’. You will need to think of specific examples from your experience – it could be assignments you have done at university, presentations in class, participation in discussions, extracurricular activities such as being a member of the debating team, or the interpersonal skills you have used in your part-time job or personal life.
You might have very limited professional experience but this doesn't mean you don’t have employable and transferable skills. Think about the skills that you've developed during your studies, part-time/casual work, work placements and extracurricular activities (this could include travel and/or community involvement). For example, if you have a part-time job in a restaurant, you haven’t just been serving customers – you have actually been developing interpersonal and communication skills, team work skills, customer service skills and even gaining experience in leadership when you train new staff.
There are a range of ways to develop your skills and you need to think about the strategies that work best for you. Identify your skill gaps and make a plan to develop the skills you require. Here are a number of different ways to kick-start this process.
Work integrated learning comprises internships, work placements and vacation work. It is common for universities and TAFEs to offer subjects that involve work placements and/or industry-based learning. Undertaking work experience that is relevant to your degree gives you the chance to gain insight into an occupation and industry as well as develop your professional and personal skills. Ultimately this will give you a competitive edge when applying for employment when you graduate.
If you don’t have professional experience as part of your studies then consider undertaking your own work experience. Contact organisations you are interested in, look at industry-specific websites, speak to your lecturers and tutors and be active in your search for the right experience. Many organisations offer vacation programs for penultimate students during semester breaks so make sure you keep a look-out on the Graduate Opportunities and Unigrad websites.
Volunteering is an excellent way to gain experience and practical skills in your area of interest. Through volunteering you can contribute greatly to an organisation and the community, and can network with a wide range of people. Employers view community involvement very positively and may even have an expectation that graduates have been engaged in their community. Go Volunteer is a national website that enables you to search for volunteer positions in your area.
Significantly, volunteer work/placements was ranked as the fourth most important aspect of a graduate resume to employers after employment history, academic results and academic qualifications.
Find out what leadership programs are available through your institution. Student leadership programs assist you in developing skills and gaining confidence and are viewed positively by employers. They also help you develop professionally and often provide networking opportunities. You can also seek out leadership positions through your extracurricular activities, for example by joining student committees or undertaking leadership training through your part-time job or volunteer work.
It's a good idea to keep a record of your skills and experience. This will help when it comes to preparing job applications, and also for interviews where you might need to give examples of your competency across a range of different skill areas. Set up a file where you can store the information in a simple format. Use the employability skills as headings and record your skills and experiences as you go. It’s always a good idea to keep assignments that demonstrate specific skills. Industry experience/placement reports also provide you with a record of the skills you have developed and are competent in. It is also worthwhile keeping job descriptions as these can be useful when preparing your applications.
Make sure you update your records regularly and don’t limit yourself to only the key employability skills. If there is an e-portfolio option at your university/TAFE, then make the most of it as this will make preparing employment applications much easier!
Did you know that you are more likely to successfully find employment if you have a wider network of professional contacts? Joining professional and industry associations is a great way to network with people and find out more about your area of interest. Student memberships are generally available and offered free or at a discounted rate. Professional and industry associations can help in many ways – their websites provide useful general information on the industry or profession, including labour market trends, future directions and links to other relevant sites. You can also develop your skills by attending seminars and conferences, which are a fabulous way to meet people in your industry. A list of professional associations is available at the Australian Professional Organisations, Associations and Societies.
If you haven’t already got a LinkedIn account, it’s time to get one! LinkedIn is like a professional version of Facebook and can be used for networking, job search and company research.
Most importantly, don’t underestimate your personal networks – ask your family and friends if they know anyone working in your area who you could contact.
Finding a mentor who can share their own experiences to guide you towards your career goal is one of the best things you can do. Career mentoring involves a one-on-one relationship between yourself and an experienced professional who can provide you with ongoing support, encouragement and advice in regards to your career development. Find out if your institution has a mentoring program; if not, then see if there is one available through a relevant professional association.
If you have a Facebook, Twitter or YouTube account, think about the information you are sharing and the message you’re putting out there. Your online presence is part of your professional and personal brand, so only put up information that you want seen and remove anything that may undermine the image you’re trying to project. The most important thing to keep in mind is that ‘what goes online, stays online’. Your social media presence can be an asset to your employability, but use it wisely. If you haven’t already done so, check your privacy settings and be conscious of always behaving appropriately online.
Now that you know what employers are looking for, you know what you need to do! Don’t wait until the end of your degree – by starting early, making a plan of the skills/attributes you want to develop and taking the appropriate steps, you are already demonstrating to future employers that you have drive and initiative.
Once you get to the interview stage in your job search, make sure you do your research! Go to the company website and find out as much about the business as you can, as well as about the industry itself, including any recent news or developments. It’s this kind of preparation that really separates the stand-out candidates from the rest – and it’s amazing how many job applicants fail to do their research.
Remember: at the end of the day employers want a well-rounded and motivated graduate, someone who not only has the qualifications but also has transferable skills, a wide range of experiences and the right attitude. Start working on these early, and you’ll have a competitive edge when you graduate.