Around 45% of the UK population now go through some form of higher education, but many graduates are still finding it difficult to get a job.
Although the economic timing has been bad for graduate job hunters, and despite universities’ efforts to support students through the graduate recruitment process, there is still a missing piece in the puzzle: the social skills gap.
What many businesses are now looking for from graduate employees is the elusive EQ: emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. Although the quality of graduate’s degree (their result, and the institution they obtained it from) and the extra curricular work (student union involvement, for example) are necessary, they no longer sufficient in today’s world of work.
What employers really want are the kind of people who possess the social skills to work effectively in teams, to be able to lead others, to be able to manage conflict and the excessive pressures of the job. They want early career entrants to see change, not as something to avoid or obstruct, but a concept to embrace for the benefit of the organisation and the team. As Mark Twain once wrote: “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got”.
A career happiness survey by City & Guilds found that so-called ‘Millennials’ (young people now aged 18-24) are not only tech-savvy and socially-connected but also are more positive and ambitious. The essential drive is there, but we need to bolster this with the development of their social skills.
This is a challenge for universities and employers alike. In the US, these skills are more quickly developed by a system which requires students to both work and go to university, because grants and loans are not readily available to undergraduate students. US universities have a more flexible pathway to a degree, which enables students to take jobs and attend classes at their own time and pace.
Our university system needs to be more flexible to allow this to happen. The process exposes students to the real world of work, where these skills can develop. We can also bring these skills into the classroom through collaborative relationships with business, industry and the public sector.
This process requires a reframing of where education fits into the world of work. We must develop these social and interpersonal skills rather than simply concentrate on the markets of academic success. Let’s stop telling our young people that a good job depends on a first class degree.
Cary L. Cooper CBE is distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University and chair of the Academy of Social Sciences. These are his personal views.