Good soft skills are key to turning grads into good employees

Timothy Barber
Follow Timothy
IN India right now, a British training firm called Speak First is running a series of &ldquo;finishing schools&rdquo; to improve Indian graduates&rsquo; soft business skills and increase their chances of gaining employment. The schools address the fact that the academic and intellectual excellence of many Indian graduates is not matched by abilities in areas like communications, negotiating and interview performance. <br /><br />On the face of it, the situation is not much different here. Any recruiter who deals with young people will tell you tales of monosyllabic, shoe-gazing candidates. Last year, a survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters of 217 of the biggest companies in the UK found that many had trouble filling positions with British students because they lacked sufficient literacy or numeracy for the workplace. Increasingly, they said, they were forced to recruit from overseas. <br /><br />Amanda Vickers, Speak First&rsquo;s managing director, says that although British graduates better understand the sorts of behaviour that businesses require, many are still ill-equipped for the corporate environment. Businesses spend considerable amounts of time and money on skills training that, she says, could be part of university courses. <br /><br /><strong>EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE</strong><br />Vickers, who works with companies to train up their new intakes, highlights communication skills, &ldquo;the etiquette of writing well in business&rdquo; and the ability to create personal impact and build relationships in areas in which graduates are often lacking: &ldquo;It&rsquo;s about developing emotional intelligence as well as academic skills, and there could be more of that done ahead of time.&rdquo;<br /><br />In fact, though, universities do offer this sort of tuition. Charlie Ball, deputy research director for the Higher Education Careers Service Unit, says that careers services are &ldquo;very advanced in their skills training for the students that do use them.&rdquo;<br /><br />For instance, Oxford University&rsquo;s careers service has a scheme in which students carry out small consultancy projects in local third sector organisations (around 100 students are expected to sign up to the latest programme). Jonathan Black, the service&rsquo;s director, says: &ldquo;It&rsquo;s something they can put on their CV, build on and talk about. You can&rsquo;t put on your CV that you went to a presentation by a City accountancy firm, for instance. You have to be active and show how you&rsquo;ve gained from the experience.&rdquo;<br /><br />So if students know that soft skills are valuable, why do employers complain that they don&rsquo;t have them? The fault, perhaps, is on both sides. <br /><br />Students can be bad at recognising and articulating the skills they have. It was to address this problem that professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers launched an employability skills clinic last year, to help students identify skills picked up in part-time work or extra-curricular projects &ndash; and learn how to put them in words that employers understand. <br /><br />But, says Sonja Stockton, head of recruitment at PwC, employers also have to clarify what they require from graduates. &ldquo;For too long there&rsquo;s been a disconnect where employers have said grads don&rsquo;t have the skills we need, and students say &lsquo;we don&rsquo;t know what you&rsquo;re looking for&rsquo;.&rdquo; Employers &ldquo;need to give students clearer signposts&rdquo; and graduates need to &ldquo;make the connections to make their experiences count.&rdquo;<br /><br />Maybe what we have is less a skills gap, and more of a good old-fashioned generation gap.

Related articles