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Communicating the university-to-work transition to students

Stephen Isherwood of the Institute of Student Employers explains what employers really want from graduates
This article is more than 6 years old

Stephen Isherwood is Chief Executive of the Institute of Student Employers (ISE).

In the 80s coming of age film, St Elmo’s Fire, a very young Rob Lowe’s character (Billy Hicks) has to explain how he has just been fired from the graduate job his college friend helped him get.

It’s not only in Brat Pack films that students struggle with the transition into working life. Not many students have experienced a boss, colleagues, eight (plus) working hours per day, in the same place, five days a week.

The differences between academic and working life are stark

Working in hierarchies, getting stuff done with (and through) people, dealing with shifting priorities; we underestimate the difficulties of the transition that students have to make when they start full-time work.

Employers told us that managing expectations is number one on their list of challenges they face when hiring graduates. It’s a myth that employers expect fully work-ready hires who don’t require any development, but the spectrum of experience ranges from the student who hasn’t even had a bar job, to those with a one-year placement and more.

The recent Institute of Student Employers (ISE) annual development survey, reports on the gap between the skills employers say graduates have when they start work, compared with those they invest training budgets to develop.

The biggest gaps are found in the complex areas of working with others. “Teamwork” is vague – a term used to describe managing up, dealing with conflicts, and working across complex team structures.

Getting stuff done with and through others is not easy.

How many group projects on campus are really sets of individual exercises, bashed together at the last minute to meet a deadline? Or, even if they aren’t, how many projects are debriefed so students can reflect on the people skills they learned? Only 39% of employers think that graduates are sufficiently self-aware currently.

Different ways of learning

This is not to devalue experiential learning. Many employers apply the 70:20:10 concept to their development programmes, where 70% of learning comes through on-the-job experience, 20% from learning with others, and just 10% through formal training. The average graduate programme contains eleven days of “soft skills” training in a typical two-year programme. Most learning is done through day-to-day work. It’s no coincidence therefore that graduates with meaningful work experience are more employable.

Our research shows that those who interned with their employer stay longer and perform better than those that didn’t. When asked, employers think that interns are much more likely to have the skills they seek than those without work experience.

But not all work experience has to be gained via a city internship in a gleaming Canary Wharf skyscraper. Work experience comes in many forms. Pulling shifts in a restaurant often involves dealing with demanding people. A student on a supermarket till can see around them the business decisions that companies make on a day-to-day basis. The fact that fewer and fewer young people are now working part-time during their school years is a problem.

Students who interview well demonstrate how they proactively developed relevant skills. A problem with course-related group work examples is that everyone has them. Employers are more likely to hire the student who has done more than they were told to, and can explain how they overcame difficulties and got stuff done.

It’s in the interests of employers, universities, and the students themselves to improve transitions into work. The more students gain meaningful experiences to develop the skills that will get them started in their career, the deeper their understanding of their strengths, and the easier and quicker they will transition to the world of work.

One response to “Communicating the university-to-work transition to students

  1. Great and timely article Stephen. At City, University of London we successfully ran a transitioning into the workplace day-long event last June for 20 of our final years predominantly from WP backgrounds. It tried to look at the transitional aspect of this journey from as many angles as possible in the time we had. Why do we deem it successful? Having 20 there for something that might seem to the student at least non critical was pleasing in itself. Also we held it on an employer’s premises and integrated their offices and their staff into the day and they were intrigued enough to enquire if we could help with some of their own challenges integrating their intern and graduate staff. As careers consultants we really valued the chance to deliver on something a little bit different. We foresee this becoming an increasing element of our portfolio of student expectations.

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