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Modern graduates need to play to their strengths in a tough jobs market
Maria Dawson, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Society at Sunderland University, argues that the modern graduate needs to be much more aware of their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to finding the right job for them.
In 1996 the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, Gillian Shephard, now Baroness Shephard, said that the new generation of graduates faces a different world to the one of their parents.
She was of course, referring to the changes in the economy, the nature of work and the greater demands it makes. She added that our children will need to switch career more than once in their lifetime.
Seventeen years down the line these statements are more true that ever.
As an educator and a parent I am concerned with the future of our graduates and therefore I am trying to do my part in ensuring that they are equipped with the skills and flexibility required for the job market.
With all this in mind there was one logical way forward. I knew I had to find out what employers are looking for in a graduate and I had to ask students for their views on how higher education prepares them for employment.
By comparing the results I have been able to help my students have a better chance in joining the employment community. Indeed, the results confirmed that a) the skills desired by employers in today's market are the same as those required 50 years ago but it is the level of priority placed on particular skills that changes (e.g. employers told me they are looking for graduates with personality, confidence, those who 'stretch themselves' outside their comfort zone) and b) students are not always aware of how higher education prepares them for employment and therefore not familiar with how they should 'sell their skills' and 'which skills to sell' to potential employers.
As a result of all this, I offered my students the opportunity to work on personalised projects as part of their coursework. This meant that each student had to undertake work specifically designed for his/her individual needs. I met with each student several times during their study on this project and by having informal conversations I formed a 'two-way relationship' with them. This relationship breaks the mould of the 'student-tutor' stereotype where educators, academics, tutors, whichever term you want to use, are considered primarily to be the experts in a field providing students with all the necessary answers.
Instead, my aim was to be seen as the facilitator, the mentor, the coach, the 'academic critical friend' who knows enough to help them deal with challenges, develop their critical instinct and be successful members of our society. Throughout our meetings I learned enough about them, their personality, skills, and aspirations for the future to help them develop their personalised study in a way that benefited them the most. Here is just an example of things they were asked to do as part of their coursework: a) personality tests (to raise self-awareness), b) skills tests (to raise awareness of strengths and weaknesses), c) skills tests linked to specific job profiles (to assess their skills against a particular job role which was of interest to the individual and therefore make an informed decision to whether the chosen job environment is indeed suitable for him or her), d) networking with employers (some of them were paired with mentors from industry), e) volunteering or going on a placement, f) research further study opportunities and/ or training and work on applications which link to their chosen career path. All the activities aimed to make students confident individuals, ready for the world of work.
The results of this study clearly show that students who completed this particular coursework felt confident in their own 'skin', some of them applied for jobs and lined up a number of interviews, or in some cases gained employment whereas others applied for further study and were accepted onto competitive postgraduate courses.
A sample of student quotes include: "I admit I had not given great consideration to what profession I would undertake after university...on completion of this module I know I want to work in marketing ... I would strongly recommend that as many people take advantage of this module as it truly has put my career into perspective.", "...the employability project has been an eye-opening experience, as it has enabled me to understand how the graduate job market works...", "My personal aim was to find ways to make myself more applicable to a job as a teacher. Coming to the end of this study I decided I am not driven enough to be a teacher. Therefore I have applied for other jobs and have been to four interviews from which I have received three job offers.", "...I would never have considered my skills in leadership, organisation, and time-management - now the list can go on!..."
The results of this study are available at http://iated.org/edulearn13/ , 'Graduate Voice: My Personal Employability Skills Portfolios'.
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