The Top Five Skills Employers Look for in College Grads and How to Get Them
The Top Five Skills Employers Look for in College Grads and How to Get Them

The Top 5 Skills Employers Say Recent Grads Lack and How to Learn Them

We may not be able to solve the 'need experience to get experience' Catch-22, but at least it's a start.
April 28, 2017
14 mins read

Few things are more stressful than the transition between graduation and the start of a career.

This is especially true of new college graduates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that nearly 12 percent of young Americans are currently unable to find work in the United States. Many factors are at play here, but one remains a reoccurring complaint from employers: New college graduates lack employable skills.

As frustrating as it is to hear, recent grads and current college students can use the grievances voiced by potential future employers to prepare themselves accordingly.

The following are the top five job skills most employers aren’t seeing enough of in their younger hires.

1. Critical Thinking/Problem-Solving

Why It’s Important: Critical thinking and problem-solving are how any and all organizations are able to function properly. When an employee exhibits the aforementioned skills, the employee comes up with possible solutions when confronted with a challenge or business proposal instead of just giving up on the endeavor entirely or passing responsibility to someone else.

The Top Five Skills Employers Look for in College Grads and How to Get Them
Image via Shutterstock

Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean you should pretend to know everything and act like a career renegade. Instead, when asking about a challenge you’ve encountered, come armed with two or three possible solutions. Your boss will appreciate the fact that you understood the problem enough to offer suggestions instead of passing the buck.

How to Get It: Believe it or not, critical thinking and problem-solving skills are supposed to be taught during college. However, most universities teach in a style that encourages us to get everything right the first time to avoid irreversible negative repercussions. This is the exact opposite of how the real world works. The trouble is when you learn these skills, you think they are limited to problems in a book or essay question, because that’s the only way they are presented to you. But now you know better.

Try applying critical thinking and problem-solving to things outside academics, like an on-campus organization or volunteer opportunity. Bonus points for practicing at an internship! Your future-self will thank you.

2. Attention to Detail

Why It’s Important: Aside from it being the second-most popular skill employers say recent graduates lack, attention to detail is extremely important because details matter! Though seemingly inconsequential, the tiny details at work show that you know what the proper completion of a job looks like, you are willing to take time to ensure every job you perform is as complete as possible, and you are dedicated to your quality of work.

All of these aspects aren’t just important when starting out; they show that you have the observation skills and dedication to take on more complex responsibilities attributed to your role and even, eventually, manage it.

How to Get It: Instead of only focusing on the big picture, use it to instruct your attention to detail. Want to convince a sponsor that the student organization you represent won’t waste their donation? Make sure the request letter doesn’t have any typos. Want to convince the people at your internship that you can be trusted with more important projects? Consistently deliver quality work on the unimportant stuff. In the end, it’s not about whether you can do the work, it’s about whether you can do it consistently without the quality diminishing.

3. Communication

Why It’s Important: Even though communication is third on this list, I would argue that it is the single most-important skill in our modern world. Nothing useful can ever get done unless information is communicated clearly to everyone involved. A huge part of communication is not only doing it in the first place, it’s also knowing what situations call for which type of communication methods. Depending on which industry you’re referring to, the best practices for communication may vary.

Over 50 percent of language is non-verbal. Notice how the way younger generations prefer to communicate disregards half of how older generations get their interpersonal information? Recent graduates have found ways to supplement this lack of body language, namely by using texting shorthand to describe gestures and liberal use of emoticons. These make perfect sense, because these forms of communication developed alongside the age group that uses them the most.

How to Get It: Just saying “talk more,” is a bit of an oversimplification. Talking to people won’t help if you’re not actively learning from the experience. So, don’t just talk to people you’re comfortable with; talk to people outside of your generation, preferably someone you don’t know, and take note of how they respond. Note what they talk about and the vocabulary they use.

In fact, this is a great exercise to do at the beginning of an internship. Not only are you learning how to comfortably converse with older generations, you’ll also build rapport with your coworkers (this is how you should be thinking of them). Believe it or not, gestures such as these make them more responsive when you do communicate electronically. So don’t be afraid! You’re an adult, even if you don’t feel like it sometimes.

4. Writing Skills

Why It’s Important: No matter what kind of work you want to pursue, effective writing is a must! Whether you’re writing a cover letter, a blog post, a business proposal or an email, you need to know how to make a point and make it well. Employers aren’t saying that new hires need to be the next great American essayists, but is a command of basic grammar and written etiquette too much to ask?

Considering our generation communicates through written texts, IMs and comments for the majority of our days, I would think not. Having worked as a writing tutor my sophomore and junior year, I can see where the concern for the state of millennial writing competency comes from. Many experts agree that college English does not adequately prepare graduates for the expectations in the real world. But that’s a discussion for another day.

How to Get It: Contrary to expectation, my primary piece of advice is not to write, but to read. And I’m not talking about Facebook posts (though some are written quite well). I mean read well-structured essays, emails filled with proper etiquette, and articles with clear arguments. When people expose themselves to good writing, their expectations heighten, particularly for what they themselves write. That way, when they sit down to actually write, they’ll be more aware of what you’re writing and how it will come across to their audience. This doesn’t mean people have to use proper grammar in all of their texts from now on; it means being aware of the audience and their needs. Make sure the tone and style of writing match the situation.

5. Ownership

Why It’s Important: The final skill, ownership, tied with leadership for fifth on the list of skills employers feel recent graduates don’t have. I chose to include the former instead of the latter because there are numerous books, articles and presentations on leadership, but very few on ownership. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most recent graduates don’t know what that means in the context of a career or job. Taking ownership of your work means you feel that taking any kind of action having to do with your work is your responsibility, that anything having to do with your work is your initiative, even when working with others.

That old cliché about one person doing all the work on a group project while the others barely contribute is about ownership. The person who does the most work knows that doing a poor job will reflect poorly on them, so they take ownership to ensure that doesn’t happen. When you take ownership, you’re displaying that you are dependable and trustworthy. When you take ownership, you hold yourself accountable for the outcome of a project, not because you are told to, but because you know the work is a reflection of your work ethic.

How to Get It: College is one of the best times to work on projects just for you. The possibilities are endless; you can start a blog, a business or even an entire social movement. What’s better is that you also have a wealth of professors and mentors around to help you hone your craft.

The Top Five Skills Employers Look for in College Grads and How to Get Them
Image via TechDay

Now, plenty of articles talk about starting projects, whether you’re an aspiring creative blogger or a budding software developer. However, very few of these articles explain why starting your own projects is so useful beyond “it’s a way to show your work.” In reality, having projects of your own displays the type of work you do when you have complete ownership. It shows that you’re self-driven, independent and take pride in what you do.

Many college students shy away from this, citing fear of posting something that isn’t completely perfect. To that, I say no one is expecting your first post to be perfect. It is often said that the first one million words you write are practice. However, this doesn’t mean what you showcase should be sloppy. That’s the ownership aspect.

The quality of the work you put out should reflect what you perceive to be quality work. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but perfection does not equal the absence of errors.

However, when someone takes ownership of their work, the care that was taken to ensure the work reflects the pride they have in their abilities shines through. There are plenty of places you can apply these things to, whether you’re still in university, taking up an MBA program online or with school organizations and activities outside of the academic arena, and once you’ve mastered or familiarized yourself with these, you’ll have better chances of getting into your chosen career field with ease.

Transitioning between being a student and a young professional is tough, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. Arming yourself with the skills employers are looking for is one way to prepare. Coupled with the knowledge obtained through pursuing a college education, you’ll be one step ahead in your future career.

Uwana Ikaiddi, University of Central Florida

Technical Communication
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