When I was first writing What Employers Want, I asked employers what they wanted from young recruits to their organisations. What made them select one applicant over another?

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I wanted a fresh perspective so I focused on small- to medium-sized companies rather than large organisations, many of which have comprehensive recruitment schemes for young people. I talked to solicitors and farmers, engineers and call-centre bosses, retail managers, pub owners and a host of other people who stay in business because they refresh their operations with new talent.  Generally the answers, regardless of the industry, were pretty consistent. What employers want is bright, enthusiastic, sensible recruits who want to work.

Most employers accept that when they take on a school or college leaver, they’ll have to invest a lot of time and money in easing their new recruit into life in the workplace. What they ask for in return tends to be quite simple: willingness to learn, adaptability, reliability (it helps if the staff turn up on time for work every day!) and a modicum of emotional intelligence so they can interact with other team members. My argument, that supports the book, is that these are qualities that most young people have in abundance. They might not realise that they have them but they are there and can be developed. Contrary to the doom-and-gloom tabloid headlines that would have us believe everyone between the ages of 18 and 22 is workshy, apathetic and looking for an easy life, I believe that most young people want to work and look forward to taking their place in the employment market. The ones I’ve talked to are enthusiastic, ambitious, keen to fulfil their dreams. The problem for many of them is that they don’t know how to cross the education-employment divide. They look at job advertisements and are baffled by their language and frightened by their demands. Many of them know they can offer a lot but they don’t know how to express what they can do in terms that would impress an employer. We have to encourage their dreams and aspirations and show them what they are capable of.

What skills do you need to succeed at work?

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) defines employability skills as ‘the skills almost everyone needs to do almost any job’. This extract from the Skills for Life Network website (www.skillsforlifenetwork.com) explains:

Employability skills build up in three layers, starting with a foundation of Positive Approach, which includes: being ready to participate, making suggestions, accepting new ideas and constructive criticism and taking responsibility for outcomes.

This base of Positive Approach supports the three functional skills of using numbers, language and ICT effectively. These functional skills are utilised in the context of four personal skills:

  • self-management
  • thinking and solving problems
  • working together and communicating
  • understanding the business.

Employability skills therefore combine three factors.

  1. Your attitude towards work – you have to want to do the job to the best of your ability. This positive attitude will underpin everything you do at work – it’s what makes you a good employee.
  2. Your literacy, numeracy and ICT skills, which support your performance at work. Whatever job you get, these skills will help you to work confidently and acquire the knowledge you need to carry out your job.
  3. Your personal skills – your ability to manage yourself so that you fit in with the demands of the job and the organisation you work for.

What Employers Want

Why are employability skills so important?

Employability skills have become increasingly important because the way that we structure our careers has changed so dramatically. Today, the average length of time people spend in one job has shortened dramatically to less than five years! We live in an age when employees feel free to change employers in order to get promotion, earn more money, move to another area, find more interesting work… There is no longer pressure to stay with a company if it does not give you what you want.

There has also been a rise in what are known as ‘portfolio careers’ where individuals have a series of short-lived jobs, or two or three part-time jobs at the same time, in order to build up experience and widen their contacts.

The employment market – and the way that we think about work – has changed almost beyond recognition. Staff no longer mark the success of their careers by length of service but by how quickly they move up the career ladder. People are recruited and promoted on merit, not according to how long they’ve been with the company.

All this mobility means that employability skills have become a lot more important. It is expensive for employers to train up staff from scratch so they want recruits who have some proven skills that are useful in the workplace. Yes, they may be willing to train you to carry out particular parts of your new job – but they like to know that you already have a good command of the personal skills that you need in the workplace and that you have a positive attitude towards work.

For more tips on entering the world of work, see What Employers Want by Karen Holmes.