Firms seek grads with soft skills

They can get good grades, earn a diploma and breeze through that campus rite of spring, the job interview. But college graduates still might not land a decent job.

The world's top employers are pickier than ever. And they want to see more than high marks and the right degree.

They want graduates with so-called soft skills - those who can work well in teams, write and speak with clarity, adapt quickly to changes in technology and business conditions and interact with colleagues from different countries and cultures.

"Soft skills tend to differentiate good college graduates from exceptional college graduates," says Joseph Krok, university research liaison at Britain's Rolls-Royce.

It's clear that companies increasingly want skills that don't show up in a college transcript or a sit-down interview.

"What the employers want is a well-rounded student," says Jean Manning-Clark, director of the Colorado School of Mines' career centre.

"The ones that get 10 to 12 job offers are the ones who have strong soft skills."

And companies are going to ever-greater lengths to identify the students who have the right mix of skills by observing them in role-playing exercises to see how they handle pressure and get along with others, relying more on applicants who have already proved themselves in internships and co-op jobs in which students work while attending school, and organising contests that reveal how students solve problems and handle deadline pressure.

LOOKING FOR MORE THAN A MAJOR:

The hiring process is more intense because employers the world over are more demanding.

They've always needed people with specific technical skills. Those remain important, but employers want something more - the soft skills that determine whether recruits can get along with co-workers, articulate ideas, engage in critical thinking and solve problems on the fly. In short, whether employees can make the transition from classroom to workplace.

Globally, employers say it's hard to find that right combination of hard and soft skills. Just 43 per cent of the 2,832 employers McKinsey surveyed in nine countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas said they could find enough skilled entry-level workers.

A survey of employers released in April by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 93 per cent of the respondents reported that a capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems was more important than an undergraduate major.

MIXING IT UP:

Knowing that college transcripts don't tell the whole story, companies are looking for creative ways to identify the talent they need.

"The old approach doesn't find them," says John Sullivan, a management professor at San Francisco State University.

British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline likes to see first-hand how students mix with others, think on their feet and handle pressure. After it narrows its job applicants, Glaxo brings in groups of 10 to 12 for a full day's assessment. Glaxo managers observe as recruits interact with each other, solve problems and give presentations. Usually, half get hired.

Having a successful internship with Glaxo increases the odds; interns have shown whether they fit in.

Indeed, companies are becoming more reliant on internships.

Rolls-Royce's Krok calls them "three-month interviews".

Manning-Clark, of the Colorado School of Mines, says former interns used to account for about half the recruits companies wanted to hire; now, it's about 75 per cent.

Tata Technologies, the Singapore-based engineering arm of India's Tata Group conglomerate, hires 500 graduates every year in India and another 15 to 20 in North America.

"We always look for the ones that have co-op experience or internship experience," says Giulio Desando, a human resources manager at Tata.

"They have the soft skills."

At Denmark's Maersk Oil, global recruiter Lee Paul Milligan advises students to let employers know if they've spent a lot of time abroad.

"An international mindset is important to us," he says.

"You go to any office in the world, and you'll find a huge variety of nationalities. I think I've got 10 in my own office ... Some students forget to put down that they've traveled to 10 countries."

Milligan is especially impressed with foreign exchange students, saying it takes courage to uproot yourself and study abroad, perhaps learning in a language that is not your own.

KILLING ZOMBIES:

Maersk also finds talent by sponsoring competitions.

Last year, it challenged students at Danish Technical University to help solve a problem that had been plaguing one of its North Sea oil rigs for months. Seeing the students compete helped Maersk Oil "get to know them on a more personal level," Milligan says.

BP challenges students from universities in the United Kingdom, Azerbaijan, the United States and Trinidad and Tobago to offer innovative solutions to technical problems. The winning team from each country gets to go on what BP calls "the Ultimate Field Trip" - a two-week paid internship with BP operations in London, Scotland's Shetland Islands and Stavanger, Norway. BP has offered jobs to several of the contestants.

Google sponsors an annual competition that requires programmers from outside the company to solve algorithmic problems. Called Code Jam, the contest has been around since 2003 and last year drew nearly 21,000 contestants. Google has hired 1,000 Code Jam participants since 2009.

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