Universities need to rethink what employability skills really mean

5 November 2011 By Northern Lights

Universities need to rethink what employability skills really mean image

Employability skills

This morning I have had two requests from contacts asking for careers advice for their graduate children.  This is now becoming such a theme for us – we must have helped around 30 graduates in the last year – that I’m beginning to think there is a business in here for us.

However, I am also increasingly exasperated at the lack of useful careers advice being given by universities.

Students are being taught to write CVs that may have been appropriate for boom times, but will never make them stand out.  They have no concept of how blogging, LinkedIn and Twitter can help them to target employers, add value on CVs and demonstrate expertise and currency.  And they don’t have a clue how to ‘create’ their own jobs.

Increasingly employers are not even advertising jobs in traditional media – they just put the positions out on Twitter and LinkedIn.  So if a student isn’t on Twitter, how are they going to spot these?

This is my ten point plan for a young person trying to find a job in the current market.  And we know it works – our mentees are getting quality jobs.

1.       Show passion and commitment to the job you want to do

One of the requests this morning was ‘what advice would you give a recently-graduated daughter (2:1 in drama and theatre studies) who is keen to get into HR: do you know of any companies that are seeking to hire an HR administrator/HR graduate?’

Well this is a big step from drama to HR.  I doubt she is going to walk into a job.  Her first step is to demonstrate understanding of HR and build up her skills.  And with social media this is now not a major task.

As an employer, I would think her saying she is ‘keen to get into HR’ is just today’s desperate whim.  She needs to prove she is serious.

2.       Start writing a blog

The great thing about writing a blog is you can demonstrate your understanding and expertise in a market at no cost at all.  Just as this blog is demonstrating my experience in helping graduates to get a job, so a graduate can themselves start reading and commenting.

If we take the HR example, the HR blogs could cover

–          Reviews of HR books

–          An analysis of newspaper articles in a week – how much is HR an issue?  For instance, this week the trade union Unison has voted to go on strike on 30 November.  Are the unions justified, what are the issues for those negotiating with the unions

–          Review of HR blogs and pull out the key tips that she thinks will be the most useful for an employer

–          Her ranking of top ten HR blogs for newbies in HR

–          Talk to her friends about how they view a company depending on how they respond to their job applications – does it affect their future buying decisions

–          Produce a ten tips for employers on how she thinks an employer should respond to job applications

Of course, some of these blogs will undoubtedly seem naïve to an experienced HR professional.  But no-one will expect a 21 year old to be expert – what this does demonstrate is an ability to read around a subject, analyse it and come up with her own views.  And above all it demonstrates passion and commitment for this subject/career.

3.       Sign up to Twitter

Anyone who thinks that Twitter is about what you had for breakfast may be surprised to see the serious conversations now taking place on any business topic.

Look at what shows up for a search on HR topics (#HR)

heatherhuhman Heather R. Huhman

Why Job Performance Reviews Are Going to Get Social [INFOGRAPHIC] on.mash.to/tqaLCP #HR

DrDavidBallard Dr. David Ballard

7 tips for flaw-free employee #communication (from @femelmed)bit.ly/tcgFoP #HR

MarkRaganCEO Mark Ragan

The top 9 mobile apps for #HR professionals on.fb.me/ql2o59

davidpaulwoods David Woods

So, unions prepare to strike over public sector pensionsbit.ly/tlPCel and private sector ‘flawed’ bit.ly/ucuGHo? Help! #hr

neilmorrison Neil Morrison

We’re looking to recruit a L&D Co-ordinator, Central London up to £25k. Would suit a sharp grad, or grad+ Surely there must be someone? #HR

Not only is this a great resource for someone looking to become expert – quickly – on what are the current HR topics but there is a blog in each one of these tweets.  And a job in the last one!  In fact, I’ve just emailed this to the contact for his daughter.

4.       Follow key people on Twitter

It is very easy to identify and target key people on Twitter.   Once how would you have targeted an HR director?  You probably would never have got beyond the receptionist or PA.  But here are two on Twitter that a student could engage with, if they learn how to do this subtly.

@traceyrc Reading

Director of Brand and Reputation at @Kyoceramitauk, tweeting personally on sustainability, ethics and culture (mostly). Mother, wife, friend, cook, dancer

@tonieastwood Yorkshire UK

Director of Talent Wm Morrison Supermarkets, thought leader and talent champion, media contributor on diversity and talent development

Take Toni Eastwood, the inspirational director of talent at supermarket Morrisons.  She has just 220 followers – so still building her profile and following.  This is an ideal time for a graduate to follow her, learn from her tweets as to her views, what matters.

Ways to get noticed by people on Twitter could be to retweet some of their tweets, send links to interesting articles, answer a question if they ask for views.

Perhaps do a blog that might interest them – and tweet about it.  Some insight from a young person that is harder for a boss to understand.  But students need help to understand how to engage on Twitter to produce results, not irritate.  There is a fine balance.

5.       Volunteer

Even stuffing envelopes for a charity’s HR admin team will give some experience and something for a CV.  Charities are short of funding and people, this can be a good way to get work experience.

6.       Use LinkedIn strategically

Most universities teach the importance of LinkedIn – but not how to use it strategically.  Students can target particular employers, research who they know on LinkedIn in those companies who could give information, find placements, make introductions, may even know of jobs.

7.       Students should network to get jobs

When we ran our own internship for BAME graduates, this was the skill that was the biggest eye-opener and, according to them, the most use.  It was also the one they found hardest – how they have to be helpful and useful to someone first – not just expect favours.

8.       Be enterprising

There is a whole blog on this subject alone.  It is the art of looking at a business, people you know and thinking – what could I do to help them?  Presenting solutions for free – and make them see the value of you as a person.  And eventually these lead to offers of work, even a job.

Our intern did this to us last year, which resulted in a three month (paid) project for a client with us – which gave her CV added value.  And she was appointed by Edelman Digital in the summer.

9.       Read a headhunter’s advice

Our friend, Anne Watson, has written the bestselling ‘Definitive Job Guide’ – highly recommended.

10.   Northern Lights’ free ebook on social media

We have written a free ebook on how to use social media in business.  While written for business leaders and academics, the tips and advice are just as useful to students.  It has already become required reading for Leeds Met’s PR degree course.

Do you agree or disagree with these tips – have we missed any?


Author Image

Written by Northern Lights


  • Hello, and thanks for picking up my blog and the post, 7 tips for flaw-free employee communications.

    For your letter-writing friend, let them know that I had a Drama/English major and took an administrative job in an HR department while putting myself through grad school for an M.Ed. I never pursued teaching, but I did end up sticking with HR. 25+ years later, I own my own consulting firm that specializes in workplace wellness and partners with HR in many instances. It can be done.


    1. Thanks Fran – good to inspire our graduates coming out.

      I just had a tweet from @amymacjr to say even if you are doing all the right things, it is still really difficult. She is of course right and I wouldn’t want to suggest this is a magic wand. However, there are still jobs out there and the best ones will get them.

      Good luck to everyone trying to get a job.

  • Great blog and re-assuring that what I have been banging on about to my students is supported elsewhere! Also some fabulous new ideas for me to incorporate, thank you.

  • Victoria you will know that I agree with all of these points. Another thing we teach our interns is, be polite. It is amazing how many graduates have never sent a thank you email or letter.

    An employer recently rang me for a job reference for one of our alumni – he said he had stood out as he was the ONLY graduate he interviewed who wrote to him afterwards to thank him for his time so it made him stand out from the crowd.

  • As an Associate Dean for Employer Engagement this blog and comments are a great addition to the debate about employability skills. Currently Universities are told what employability skills they should embed in the curriculum and social media and networking don’t come in to it! Lots of us use LinkedIn but not strategically. Scientist know lots about science but not much about job skills. Universities are culturally unsuited to be championing employability and enterprise.

    Playing devil’s advocate, my question would be “why are we asking Universities to focus on employability skills in the first place?”

  • Thanks for so much helpful feedback on this – clearly touching an issue that universities are looking at.

    Well done to Richard on the rankings of PR students on social media – hopefully within the year you will be able to rank students from all disciplines who are on Twitter and blogging? I was interested that when I went to Manchester Met to see their art foundation, they expect students to have blogs as part of their applications!

    And Kevin – you raise a really serious point about the curriculum for employability skills that I was not aware of. Can we help you to influence whoever sets the curriculum?

    We are steeped in working with numerous universities at all levels – on boards, Centurions, Ambassadors etc – and responding to your devil’s advocate, I would say universities MUST teach employability skills. Otherwise that is three years of lost opportunity in gaining skills to get a job.

  • I work very closely with the Employability and Enterprise team at the University of East London and it is an endless source of frustration for them that academics see employability as something they have to pay lip service to, rather than something that should be integral to their teaching.

    Graduates going on to get good graduate level roles for well respected companies a lot about the level of teaching they received at university. Giving them an understanding of what employers require will only serve to make them more employable – and therefore the university’s courses more desirable, surely?

  • I couldn’t agree more with this blog. I would urge students to use their time at university to develop their enterprise skills – also well as subject knowledge. It doesn’t matter if you work in government, third sector, industry or set-up your own business these skills will be vital. They may even help get that first job! At Leeds University we provide these opportunities through the Leeds Enterprise Centre http://lec.leeds.ac.uk/ and the Spark programme (part of Careers).

  • Interesting that the initial enquiry regarding top tips for getting into HR for a recent graduate came from the MUM! I regularly come across young people who are unaccustomed to taking ownership of their progression and opportunities which I believe is because they have never been expected to, haven’t learnt how to, have never needed to before.
    Taking responsibility is the key skill missing here, maybe all us grown ups have nurtured a culture of “All must have prizes” to (controversially) quote Melanie Philips.
    So, maybe the problem starts a little earlier – Can we teach enterprise? Do you first need to have some ‘fire in your belly’ -can you get it/learn it if you’ve never needed it?
    I guess in an attempt to teach enterprise, it needs to be embedded, part of everything you do and learn. I know schools are trying to get their heads round this concept, but whilst they battle an ever changing curriculum, I think this gets lost; its not a priority when it should be.

  • Great tips here, and I recommend Northern Lights’ ebook on social media. We (at Business Link) attended the Yorkshire Graduate Recruitment fair in Leeds earlier this year and feedback was that more graduates are seriously interested in starting their own businesses. Reasons behind that include stiff competition in the job market and a reluctance to wait too long for that to improve. Prof Lockett is absolutely right – students can only benefit from developing their enterprise skills. After all, as our graduate campaign said, ‘Why be The Apprentice – when you could be the Boss?’

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