What do employers want from graduates?

Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning

ISSN: 2042-3896

Article publication date: 4 October 2011



Docherty, D. (2011), "What do employers want from graduates?", Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, Vol. 1 No. 2. https://doi.org/10.1108/heswbl.2011.50501baa.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

What do employers want from graduates?

Article Type: Commentary From: Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, Volume 1, Issue 2.

All higher education institutions are now, quite correctly, focused on ensuring that graduates get jobs. This is now a moral imperative. If you attract a student to an HEI and charge them £6,000 plus for their education and their degree, then it must follow that you have responsibilities beyond the traditional ones of helping them to become critical and reflective thinkers and practitioners.

The problem, however, remains complicated. Forecasting long-term skills needs is difficult enough for businesses, let alone universities trying to second guess businesses. There needs to be a great deal more joined-up thinking between the sector and various industry bodies. The CIHE is trying to play its part with its task forces, the first of which was on the creative, digital and information technology industries, and the second will be on manufacturing talent 20:30, and will be out in the spring (www.cihe-uk.com/category/taskforces/).

On occasion, when I listen to employers, I do feel as if they want a platonic ideal of a graduate. One with the entrepreneurial skills of Richard Branson, the aggressive leadership of Boudicca, the ineffable cool of Kate Hepburn, and the pitching ability of Stephen Hawking (who, after all, sold ten million copies of a book that almost no one could understand).

In the real world, though, employers are clear about the direction of travel when they are recruiting. Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT Retail, for example, notes: “One of the must crucial roles for universities is to enable graduates to learn how to learn. The majority of technical skills being taught in universities will be defunct by the time young people are into their careers.”

As well as self-motivated learning, graduates need to know how to work in teams and have multiple expertises. Anne Morrison, Director of the BBC Academy, sums this up when she says: “The era where we can afford multidisciplinary groups is becoming unaffordable. We need universities to develop graduates with interdisciplinary skills, or who can lead interdisciplinary teams.”

Jeremy Darroch of Sky points to a third piece of the graduate puzzle: leadership. “Leaders […] are the only sustainable source of success in this changing world”, he writes in Believe in Better – Creating Tomorrow's Leaders. And by implication, “For new leaders, specific academic or technical knowledge is increasingly just part of the overall picture […] we're looking for rounded individuals with a broader skill set.”

Undoubtedly vocational degrees give graduates a head start, but there is no simple narrative about employability that covers all industries, and no test tube solutions. Business and university leaders must continue to work together in a sophisticated way to ensure that the UK's knowledge-based economy is boosted by the skills and expertise that it will require to be competitive in the global market.

David DochertyCouncil For Industry and Higher Education (CIHE), London, UK

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