What do employers want in graduates?

One of the recurring themes in public discussions about higher education in these islands over recent times has been the apparent dissatisfaction by employers with the attainments and skills of graduates. It is sometimes suggested that university graduates are not sufficiently literate and numerate and are often inadequate communicators.

An interesting initiative in response to this is the ‘Generation 21’ project recently launched by my former institution, Dublin City University (DCU). This is how the university describes the initiative:

‘Generation 21 is a culmination of extensive consultation with DCU staff, students and employers in Ireland and overseas on the attributes, skills and proficiencies they consider important in graduates today and in the future. A key element of Generation 21 includes the graduate attributes programme which identifies six key important attributes every DCU graduate will have after graduation and which are underpinned by proficiencies and skills that they will acquire in their university years, through full engagement in university life, both inside and outside the lecture theatre. The attributes which DCU will foster in each of its graduates are: Creative and Enterprising, Solution-Oriented, Effective Communicators, Globally Engaged, Active Leaders, Committed to Continuous Learning.’

DCU undertook this project in response to the findings of a survey of employers that it commissioned, and this has some interesting results. Asked to identify the attributes of graduates that are most important, respondents suggested they should be ‘hard-working’, ‘flexible’, and ‘results-driven’. On the other hand, attributes considered to be less of a priority were ‘globally aware’, ‘enterprising’ and ‘enquiring’.

This assessment of priorities might seem rather curious, because on the face of it these priorities suggest that the additional value typically provided by higher education is seen as less important, and that employers are not particularly looking for entrepreneurial talents. Indeed this may imply that employers are far from clear what it really is they want from universities, and that graduates with initiative may not particularly be what they are looking for.

I have no doubt that universities should take seriously the importance of providing students with key skills that will assist them in the labour market. I wholly support DCU’s initiative. However, it may be important for universities to realize that employers themselves are not often clear about what they are looking for, and this should inform discussions with them.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university

Tags: , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

24 Comments on “What do employers want in graduates?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    You’d have to wonder what the differences are in the wants of an employer between say the Herring lass, the potato picker, the Nile field hand picking cotton or tobacco and today. ‘hard-working’, ‘flexible’, and ‘results-driven’ seem to indicate that employers haven’t a bulls notion what to do with a graduates skills.

  2. Al Says:

    Congratulations to DCU for leading the way.
    But claiming their graduates will have these attributes is speculative.
    Further, skills are not ‘provided’ by universities, they are gained through an investment in the practice of that skill or skillset. This is usually called training!
    Universities need to accept this and facilitate skill development.

  3. Ernie Ball Says:

    You know how you provide graduates with “key skills,” particularly in a world where one may change jobs half a dozen times and we have no way of knowing where employment prospects will be brightest even 10 years out? You give them a liberal arts education, that’s how. You don’t give them any of the vocational training that third-rate universities are so fond of, unless you want them trained for today’s world and therefore unable to adapt to tomorrow’s. Think Harvard grads graduate with key skills? Think they are employable? Check out the list of undergraduate majors there. Nary a nursing or a veterinary science or business or communications major in sight. The closest you get is Engineering.


    • So Ernie, what do you think the Harvard Business School teaches? Or the Law School? Or the medical School? Etc…

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        The “graduates” in the title of your blog post refers to those with undergraduate degrees. Harvard Medical School and Business School and Nursing School and Law School do not offer undergraduate degrees and are therefore irrelevant to the points I made in response to your post.


        • No it doesn’t, Ernie. Graduate means graduate. There is a discussion to be had about how to structure higher education, and as it happens I have on this blog advocated looking at the liberal arts/postgraduate vocational progression. But that’s a different matter. You said in your comment that universities that are not third rate don’t offer vocational training. That’s simply rubbish. Harvard most certainly does.

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            Sorry, Ferdinand, but you are misrepresenting your own post. When you wrote this “It is sometimes suggested that university graduates are not sufficiently literate and numerate and are often inadequate communicators,” the “university graduates” in question cannot be those with advanced degrees but are those with bachelors’ degrees of various kinds. Unless you think that people are complaining about the literacy and numeracy of those with Masters and PhDs, in which case the claim is just false: there is nobody suggesting any such thing about Masters and PhD graduates. The issue that Generation 21 hopes to tackle (in the ham-handed way a semi-literate management consultant might) is the poor employability of university graduates, not those with advanced degrees. “Graduates” cannot mean “postgraduates” as the nomenclature alone suggests. I stand by my claim that universities that are not third-rate do not offer vocational training to the undergraduates that are at issue in this broad societal debate. Far from being rubbish, it happens to be true.

            Now, what these universities like Harvard do is not only wise from the perspective of the formation of human beings (who at the age of college students should be exposed to the best of human thought and understanding) but also from the perspective of the formation of the sort of flexible, literate people who are likely to be able to adapt to a constantly-changing work world. Not surprisingly, Harvard and Stanford undergraduates, despite their lack of vocational training, are among the most employable out there. The DCU initiative, with its fatuous “innovation” bushwa is busy reinventing a wheel that needs no reinventing. You want flexible, intelligent, literate and numerate students? Teach them the traditional liberal arts curriculum.


          • Ernie, graduates are graduates. The structure of US degree programmes are different, as you said yourself. But nobody in America would assume that when you talk about ‘graduates’ that this does not include lawyers or accountants, for example.

  4. Jilly Says:

    Let’s face it, many employers want graduate employees who will work like robots, cost them nothing in training, sometimes cost them nothing in wages (see the current disaster of ‘internships’), have no personal lives which will ever impact on their function as workers, and be able to terminate their contracts whenever it suits.

    Given these circumstances – and the fact that, as Ernie points out, most of our graduates will be doing completely different jobs in 10 years time (some of which may well not exist yet), it does seem logical that we as universities educate the students to be able to swim in these seas rather than be drowned by them. Which means thinking about what the students will need to survive, not what the employers can use for short-term profit.

    • Al Says:

      This goes back to a generalist versus specialist argument, and there is logic to this from a students perspective in terms of investing time. But the cost of this is a potential lack of specialist skills. There is the risk that gains from this investment of time wont be realised.
      Unfortunately, that is life!

      • Jilly Says:

        No, it’s not about the generalist/specialist argument. It’s about the fact that employers have a set of goals and agendas which, while quite understandable, are not sufficient when considering student education. Universities must educate students in order to give intellectual and social benefit to both those students and wider society. That wider society includes employers, but is not limited to them. So we DO need to educate students to be critical thinkers who are globally aware (whether employers rate that or not) because this is good for both the students and society as a whole.

  5. Anna Notaro Says:

    In the general context of ‘what employers want in graduates’ and the ways that the industry has devised to achieve such a task it might be worth mentioning Skillset (www.skillset.org)’the industry body which supports skills and training for people and businesses to ensure the UK creative industries maintain their world class position.’ Some courses are awarded the ‘Skillset Tick’, that is really the pinnacle of the employability achievement..

  6. Anna Notaro Says:

    forgot to add: *However, it may be important for universities to realize that employers themselves are not often clear about what they are looking for, and this should inform discussions with them.*

    This resonates with the general philosophy of the recent White Paper in the UK according to which students should be able to know what they are looking for and they are NOT!

  7. Ernie Ball Says:

    What hope is there that this programme (Generation 21) will deliver literate graduates when the core of the programme is this bit of totally illiterate bumf:

    The attributes which DCU will foster in each of its graduates are: Creative and Enterprising, Solution-Oriented, Effective Communicators, Globally Engaged, Active Leaders, Committed to Continuous Learning.

    Attributes are nouns, not adjectives but this list is a hodge-podge of 5 adjectival phrases and 2 noun phrases not one of which can correctly be called an “attribute.” What hope does this plan have to promote literacy when it has itself been formulated by illiterates?

    • Al Says:

      I think DCU derseve credit for moving on this. What they have here may not be the same in 5 years, but let them improve it in use rather than perfect it before use.
      It is an attempt to look at graduate ability, and a decent one at that, but could have been toned down a little.
      IMHO, anyway

    • Regina Says:

      Agree, Ernie, that it’s not the kind of elegant grammar one would teach in Rudiments of English 101, but the mix of 21st century techno-speak with a modicum of poetic license certainly conveys the spirit of the enterprise. I get the impression that these DCU grads will have a bit of spunk. Commitment to continuous learning will sort out any other lacunae.

      As we’re on the topic, in its written form, the text negates the definition of illiteracy, functional or in the strict sense, don’t you think, Ernie?

  8. kevin denny Says:

    I think one should distinguish between “what employers want” and “what universities can deliver”. Even if we can agree on what employers want, lets say diligent workers, its far from clear that universities can produce this. They may be able to recruit students by this criterion (i.e. admit diligent students to degrees) and promptly graduate them 3 or 4 years later (largely unchanged in their diligence but with an increased knowledge of literature or sociology). The employer will thank the university for it – it saves them a lot of hassle screening applicants.
    The DCU initiative is worth trying though and evaluating. Maybe it will enhance the employability of its graduates.


  9. Interesting post and discussion.

    I would like to see evidence Jilly has to back up her claims. Quoting Jilly; ‘Let’s face it, many employers want graduate employees who will work like robots, cost them nothing in training, sometimes cost them nothing in wages (see the current disaster of ‘internships’), have no personal lives which will ever impact on their function as workers, and be able to terminate their contracts whenever it suits.’

    I’m not sure how these sweeping statements really advance the discussion.

    Our company exists because employers do spend money on training. Almost all course fees are paid by employers on behalf of their employees.

    I welcome the DCU initiative. Whatever about the good/bad grammar, it’s good to see the college launching this project. If nothing else, it certainly gets people thinking.

  10. alexiis Says:

    Hello to all.

    This is may be off topic but i’m considering on taking a masters degree is dublin city university through distance learning. Does anyone have any opinions about the university?

  11. Tony Says:

    As a nutrition lecturer, I too would like to see my students turning out to be ‘creative and enterprising, solution-oriented, effective communicators, globally engaged, active leaders, and committed to continuous learning.’ More than anywhere else, I see these attributes coming out in them when they are doing their final year research projects. Then, unfortunately, they have to jump through the hoops of our exam system one last time, which rewards them for being ‘hard-working’, and ‘results-driven’. Oh, and having a great short-term memory. Employers, take your pick, but I know which kind of person I would prefer to work with.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: