In a recent survey, Gaby Atfield and Kate Purcell found in Futuretrack Stage 3 Working Paper 4: The fit between graduate labour market supply and demand that graduates who were studying vocational subjects were most likely to believe that the subject they had studied would be an advantage in looking for employment. Sixty per cent of respondents studying subjects allied to Medicine strongly agreed that their subject would be advantageous and students studying other vocational subjects, such as Law and Education, were also more likely than average to believe that the subject they studied would be an advantage in looking for employment.
The group least likely to strongly agree that the subject they studied was likely to give them an advantage in finding employment were students studying Historical and Philosophical Studies. These students were unlikely to be planning to go into employment directly related to their degree subject, and many believed that there were very few jobs that were related to their subject. Despite this, they are more likely than students studying Creative Arts and Design to agree to some extent that the subject they have studied is an advantage, with 61 per cent giving a score of 1 to 3 on the seven point scale, and the mean score given by students in this group was 3.25, which is better than that given by students of Creative Arts and Design (3.47) and Mass Communication and Documentation (3.29).
Students studying Mathematical and Computing Sciences and Business and Administration Studies are interesting cases because they are not particularly likely to strongly agree that the subject they studied would be an advantage, but they are among the most likely to agree to some extent that their subject would be advantageous. These are both subject groups comprised largely of numerate subjects but which are not vocational to the same degree as, for example, the subjects allied to Medicine. These students recognise that although their subject may not have enabled them to develop competences related to a particular occupational career track to the same degree as the more vocational subjects, it has provided them with generic skills and expertise that is likely to give them an advantage in seeking employment.
As they approached the end of their undergraduate courses, over 80% of respondents believed that they have the skills employers are likely to be looking for when recruiting for the kind of jobs they wanted to apply for.
As Figure 1 shows, in all cases, students rated their skills more highly at each successive stage of the survey. Numeracy skills show less improvement on average, because only a minority of students study subjects where the development of these skills is integral to the course syllabus. At Stage 3, respondents were asked to rate their competencies in some additional skill areas, and their responses are shown in
Almost three quarters of final year students thought that the experience of being a student had made them more employable than they would otherwise have been.
Those who were studying vocational subjects (e.g. subjects allied to medicine, law and education) were most likely to believe that the subject they had studied would be an advantage in looking for employment.
Figure 5 shows that research skills were the skills that Futuretrack students approaching the end of their three year undergraduate programmes believed their course had enabled them to develop ‘very much’, with half of the final year respondents choosing this option, a proportion that was even higher than the proportion who said that their course had enabled them to develop specialist knowledge. This possibly reflects the necessary importance of information accessing or processing that constitutes a significant aspect of virtually all undergraduate programmes.
Students at the highest tariff universities were most likely to believe that the university they attended would be an advantage in looking for employment.
Students recognised that specific qualifications represent only a minimum for getting a graduate job and that employers would look for evidence of softer skills to discriminate among similarly qualified job applicants.
Skills students think employers look for
Various attempts have been made to establish the skills and attributes employers look for in recruiting graduates. The list produced by the DfEE was given at the start of this paper. Inevitably there are important attributes that are difficult to define but intrinsic to recruitment interactions, in the ways in which job applicants present themselves or are evaluated by recruiters, such as gender, physical appearance and social background; a combination what Comte called ‘natural inequalities’ and Bourdieu and Passeron ‘cultural capital’ (although these are infrequently mentioned in surveys of employers and were also rarely mentioned by Futuretrack respondents).
In the Stage 3 questionnaire, students were asked ‘What do you consider to be the three most important skills or attributes that employers are looking for in recruiting graduates?’ and the skills and attributes cited were then grouped into broader categories, shown in Figure 8.
In general, the list produced by the respondents bears a very close resemblance to lists produced by employers and revealed by research investigating the skills sought by graduate employers, reinforcing the CBI and UUK’s finding that more than three quarters of students were confident that they knew what employers are looking for as far as the more general ‘employability skills’ are concerned. Those towards the end of the list are likely to reflect the different extent that particular types of skill are developed on courses and the particular labour markets which students intended to enter; for example, creativity and computer literacy were more often seen as skills possessed rather than skills developed in HE, but the fact that numeracy and commercial awareness were least often mentioned vindicates employers’ claims that these are under-developed and under-valued by graduate recruits.
Almost three quarters of final year students thought that the experience of being a student had, in itself, made them more employable, and more than 80 per cent agreed to some extent that the experience of being a student had enhanced their social and intellectual capabilities more broadly.