Seeking soft skills: Employers want graduates who can communicate, think fast, work in teams

  • Article by: PAUL WISEMAN , AP Economics Writer
  • Updated: June 24, 2013 - 11:00 AM

WASHINGTON — 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.

To find out what employers are seeking from university graduates around the world, The Associated Press talked to dozens of corporate recruiters, university career counselors, economists and students. What's clear is 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 center. "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 organizing contests that reveal how students solve problems and handle deadline pressure.

"It used to be that the interview itself was where you made or broke your chances with a company," says Dan Black, head of campus recruiting in the Americas for the accounting and consulting firm Ernst & Young. "Now the assessment is a much longer and broader process."

—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 percent 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.

Mona Mourshed, leader of the education practice at the global consultancy McKinsey & Co., remembers one employer saying: " 'I have never fired an engineer for bad engineering, but I have fired an engineer for lack of teamwork' ... People have to work together. They have to collaborate."

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

"Many technical programs around the world have historically focused more on technical depth," says Paul McIntyre, vice president in charge of global recruiting at oil giant BP. "We've been communicating to universities the importance of soft skills."

—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.

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