A new Victoria University survey of Wellington employers reveals the importance of work experience – of any kind – when choosing from similarly qualified job candidates.
It was a public sector manager who said it most starkly, summarising the views from many other fellow employers: “If I get a CV from somebody who hasn’t got a record of part-time work I don’t care how good your grades and qualifications are, I won’t look at you.”
The experiences this employer most valued were “having to work with other people, having to come to work on time, having to adhere to a roster, take instruction, show innovation …”
As the digital advances of the Third Industrial Revolution blend into the blurred digital, physical and biological technologies of the Fourth, and the associated upheaval is estimated to have 3,000 times the impact of changes in the 18th and 19th centuries, students and their educators increasingly recognise the importance of ‘soft’ interpersonal skills.
Anxiety about the impact of automation on job security is rising. Even 10 years ago, graduates could expect careers with reasonable job stability using specific skill sets learned through their studies. Linear careers in a single area of work were the norm. Now work is projected to more likely involve what has been called “employability security”.
This means the ability to apply broad generic skills and attributes — communication, teamwork, engagement, openness to change, work ethic, critical thinking, emotional intelligence and creativity — across a lifetime of multiple careers.
But a new report Victoria University of Wellington colleagues and I have prepared highlights the emphasis students also need to place on work experience.
The report, It Takes a City to Raise a Graduate, contributes to the ongoing public debate about the changing nature of work, looking at the expectations of Wellington employers for graduates going into the workplace, often expressed with a frankness absent in official reports.
Victoria students conducted nearly 90 interviews for the report — with managers, human resource specialists and recent graduates at a cross-section of businesses and public sector and not-for-profit organisations.
Work experience and other aspects of employability were one of the key themes to emerge.
While soft skills indeed rated strongly for interviewees, a significant number of employers also want evidence of work experience.
To a large degree, this expectation of relevant work experience is an employer response to a major increase in the number of degree holders. By 2016, 24 percent of New Zealand’s adult population held a Bachelor’s degree, compared with 15 percent in 2006 and 8.2 percent in 1996.
With increasing competition, students must differentiate themselves not by grades alone, but by more majors, postgraduate studies, extracurricular activities, internships and/or volunteer work.
A sociology theory about “individualisation among equals” emerged in conversations students had with employers, many of whom are looking for graduates possessing the “triple threat”, described by the managing director of a large consulting firm as “good grades, part-time job of some sort, and something extracurricular which looks good”.
Employers particularly valued two forms of work experience. One involved the development of soft skills of reliability and the ability to resolve conflicts. The other was technically focused ‘hard’ skills, developed often through internships and placements. Technology organisations in particular want these.
For some, the exact nature of the work experience is unimportant, with a human resources manager from a large corporation saying: “I don’t care what you’ve done from a work perspective but I want you to have worked in part-time roles … that you understand the dynamic of working.”
Among interviewees were recent graduates who expressed their surprise about the importance placed on the value of generic soft skills compared with technical skills. As several commented, it was their cultural and organisational fit that secured their position rather than their hard skill level, which employers saw as teachable.
One recently employed graduate working for a public sector organisation reflected that at the job interview “nobody wanted to know my grades across various subjects … they were looking for evidence that you know what’s going on and how to work with people”.
Another graduate working in the banking sector said “moving into technology … I had none of those skills but a big part of it was the recruitment manager thought I’d work well in a team and said, ‘Don’t worry about the technology stuff, we’ll teach you that’”.
The manager of a large financial technology company said it was surprising how many young people don’t have work experience, either through a job or volunteering.
It’s never too soon to begin — and that includes internships (take note, educators).
As the CEO of an incubator/accelerator told us, “real-world experience should start from your very first year at university”.
Dr Richard Norman is a Senior Lecturer in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Management. It Takes a City to Raise a Graduate was co-written by Dr Norman, social researcher Kate Peters and Victoria PhD candidate Sarah Hendrica Bickerton.
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