Have you got the skills to pay the bills?

The impact of the financial crisis on the labour market is worrying many students and recent graduates.

Looking at the statistics you can see why they’re worried: this is proving to be one of the toughest graduate labour markets for years, with UK unemployment rising above 2 million for the first time in over a decade and engineering vacancies at the top 100 graduate employers down by 27.2 per cent since 2008 (also down 34 per cent in IT and telecoms, and 9 per cent down in oil and energy).*

That’s not to say that all is doom and gloom in the sector. Engineering students are still in high demand and, unlike sectors such as finance and the media, which are being hammered, engineering firms are still looking to employ graduates.

However, the squeeze on jobs has increased competition, and consequently it’s essential that jobhunters focus on what employers are looking for, and present themselves as the best possible candidate.

At Student & Young Professional  we're keen to help: we asked some of the recruiters who will be looking for engineering students in the coming months exactly what skills they do and don’t want when it comes to new recruits.

Skill number one: Preparation

A common refrain for many of the employers we spoke to was that they see far too many graduates who make it past the application forms and into the interview or an assessment centre, only to reveal they haven't got a clue what the job or the company is about. You can instantly make yourself better than 70 per cent of your competition, simply by preparing. At the very least learn about the company, know what it does, and prepare some sensible answers to questions.

“Graduates should do their homework before they come for interviews and have an understanding of the organisations they are applying to,” says Andrew Wilson, organisation & staffing manager, GE Aviation Systems, a firm which provides electrical power systems and avionics to the builders and operators of military and civil aircraft. “When they take part in group exercises at assessment centres they should be prepared to participate actively and be prepared to ask questions. Engineers need to have enquiring minds to prove they are genuinely interested in the role.”

Skill number two: Humility

It’s only natural that after more than two decades in education you’re going to consider yourself something of an expert on your subject. However, according to some recruiters, that confidence in your newly acquired knowledge can sometimes develop into an overconfidence that makes employers interpret your ease as arrogance, so beware.

“One of the big problems we experience is that in the final year of university you’ve typically done a dissertation and you’re at a very high level of academia, and then go into a business,” says Charlie Leake, recruitment and development manager at consulting firm Mouchel. “The biggest thing you’ve got to learn is to step back a bit and realise that you’re not going to be the CEO within six months. To all intents and purposes the lecturers at universities inspire the students to think they’re going to be experts but they’ve got to deal with things like office politics and with people that have years of experience and that can often be a cold, sharp shock!”

Skill number three: Interpersonal skills

Perhaps one of the more surprising things that recruiters said is that they weren’t as concerned about specific computer skills. There was no great clamour for graduates who were already proficient in CAD or CAM. But what they did emphasise was that graduates should work on their interpersonal skills.

“Most graduates have more than adequate basic IT skills and will be trained on any specific industry software they might need in a given situation. Although it has happened, it is rare for a graduate applicant to suggest they have an inability to grasp the kind of technologies we work with,” explains Michelle Griffiths, marketing and communications officer from Firstco, which specialises in the design, integration and delivery of control and monitoring systems. “Those that fail once they have been employed by us, which is rare, have normally failed to grasp how important our client relationships are in terms of our attitude and approach, rather than any technical shortcomings. Those who fail at interview are generally those who don’t engage with the interviewers on a personable level, suggest they are too clever for us or simply cannot communicate adequately,” she says.

Skill number four: Flexibility

Employers can find that they are faced with an overwhelming number of applicants for posts. That means that anything you can do to differentiate yourself from the crowd could mean the difference between getting a job and not. One such issue is your flexibility about location.

“Certainly there are a lot of graduates out there who are very ambitious, who have excellent qualifications and skills, but if you take all of those things out of the equation then it can come down to who can be more flexible about their position - and they’re the one who will be getting the job,” says Mouchel’s Charlie Leake. “A lot of companies are complaining that graduates are less flexible, but ultimately it’s about the business and what the business needs. If you can offer that flexibility then it’s likely that you will have more opportunities and progression in a career.”

Jobs, companies and industries move: early in your career be prepared to move with them.

Skill number five: Experience and development

As the number of UK graduates increases following a Government programme to increase entry to higher education, the rule of supply and demand dictates the value of a degree alone will fall. Many recruiters emphasise that the real selling point for a graduate now can be the extra experience they have built up.

“Ideally we like graduates to have relevant work experience, from taking part in work placements, before they join us,” says Andrew Wilson from GE Aviation Systems. “At GE we are committed to offering graduates placement opportunities. Graduates can never have enough of the practical application of their studies. Getting good work experience during their studies sets a graduate apart from their peers. We like to see a balance of good academic understanding and real work experience. On the job we provide specific technical training to enhance their theoretical knowledge.”

Once you’ve got that experience, the other point to bear in mind is never to stop developing your skills and experience. “Our company is committed to encouraging and supporting both professional and personal development and has an excellent relationship with the Institution of Engineering and Technology,” says Michelle Griffiths. “We actively represent [the Institution] at events designed to encourage youngsters into engineering careers and the graduates we employ are encouraged to participate in this as part of their development.”

So don’t assume that experience alone will be enough - nurture your professional development as well.

* The Graduate Market in 2009, end of year update, published by High Flyers Research Ltd.

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