All New Zealand universities focus on the academic excellence and achievement of their students, with more than 25,000 graduating with a Bachelor’s degree last year. Most of these graduates then look for a job but few realise that, increasingly, employers believe there’s more to success than straight A’s.
In some cases, an academically excellent student may even be passed over if a potential employer thinks their high grades have been achieved without, what were in the past referred to as, ‘soft-skills’.
For this reason, students and universities also need to be focusing on the ‘C-skills’ – communication, creativity, curiosity, collaboration, cooperation and caring within a sense of community.
Parents, who frequently support their children through their university study, are only too aware of the need to ensure universities equip students with the right skills for career success.
In a survey of more than 450 parents of aspiring and current university students, 80% believed that one of the key purposes of a university was to provide students with the skills and knowledge to get a well-paid job.
Almost three quarters (72%) of the same group of parents also believed that universities should help students connect with potential employers.
This means that universities need to listen to employers in the private and public sectors and provide connections between them and students.
When we talked with some of Auckland’s top employers – including banks, law firms, primary industry leaders and local government – we gained critical insights, such as that from the national recruitment advisor at a top accounting firm who told us:
“Grades are only one factor we look for in grads. We are looking for confidence, communication skills, are they well rounded? Have they had community and extra-curricular involvement?”
Straight A students will continue to be in demand, but employers are increasingly asking about whether the candidate can relate to other people and their clients.
Employers are also looking for evidence of how students used their part-time work to demonstrate trust, and develop responsibility and initiative. They are keen to know how students work in a team and individually, about their ability to share what they learned during their studies, and how they can use project work to identify problems and implement solutions.
Life skills and experiences – examples of how students have learned from being out of their comfort zones – also rate highly.
At our university, we’re listening to business and employers and finding ways to ensure the ‘C-skills’ of education are addressed. We do this by working with employers to provide local and international internships, work placements, real-life business challenge projects during study, and mentoring programmes. Eighty percent of our Bachelor graduates have real work experience as part of their course.
Investment in the physical learning spaces at AUT has resulted in buildings designed with collaborative learning spaces. These range from informal spaces for group learning, to Colab – a collection of laboratories and programmes where students, researchers and experts from a range of industries come together in subject areas as diverse as textile design, interactive technology, engineering and business.
The annual Shadow a Leader programme run by AUT’s Faculty of Business and Law sees 75 CEOs and leaders from a diverse range of organisations host an AUT student plus a school student for a day to expose them to the life of a leader.
Events such as the Match Ready Employability Workshops have been established to prepare students for paid internships covering topics such as human interaction, personal branding, psychometrics and networking with industry that will ultimately help them into full time employment.
The other question all universities constantly grapple with is what jobs will actually look like in five or ten years’ time and beyond. The reality is that we can map trends but the exact answers are elusive.
Rapid digital evolution, shifting global fortunes and social change will all play their part in forming and reforming a professional work-force that will no longer resemble that which parents have navigated. This pace of change and the uncertainty about the shape of jobs in the future makes the value of the ‘C-skills’ all the more important.
So where does that leave us as higher education providers and parents when giving guidance to those embarking on study?
My advice to students is simple – follow your passion. By identifying what it is that keeps you wondering and wanting to learn, undertaking to discover as much as you can in this and related fields, and by making sure you also explore what it is to engage successfully with people and the world around you – you will be well placed for whatever opportunities present themselves.
First published in the New Zealand Herald