Translating academic success into a great job offer may be a significant challenge for new graduates, but it is also a key issue for employers and educators. Demand across the job market is high for well-rounded employees who combine strong academic skills with unassessed soft skills. Taking a closer look at the skills commonly demanded by employers and the increasing prevalence of a degree requirement in job listings, we find that what employers really want from today’s applicants is a degree-level education – read on to find out why.
The demand for soft skills
Requests for soft skills such as communication, time management and critical thinking, are a guaranteed feature of contemporary job adverts. A good candidate matches these soft skills to the specific work and education experiences they possess. Simultaneously, soft skills provide a commonly understood set of criteria for businesses attempting to screen similarly qualified candidates.
The specific examples of soft skills offered by candidates are further enhanced by the skills they demonstrate when recalling them: communication and problem-solving skills, for instance, are demonstrated by responding intelligently to curveball questions.
The soft skills list
The specific soft skills that employers value most highly have been the subject of numerous surveys in the press. One such example, from April 2013, is a list published in The Guardian based on a statistical analysis of the occurrence of certain terms in 500,000 Adzuna (UK) job listings.
Top 10 soft skills - UK
Organised (Appeared in 99,862 ads)
Communication skills (68,064 ads)
Motivated (65,011 ads)
Qualified (58,955 ads)
Flexible (56,551 ads)
Degree (54,049 ads)
Commitment (49,686 ads)
Passionate (47,971 ads)
Track record (40,741 ads)
Innovative (36,581 ads)
Top 10 soft skills - US
A similar example from across the Atlantic, cited in Forbes, found the following attributes to be valued most highly:
- Ability to work in a team
- Ability to make decisions and solve problems
- Ability to plan, organise and prioritise work
- Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organisation
- Ability to obtain and process information
- Ability to analyse quantitative data
- Technical knowledge related to the job
- Proficiency with computer software programs
- Ability to create and/or edit written reports
- Ability to sell and influence others
It is interesting to note that, though organisational-type skills (e.g. “plan, organise and prioritise work”) come out behind communication-related skills (e.g. “ability to work in a team”) in the employer’s priority list (Forbes), the situation is reversed in the actual listings posted (Guardian). In fact, “communication skills” appears in only two-thirds of the number including “organised”.
While this doesn’t diminish the importance of candidates demonstrating organisational skills, it does illustrate that some desired skills – especially those related to communication – are frequently unstated by employers. Therefore, candidates should do their research beyond the job advert to determine for themselves the kinds of attributes they should demonstrate.
Recommended read: How education influences professional success
Teaching of soft skills in higher education
In the Guardian/Adzuna sample, we see that 10% of ads specifically mention a degree in their description. This doesn’t mean that 90% of job listings aren’t interested in a degree – the number would increase substantially were the full job-specification taken into consideration (see below). More importantly, degree experience accounts for many of the most popular soft skills that employers seek – recent graduates would do well to demonstrate this in their applications and interviews.
As any graduate will tell you, the organisational skills so commonly referred to in job adverts are inevitably learnt by successful graduates. Everyone tackles various deadlines and workloads to ensure delivery of multiple pieces of work to a high standard. Motivation, flexibility and commitment are demonstrated too.
Communication is broadly demonstrated via the effective communication of ideas and arguments in written assignments – though competency in verbal communication is perhaps harder to prove (except of course if your degree specifically involves it).
Nevertheless, all degrees provide ample opportunity for cultivating communication and teamwork skills while studying – many courses feature group assignments and students get the most out of seminars when they actively converse with others. In addition, day-to-day you can further develop your soft skills through completing individual tasks within the online learning environment without having to complete formal soft skills training.
Why do soft skills matter?
Soft skills can make all the difference between an average candidate and a great candidate. In today’s competitive jobs market, hard skills and specialist knowledge may sometimes not be enough to set you apart from other potential employees.
Soft skills are linked to a person’s character, and it takes a conscious effort and commitment to improve this skillset. These are the abilities that will enable you to progress your career to its full potential.
Qualifications – how and why many jobs require a degree
In the UK, 26% of all jobs require a degree. Similarly, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics research suggests that around 23% of jobs require a Bachelors degree or Masters degree. Graduates will find that demand for their skill increases in the years ahead too.
Employer demand for Masters degrees is forecasted to grow ahead of all other levels of qualification. Currently, around 2% of jobs require study to this level, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a percentage change of 18.4% by 2022. Bachelor degree demand will grow by 12.1% in the same period, while the average across all forms of qualification demanded will be just 10.8%.
This surge in demand for degree-educated candidates is naturally more pronounced in some industries than it is in others. Forbes notes ten occupations in high demand for which a university degree is compulsory. These are positions in sectors such as marketing, computer science, medicine, engineering and IT, which along with others such as business, finance and law are firmly associated with the degree requirement.
A degree is increasingly viewed as a gold standard in professions where hiring has traditionally looked to soft skills and other indications of candidate quality. One US-based labour analytics firm’s survey notes the example of the executive secretary. They found that 65% of job postings for this position asked for a degree, because they felt it provided a “rule-of-thumb screening system to recruit better workers”. This is despite the fact that only 19% of current workers have a degree.
In the UK, according to the 2015 High Fliers Graduate Market report, nine out of thirteen key industries were expecting to take on more graduates. Growth was largest in the public sector, accounting, banking and finance, retail and armed forces.
It’s worth remembering too that these are the cases in which degrees are explicitly asked for – an unspoken preference for degree-educated candidates arguably underpins far more hires than the numbers suggest. Among jobs that explicitly require a degree, emphasis is firmly placed on higher grades – in the UK, a 2:1 degree or above is required for 70% of all graduate jobs advertised. Additionally, the fact that employers focus their graduate recruitment efforts on certain universities (according to the High Fliers report, 19 institutions on average in the UK) hints at a hierarchy of preferred universities.
Typically, these institutions are members of the Russell Group (with the University of Birmingham among them). Putting aside the endorsement displayed, the graduates who attend these institutions receive crucial advantages over other graduates. Universities heavily engaged in research are more likely to have the connections required for robust work placement and careers programmes, for example.
Conclusion: degrees nurture the attributes most valued by employers
Employers, whether they’re among the increasing number requesting applications exclusively from graduates or not, value a range of attributes that degree-level education teaches. Several years of self-managed study teach invaluable organisational, teamwork and communication skills. Increasingly, degrees are “what employers want”, a fact that motivates not only school leavers, but increasing numbers of those already in employment looking to improve their opportunities.
What skills or qualifications are most important in today’s job market? Have your say with the interactive poll below and discuss your reasoning in the comments.
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