A beginner’s guide to workplace skills in 2021: what do employers want?

Which skills and qualities are most important to employers post-Covid? And how can students develop these skills virtually?

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In February 2021, we held a webinar with recruiters from engineering firm Cummins and telecoms company Three to discuss if and how the coronavirus has changed the skills that employers seek in graduate recruits. Are there certain skills that are particularly helpful for businesses coping with an uncertain economic outlook? And how can you develop these skills when enforced lockdown has temporarily halted a lot of your activities outside of your degree? Read on to discover what our representatives from Cummins and Three have to say – or click the video above to watch the full webinar.

Times have changed, skills haven’t

You might think different world, different skills, but the good news is that not everything has changed now it’s 2021 and we’re facing a pandemic. There may be more importance placed on a few skills (the Institute for Student Employers has pinpointed resilience as increasingly important to employers, for example) but our panel were quick to dismiss the idea that students need a whole new set of skills post-Covid. In fact, they were unanimous in saying that they are looking for exactly the same skills as before.

Don’t assume your degree rules you out

Some job adverts will list the degree subjects that they’re looking for, but the list is often longer than you might think – or there might not be a list in the first place. So, if you’re interested in a role that’s a bit different to your degree, don’t count yourself out before checking the job ad. Now more than ever, employers recognise that different degree backgrounds bring different perspectives – and the technical, role-specific stuff can often be taught on the job. You may have a drama degree, but you could work for a telecoms company, like one of our panellists, if that’s where your passion lies.

Attitude often outweighs skills

In the words of Sir Winston Churchill: ‘Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference’. This comes down to who you are as a person: your values, beliefs and work ethic, and how you approach the world and treat others. Attitude cannot be taught in the same way that skills can, making it even more important for your attitude to align with an employer’s core values from day one. When applying to employers, our panellists recommend looking not just at the skills they seek but their core values – and thinking about how you are a good fit for each other in that respect.

Now is the time for positivity

It’s easy for negativity to creep in at the best of times, never mind when there is the fallout of a global pandemic. For many organisations, the perfect antidote is a healthy dose of positivity and forward thinking. Employers will always want to hire people who take a glass-half-full approach and look to grow rather than stand still. However, this mindset is needed more than ever to help organisations pull through in 2021 – and to keep you going if you’re finding it harder searching and applying for jobs at the moment.

Leadership isn’t the most important

A common mistake made by students at interviews and assessment centres is focusing too much on leadership skills. Remember that you’re not applying to be the CEO just yet. At the graduate level, employers need good listeners and collaborators who can gel with their teams. Yes, they might need you to take on responsibility for some projects, but not everybody needs to be the next CEO. So, unless an employer places a big emphasis on its graduates needing leadership skills, you’ll probably be better off thinking about how to demonstrate your teamwork and collaborative skills.

Initiative is underrated

It might not be one of the first skills you think of, but our panellists agreed that a lot of graduates who do really well in the workplace are the ones who can use their initiative and think for themselves. For example, when you encounter a problem, are you likely to go straight to your manager or would you try to think of a solution or alternative that you can suggest first? If you’re not sure how to demonstrate that you have initiative, think about times when you have gone above and beyond to get something done.

Be yourself

Our panellists were keen to emphasise that, as much as you might want your CV to dazzle employers, you need to keep it genuine and make sure it fits with your personality. Otherwise, it won’t match up when you meet them in person. For example, if you’re naturally more of an introvert, don’t think that you need to pretend to be an extrovert to be successful. You don’t need to be loud to be a good communicator or a social butterfly to be a good team player. It takes all sorts of people and skills to make projects and businesses succeed, so be yourself.

Developing your skills in a virtual world

Employers want to hear about your experiences beyond your formal work placements, so be sure to tell them about your extracurriculars and, crucially, the skills these activities have developed. While the coronavirus has made it harder to get out there, a lot of opportunities have moved online. You might have watched virtual sessions and webinars, started your own blog, TikTok account or YouTube channel or downloaded an app such as Duolingo to start learning a new language. Or maybe you’ve been volunteering in your community, such as with the NHS or through NextDoor.

Say no to social media envy

Scrolling through your phone, it can be easy to compare what you’re doing to others and feel jealous of their accomplishments but remember that not everybody is solving the water crisis in Africa or inventing the next Apple watch. In fact, not many people are. You don’t need to do something spectacular that’s never been done before, especially during a pandemic. Just think of a good way to spend your spare time – something local, simple but effective, attainable and, crucially, enjoyable for you.

Start early if you can

It’s best to start thinking about what skills you’d like to develop and what activities you’d enjoy outside of your degree sooner rather than later, but it’s never too late to start trying new things. If you’re applying for a job and you’re just now thinking ‘What on earth can I put on my CV?’, try to build on existing interests. When you’re talking about something you genuinely enjoy, this will shine through. Equally, if you’re talking about something you only did because you felt like you had to or you were clutching at straws for something to say, this might also become clear to the recruiter.

Make your CV work for your skills

For each application you make, think about which of your skills and experiences will be of most interest to the employer and therefore should be prominent on your CV. You don’t need to strictly stick to a set CV template if it doesn’t show you in the best light. Put things you want to stand out in bold. Instead of listing all of your course modules, write one or two sentences about one project that’s particularly relevant. Equally, our panellists don’t want to see a long bullet point list of hobbies or interests. Again, pick a few really good examples and write a sentence or two for each one.

Be prepared to expand in your interview

Your interview is when most employers will want you to give more details about what you’ve been doing, what you’re passionate about and who you are as a person. If you can, go along with some different examples of your experiences and how they match with the company’s values or demonstrate particular skill(s) – especially if the interview is going to be competency based. Planning a few examples in advance will help to give your answers structure and stop you from panicking on the day. You might find the STAR technique helpful here.

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