What do employers want?

There are many jobs that will not draw on anything learned during third level education

There are still plenty of careers out there where all of the necessary training is on the job.

There are still plenty of careers out there where all of the necessary training is on the job.

Tue, Aug 20, 2013, 10:44

What do employers want? This question may not be uppermost in the minds of college bound students but it inevitably drives at least part of their subject choices.

Arts courses are, apparently, less popular right now owing in part to their lack of direct connection with obvious employment skills (the contrarian in me wants to advocate for Arts degrees).

What skills do I need to acquire in order to land a good job? Both of our questions amount to the same thing and there is no end of helpful advice on how to acquire the necessary attributes and how to present them to prospective employers.

Some advice is good, most of it, as far as I can see, is platitudinous rubbish; statements of the blindingly obvious written by people who have never been employers themselves, who have little understanding of what it takes to run a successful business.

With obvious exceptions, there are many jobs that will not draw on anything learned during third level education.

There are still plenty of careers out there where all of the necessary training is on the job.

For those jobs that do require specific skills, take it as read that you have the right technical skills, whatever they may be, for the career in question.

In either case, how to approach a prospective employer?

Most careers advice that I have seen begins by stressing communications skills. As a result, potential candidates often assert on their CV that the have “excellent communication skills”.

Sometimes they claim those skills are “superb”(thankfully, I have yet to observe anyone claiming “awesome” abilities in this area, although I suspect it is only a matter of time).

It is clear that CV trainers tell people to assert that they are leaders (alongside being a strong team player), possess abundant IT skills, have analytical ability, are a proven relationship builder and are demonstrably results driven.

All good stuff but as useful as the part of the CV that contains a candidate’s name and address. Employers themselves are often partly to blame because, when asked what they want, they produce something like the list of attributes described above.

They also typically mutter something about “general literacy and numerical skills”, mostly because a colossal number of otherwise perfectly qualified candidates seem to lack these rather basic qualities.

Many of the things that employers really want are rarely discussed. Sometimes there is fear of the PC police, sometimes just vague embarrassment.

Enlightened employers start, quietly, by referring to the “No Asshole” rule (I can say this because it is the title of a book and a Harvard Business Review article written by Stanford Professor Robert Sutton). You don’t really need to read the book or the article to get the message.

Just reflect on how not to violate this rule. But you will never find this criterion in any Employee Handbook or, indeed, any job description or advertisement.

But it is a phrase I have heard used (again, quietly) by senior managers and recruiters in many firms I have been acquainted with.

Especially in the good ones. The best HR people I have worked with have had a relentless focus on this one rule.

Communication skills are indeed vital. But candidates need to provide some evidence of a genuine understanding of what this means.

They must appreciate that being a good presenter is now a vital skill in virtually all occupations: if you can’t get up on your hind legs and convincingly sell your product, idea or whatever to a large group of people you will not succeed in corporate life.

At the same time, you need to know what “Death by Powerpoint” means and never to inflict it on anyone.

Demonstrate that you are organised. You don’t have to be a black-belt in list-making software like Evernote, but do display an understanding of the need to have a plan and the means to execute it.

Some evidence of this, any evidence at all, will mark you out from the bulk of humanity.

In the modern corporation, as with plumbers and builders, the greatest curse is sudden invisibility: people who simply disappear after making promises or in the face looming deadlines.

If you sit at interview and undertake to answer every e-mail (even if it is a one word answer), not disappear at critical moments and either deliver on time or warn in advance of slippage, you will be promising to be different to 99 per cent of all other candidates (and most of the people who are interviewing you).

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