Leaving the comforts of college and entering the workforce can be a daunting prospect. Most educational institutions do their best to prepare students ahead of time, but it seems many graduates may leave education with a bucketload of qualifications but without being work-ready.
A survey conducted by the Association of Graduate Recruiters in the UK last year found that 87 per cent of employers were unable to find suitable graduate applicants to fill advertised positions because many students lacked the skills needed to survive and thrive at work.
The situation may not be as grim in Ireland, but there is growing concern that with more companies than ever looking to hire graduates, more needs to be done to ensure those leaving college can adapt to the workplace.
According to figures published by GradIreland, the average number of graduates hired in 2013 more than doubled from 2012. Furthermore, 39.1 per cent of companies it surveyed predicted an increase in intake.
However, the study also revealed that many graduates entering the workforce lack both hard and soft skills.
The survey showed 49.2 per cent of graduate employers cited a skills gap in IT and technology as the biggest impediment to meeting their recruitment needs. In addition, 43.2 per cent noted a deficit in both written and verbal communication skills with a shortfall also seen in a number of other areas such as problem-solving, confidence, motivation, independent working, flexibility, diligence and teamwork.
Experts are divided on whether the onus should be on students or colleges to ensure those graduating are properly prepared for the workplace. Some also believe employers should have realistic expectations of graduates’ readiness for working life.
"Based on the calibre of students applying to our programme at BWG, I can certainly speak to the fact that today's graduates are incredibly smart and incredibly tech-savvy. However, there's still a way to go in making them truly work-ready and equipping them with the practical skills only learned through real-life experiences, such as how to deal with customers or challenging situations," said Peter Donohoe, HR director at BWG Foods, the company behind Spar.
He feels that while employers and colleges bear a certain amount of responsibility for ensuring graduates are work-ready, it is primarily up to the individuals themselves to get up to speed ahead of time.
“There is an onus on graduates themselves to seek out experience before they move into their first ‘real’ job,” he said.
“Due perhaps to the recession, many students have not held part-time employment while studying that would have given them the practical experience they require to quickly transition to a workplace setting after graduating from college.
“However, they can get these skill sets through other means such as involvement in sporting clubs or volunteering, for example, and this is what we look for when bringing graduates into the organisation.”
Sean Prendeville from Castleknock, Dublin, who is currently working with BWG through its graduate programme, believes the fact his course was run on a 9-5 basis helped him prepare for working.
Nonetheless, he says there were many aspects of the business world he wasn’t in tune with before graduating.
“I studied engineering originally so there were some skills I felt I was lacking when I started with BWG. I wasn’t up to scratch with some of the IT systems in use here and also didn’t have too much full-on business experience,” he says.
“The graduate programme here was very useful though as through it we get to spend six months working in each division, so I was able to learn about areas such as marketing and sales.”
, head of career development at Maynooth University, agrees that while there is plenty of support for graduates at college, it is largely up to them to prepare themselves for the transition from college to the workplace.
“Employers are right to set the bar high in terms of what they are looking for from graduates. Our job is to help students become more employable.
“We do what we can to ensure that, as well as leaving with excellent academic scores, they also have great communication skills and so on. It’s ultimately the responsibility of students to equip themselves for work,” he says. “What we’re told by graduate recruiters is that some students are well-attuned to the culture of the workplace early on and hit the ground running while others struggle.
“Relevant work experience undertaken ahead of time is very helpful in adapting, but it is still a very big adjustment to go from a part-time job into a professional working environment.”
Aoife Robinson, a graduate employee with MSD in Ballydine, Clonmel, says the transition to work wasn't as difficult as she had envisaged, thanks in part to an understanding employer and previous experience.
“It’s a completely different environment and I think college will never prepare you for work, but taking part in placements while I was at UCD opened my eyes to what it might be like,” she says.
“MSD has been great at helping to integrate new employees such as myself into the business. I feel the company isn’t blind to graduates coming in and not knowing everything. There’s plenty of training so that we can upskill.”
As one of the most sought-after companies to join, Google Ireland can choose who it wants to take on. Not surprisingly, it looks for individuals who stand out. The company's university programmes specialist Deborah O'Neill says it spends a lot of time during the recruitment process ensuring that the candidates it takes on are "Googley" and will be a good fit with the company.
“Google hires graduates who have a variety of strengths and passions, not just isolated skill sets. Someone who can demonstrate a passion for the online industry and who has made the most of their time at university through involvement in clubs, societies or relevant internships will generally thrive,” she says.
O’Neill says the company favours ability over experience and seeks to help the transition into full-time employment by providing new recruits with a two-year developmental programme which is meant to equip new staff members with the business, analytical and leadership skills needed to be successful at the company.
Graduates also receive one month’s ‘Noogler’ training to aid the transition to the workplace.
According to graduates themselves, no matter how much preparation you have beforehand, it’s still a big leap going from college to work and continual training is required to help them make the grade.
“Life changes dramatically when changing from student life to working full-time. I was lucky enough to have completed several internships before starting to work at Google, which gave me an idea of how my day-to-day life would change,” says Paul O’Connell, a Google graduate employee working as an associate account strategist for the UK market.
He believes the training he has received since joining the company has helped him become familiar with his new life.
“My experience has been a very good one. The training I was given did two main things: it provided me with knowledge on the products I would be working with and it allowed me to settle in to the company and my team,” he says.
“What I wish I had known ahead of time was how important your personal brand is in work. Before starting to work, I hadn’t really considered the importance of your own image and attitude; I just had a one-track mind that was, ‘As long as I do my job, that’s fine’.
“I have come to realise that if you want to be successful, you must go above and beyond your role and develop an excellent personal brand.”