What skills do employers look for in their employees?

We look at the top qualities employers look for in their employees

What do employers want? They want the same thing we all want: the best possible thing - in this case, a worker - at the lowest possible price.

It’s this disjoint between wanting a brilliant worker but trying to keep the costs down that can, sometimes, cause friction. Ultimately, however, companies and bosses do understand that good wages follow good employees, so it’s always important to know your worth.

In a time of full employment - and despite the rising cost of existing and the challenge of finding a place to live - the ball is in the employee’s court and there are more job opportunities than usual.

That said, a good employee needs to prove themself so, in most jobs, you won’t be starting on the big bucks, and what you’re really looking for is a chance to prove yourself, to grow and develop and have new opportunities.


To get there, of course, you need to get hired. We spoke to a few experts about what a company - whether a local business or a global megacorp - wants from its new hires. These are listed in no particular order.

1. Good communication skills

In employer surveys, this is quite consistently rated as the number one skill firms look for in new hires. This finding has been repeated in numerous surveys conducted over recent years by IrishJobs.ie. It comes up again and again in any conversation with guidance counsellors and career advisors.

“Employers want people who can communicate well both with their internal colleagues and external clients,” says Ruairi Kavanagh, editor of gradireland.com which will hold a recruitment fair in the RDS on Wednesday, September 28.

“Over the past five or six years, it has become clear that they want people who can both write well and have good verbal communication skills.”

Graduates are well used to shorter styles of communication, particularly honed by WhatsApp, and this can be really useful as part of an internal team dynamic. But they will also want someone who can articulate themselves in more formal styles of communication, including company emails. A graduate who can show this will stand out.

2. Emotional and cultural intelligence

Closely related to good communication is emotional intelligence. “A lot of modern work environments are multicultural and employers want graduates without bias, who can work with different colleagues and callers,” says Bridie Killoran, careers and learning pathways manager at Atlantic Technological University (ATU), which has recently developed a new tool, MyCareerPath.ie, to help its graduates develop their CV and employability.

“There’s strong evidence that the most successful people in the workplace have high emotional intelligence. That is important in terms of recognising the emotions of others and motivating your colleagues or team.”

Emotional intelligence and intuitive understanding doesn’t come naturally to everyone, of course. The good news, says Killoran, is that you can always improve your emotional intelligence. It is one of the traits that MyCareerPath.ie measures and helps ATU graduates to work on, but other third-levels careers offices will have similar programmes for graduates, so contact them.

A large part of emotional intelligence comes back to self-awareness. Indeed, empathy and self-awareness are two sides of the same coin.

“If you find yourself getting angry in a situation, for instance, emotional intelligence is about recognising this feeling and understanding how you deal with it,” says Killoran.

3. Work experience

Most graduates won’t have a huge amount of work experience behind them, but employers want to see that you have developed both the technical skills connected to your degree (for example, if you’re an aspiring journalist, it’s vital that you have some writing experience; if you want to work in science, perhaps you might have worked in a laboratory one summer; if you’re hoping to be an architect, perhaps you will have some experience in a practice) and the soft skills any degree will help you to develop (for instance, if you had a job in a shop, pub, cafe or restaurant, you will have developed communication skills to interact with customers; you may have solved problems for customers and you will have experience of thinking on your feet).

4. Life experience

Nobody expects that a 21 or 22-year-old graduate, fresh out of college, will have the life experience and wisdom of a more mature worker.

But they do want to know that you have more to you than just your academic achievements and your work experience. Did you get involved in college life, joining and taking part in clubs and societies? Did you do any volunteering? Perhaps you play a team sport at the weekend or are involved in a running club?

“Employers do understand that, for this generation, those experiences were curtailed by Covid-19,” says Killoran.

“They understand that many college students saw their confidence take a knock. But they do want to see how you were able to adapt and show resilience. Perhaps you learned online and got used to new technologies, or did a work placement from home. Here, it’s worth focusing on the things that you do have rather than the gaps.”

Ultimately, employers are looking to see what you did during Covid, despite the restrictions we all faced in lockdown.

5. Independence and ambition

“Employers are hiring graduates with limited experience, so they are recruiting someone who will bring ambition, drive and innovation to the organisation, as well as fresh perspectives,” says Kavanagh. “But they will need someone who can work well and hit the ground running.”

Mark Cumisky, careers and skills consultant at UCD, says that companies look for ambition.

“They want to hire someone who wants the job because they see themselves developing in this company and this industry.”

6. Critical thinking, analytical and research skills

These are skills that any good higher or further education course will have equipped a graduate with.

“Most employers don’t mind what your degree is, as long as you have a level of learning,” says Killoran. “In most degrees, you will have read and learned independently and you will be able to write and synopsise. One of the gaps for students is to recognise where they have shown critical thinking and give examples. They are often thrown by this, but we all have examples of where we have solved problems, whether that was through a part-time job or experience of life.

“My advice is to keep your examples as recent as possible and not keep referring to the same one. You could use an example of a project in college as a time you collaborated with others, a story from your part-time job in the shop as an example of communication skills and maybe an example from home life to show how you demonstrated adaptability and flexibility.”

Killoran suggests using the “STAR framework”, which stands for “situation, task, action and result.”

If for instance, you are asked about commercial awareness, you might refer to a job in the local shop where your manager said sales were down for a particular product, the task was to increase them, the action was changing where you positioned it in the shop and the result was a sales increase.

7. Knowledge of the company

“If you are joining a company, they want you to know about what they do and the environmental, economic, social and political pressures,” says Cumisky. “They might ask: why do you want to work with us and not for the competition?

This means doing your research, being able to answer questions about the company - whether that’s the name of the CEO or its current stock price, or who their main competitor is, or what sort of challenges the industry in question might face during this energy crisis. Be prepared.

8. Authenticity

Perhaps the most intangible quality of all: companies want to hire someone who seemed authentic and honest in their interview, and was not afraid to be themselves, Cumisky says.

Ultimately, there’s no point in being anyone other than who you are: it’s too hard to put on a full-time facade.