What do graduates want from employers?

Work-life balance, flexible work environments and career development, we look at what grads might want from their employers

“I do not have a dream job. I do not dream of labour.”

The origin of this quote is disputed, and somewhat lost in time, but it encapsulates a lot about our often conflicting attitudes to work. Do we live to work, or work to live? If you won the lottery or inherited loads of money from a long-lost aunt, would you keep working? Is your eye always on the clock, willing down the hours till the weekend? Or do you really aspire to have a job that you look forward to getting out of bed for on a wet Monday morning in January?

To some extent, this is all theoretical: most of us have to go to work to pay the bills, whether we like it or not.

But work can bring satisfaction - if you understand yourself and what makes you happy. And, in a time when Ireland is at almost full employment, graduates can afford to be pickier about the jobs that would make them happy (or, at least, less miserable than other jobs).


So, what do graduates want?

1. Career development

“I have worked in higher education careers for almost 30 years and I am seeing a surge of new graduates wanting career development,” says Bridie Killoran, careers and learning pathways manager at Atlantic Technological University (ATU).

“They want a good salary and good conditions, yes, but they are prepared to move if they feel the employer does not value them and does not have a plan for them.”

Ruairi Kavanagh, editor of gradireland.com, echoes this.

“There will be a time in your career when you make a job decision based solely on salary, but ideally you do not do that as a graduate, because you’re initially looking at personal development and how much training and support you will get,” Kavanagh says.

“Small to medium enterprises provide great opportunities for graduates and, although it is a road less signposted, those smaller companies are often doing exciting and dynamic things.”

Graduates want meaningful feedback, says Mark Cumisky, a careers consultant at University College Dublin.

“In most of the education system, students are used to continuous appraisal and feedback; they don’t want to be waiting six months,” he says.

2. Learning opportunities

As much as employers want their staff to be upskilling and retraining, graduates and workers have a growing appetite to increase their skills, too.

Whereas once upskilling meant a full-year postgraduate or two years of part-time studying, the emphasis is now moving towards micro-credentials, which allow people to take on shorter courses and, sometimes, over a number of years, stack them together towards a larger award. These are often much more appealing to graduates than a return to full-time study.

“It really suits those who may have been marginalised from higher education but have an open mindset towards learning,” says Killoran.”People who had busy families and lives can now do short pieces of accredited learning that are linked to the QQI framework.”

3. Hybrid working and flexibility

Graduates want the option to work from home a few days a week and spend another few in the office with their colleagues, says Killoran.

“Most people want hybrid options,” says Cumisky. “If an employer is insisting on a 9am-5pm return to the office, five days a week, but the worker is sitting there writing reports and answering emails, they will question why they have to be there all the time.”

4. Meaning

“The days of hiring hundreds of graduates and forgetting about them are long gone,” says Cumisky. “Graduates want to feel that their work has value and is making a meaningful contribution.”

5. Social conscience

Graduates want to work for companies that are meaningfully engaged with corporate social responsibility and contribute more to the world than they take from it. Today, in the context of catastrophic flooding that has devastated Pakistan and displaced millions, Generation Z graduates insist on more than lip service to addressing climate breakdown.

“Greenwashing won’t cut it,” says Cumisky. “Corporate social responsibility has to make a meaningful difference, whether in the local or beyond.”

6. Diversity and inclusion

Pale, stale and male: it could describe many companies. But today’s graduates want to be part of a truly diverse and international workforce, and that diversity includes gender, ethnicity, social class, sexuality and, increasingly, neurodiversity (so that the skills and talents of people with autism and ADHD, to name but two neurodiversities) are included.

“They do not like any kind of discrimination or negativity, so companies need to be diverse and inclusive,” says Cumisky.

7. Wellbeing

In an organisation that really does value diversity and flexible working, there’s more likely to be an emphasis on wellbeing. Wellbeing, in this context, means a workplace that prioritises its workers and helps them onboard and grow, while also respecting that you have a life outside of work.

8. Pay and conditions

The rising cost of living has hit everyone, but lower-paid workers - a category that includes many graduates - are feeling it harder.

Added to the lack of available or affordable homes to buy or rent, today’s graduates may be working hard and yet still struggle to make ends meet. So, inevitably, thoughts turn to pay and conditions.

“There is a gap between what graduates feel they are worth and what the market will pay for their skills,” says Kavanagh. “Ultimately you do need more experience before you’re earning more money.”

That’s not to say it shouldn’t be on the table: it’s all well and good to preach about wellbeing and offer talks on mental health, but getting a free or heavily subsidised lunch will do more to relieve stress and help your mental health because it’s one less cost you need to worry about.

Equally, if you’ve two fairly identical job offers, all offering similar perks, it’s hard to justify, in this economy, why you wouldn’t take the better-paid option.

Career tools to help you

  • MyCareerPath.ie: Atlantic Technological University (ATU) recently launched MyCareerPath, an artificial intelligence-driven tool - developed from academic research at the University of Lancashire - that helps their graduates to develop their employability skills.

Bridie Killoran, careers and learning pathways manager at ATU, explains: “When graduates look inward and understand their strengths and their personality, it helps them to build their career. MyCareerPath is about helping them to understand what is involved in the [recruitment and hiring] process, such as aptitude and psychometric testing, mock assessment practice and building an effective CV. ATU graduates can upload their CV and get feedback on more than their spelling and grammar: the tool pulls out their key skills. It’s all part of embedding career education and employability into our undergraduate curriculum, but it is also really useful for mature students coming back to education, as it can help them understand their transferable skills.”

  • EmployableYou: An online guide put together by the Irish Universities Association and primarily aimed at international students, this also doubles as a really strong guide to prepare students for life after graduation, with information on what employers are looking or alongside solid advice on ow to identify your goals and reflect on - and improve - your key skills. There’s also some useful tips on finding the right job and how to tap into your network. See IUA.ie/employableyou