How soft skills can help graduates stand out

The value of cultivating transferable skills is often under-recognised by employees themselves

Employers often place an emphasis on organisational and problem-solving skills when recruiting graduates. Photograph: iStock

In a world with increasing automation, artificial intelligence and the use of machines, ambitious employees are constantly trying to find ways to stand out. This, surprisingly, is where so-called soft skills can come in.

Machines may be able to do a lot of the technical aspects of jobs in recent years. But communication, empathy, resilience and time-management among many others, are integral parts of the working world. And these are skills for which we rely on people.

Soft skills, frequently referred to as transferable skills, are often intangible; you will almost certainly never have taken an exam to prove you have these capabilities.

But Victoria Lawlor, a career consultant at Trinity College Dublin’s Business School, said having very strong soft skills allows a graduate to “stand out in a competitive job market”.


These skills, however, are often under-recognised, particularly by employees themselves.

“They are skills people have that they often don’t realise they have. They are things like strong communication skills, ability to think out problems, creative thinking, being adaptable, good teamworking skills, time management,” Ms Lawlor said.

“It’s the whole picture of what you bring to work; so the skills in addition to the technical skills. They are often learned over time and just as valuable as technical skills, if not more so.”

Communication is one of the most commonly cited examples of a soft skill. It is critical in every aspect of life: work, friends, family. In employment, it has some very specific benefits.

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In terms of personal branding, for example, having a clear communication style helps to establish an individual as a credible business person.

“Adapting the communication style helps you fit into the culture of where you’re working. When I’m talking about communication, I’m talking about speaking, but also listening and adapting how you communicate with others,” she said.

“You might find a lot of people use email to communicate when at work and you have to adapt your communication style to that.”

Graduates also require time-management skills. Employees are often given tasks that must be completed to deadline, as well as multiple projects at the one time. But thankfully, Ms Lawlor said, time management is a skill with which they are familiar.

“Through college they’ve been working to deadline, studying, and a number worked part-time jobs while balancing college commitments. I think in the workplace it can be really useful to demonstrate this,” she said.

“Particularly in a hybrid working environment, it’s important for graduates to have time-management skills and show that they’re driven and flexible with that work ethic around time management – whether they’re working on their own or working remotely.”

Often graduates tend to think their younger age and lack of experience is a negative aspect of starting a new job. However, there are many plus sides to being fresh-faced and full of new ideas and enthusiasm.

“For graduates coming into the workplace, it’s really useful to be able to think differently and bring a new perspective. That’s really going to become more valuable in the future. This applies to cultural differences or different life experiences. It’s all about being innovative,” Ms Lawlor said.

As a graduate entering the workforce, you are at the bottom of the totem pole. But that doesn’t mean leadership skills aren’t required, according to Ms Lawlor. And many graduates ascertained them already, whether it was through leading a group project, organising volunteering activities or being captain of a sports team.

“Even if a graduate is starting in a role that isn’t a leadership role initially, I think demonstrating things like strong leadership skills can set you up for future prospects in the company,” she said.

“It might result in being able to get involved in particular projects, taking on a lead role in areas of work or projects. It doesn’t have to be leadership in terms of leading a team, but it might result in more responsibility.”

But if these are the skills that prospective employers seek out, and an individual feels they are lacking in one or more areas, what can these graduates do to improve? Well, quite a lot in fact.

First of all, they should sit down and audit their soft skills: identify which ones they have, which ones they don’t, or what they’d like to improve.

For example, if you’ve done a lot of team sports in college, you could be really good at working in a team even though you don’t recognise that’s a skill you have. Or if you’ve had a lot of demands on your time while in university, then time management would be a skill you have too.

Then, once you know what it is you want to improve, it’s about actively targeting those areas.

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“There are loads of resources. LinkedIn Learning is a great resource, YouTube videos. Some companies offer in-house training or workshops, especially on things like time management, communication and teamwork,” Mr Lawlor said.

“I think it’s really valuable to learn from others as well. Look at who’s doing really well in the company, what soft skills do they have. And some companies even have a mentoring programme, where they partner a new graduate with a more experienced member of staff. I think it’s all about practising, learning and growing.”

But graduates shouldn’t fear if they discover these opportunities are not available in their workplace. As you can learn these transferable skills in places other than the office, such as learning about teamwork through volunteering, or leadership through coaching a children’s sports team.

Overall, Ms Lawlor said soft skills are critically important, but very much part of life, meaning any person who makes an active effort to improve these areas is more than capable of doing so.

She added: “I think it’s important to appreciate that soft skills take time, there’s not a quick fix. Often it’s a combination of factors that help with the best results.”

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is Health Correspondent of The Irish Times