Think broad and bold: it’s all about skill

Employers will be interested in your range of problem-solving and lateral thinking skills

Remember the course you choose this year might not necessarily reflect the career that you end up with

Remember the course you choose this year might not necessarily reflect the career that you end up with


Not even 20, and making a decisive call on your future – or that’s the narrative young people often hear about going to college, at least. But it’s really not that clear-cut anymore: the course you choose this year might not necessarily reflect the career you end up with. And, employers may not be too concerned whether you picked up those skills in computer science instead of arts, or law instead of business.

We spoke to Sinéad English, career guidance counsellor, founder of Hilt and author of CV and Interview 101: How to Apply and Interview for Jobs. We also spoke to the career development team at the Technological University of Dublin – Edel Kearney, Christiane Brennan, Peter Lewis and Ethna McGowan – who shared their expertise on what students can expect from their further or higher education.

How hard is it for students to make the call, and should they go for a degree, post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) course or apprenticeship?

Sinéad English: If, at 17 or 18 years old, you have a clear idea of what you want to do, then of course go and target that career. From my experience, however, not many people at that age know what they want to do. Some students can fall into the trap of only choosing high-points courses because they’re likely to get high points, whereas they should go for what they want to do.

TU Dublin team: Whether to go for a traditional university degree or a [further education] option such as an apprenticeship is an ongoing debate. Apprenticeships are no longer dominated by manual trades; they now span a wide range of other industries including accounting, insurance and law. Employers are increasingly recognising them as a viable alternative to the traditional degree. Both have benefits to the employer and so it really depends on what the employer is looking for: if it’s depth of knowledge and transferable skills, the traditional degree might be the best option; if, however, it is a more practical skillset with real-life work experience, the apprenticeship degree might be the best option. Some people might not want to do further study, and there’s always the option for them to access education at a later date.

What do employers want, and how should students try to meet their expectations?

Sinéad English: At least 50 per cent of graduate employers will take graduates from any discipline. You could work in Google with a history degree. Employers want people with diversity of thought and experience. If you’re not sure what course you want, pick one where you’re interested in the course content and aim for a 2.1.

TU Dublin team: Graduates from a general programme, such as a broad arts degree, won’t necessarily lose out when competing with a graduate who has a more specific qualification, such as engineering – as long as they have the self-awareness to understand their skills, strengths, abilities, personality, values and motivations as well as how their external influences impact on career decisions.

How do students develop their skills – and differentiate themselves?

Sinéad English: Getting work experience is vital. [Work experience is built into traineeships and apprenticeships but] college courses and PLCs that have a work placement element will help a graduate’s CV stand out to employers because they will have picked up the key skills employers want, such as working in teams, making decisions and turning up on time.

TU Dublin team: It’s not just about academics – students can gain a lot of skills and experience from different aspects of their lives including work experience, voluntary roles, involvement in clubs and societies, outside interests and other life experience. Many employers do not place a restriction on the discipline they recruit from, which can provide many opportunities for students from a more general degree.

If you don’t enter a job with all the skills, how can you pick them up?

Sinéad English: Employers can teach employees the nuts and bolts of the job: how to work the machine, do the calculations, use the software. The assumption is that, if you have a degree, you will be able to pick it up on the way. What employers can’t each are those softer skills such as how to be adaptable, show initiative, solve problems, meet deadlines, think critically, show leadership and emotional intelligence.

TU Dublin team: We regularly meet students who decide that they don’t want to work in the area that they have studied and are massively relieved to find out that the majority of employers don’t care what the graduate’s degree is. They’re more interested in the range of skills that the graduate can demonstrate. Most of the graduate training programmes take final year students from a whole range of disciplines, and even within the graduate training programme, a graduate can diversify. So, for example, a food science graduate who is recruited onto the quality assurance stream of a graduate programme realises that they no longer want to work in that field, but the employer sees their potential and allows them to continue on the programme but to move into a different area, such as human resources, finance or marketing. It’s important to note, however, that some of these options may require further study either on the job or beforehand, so a postgraduate conversion course may be required.

Not every degree is wholly flexible, is it?

Sinéad English: No. Health or allied health courses including medicine, nursing and veterinary science require the right qualification, as does architecture and areas where you need a license, such as estate agency and auctioneering. It is now common, however, for students to have done a degree in, for instance, science, business or arts but then become a doctor by going through a graduate medical programme. Others might complete their degree and then decide to do the FE1 exams and move into law: you don’t need an undergraduate law degree to become a lawyer.

TU Dublin team: While it is certainly possible for students from an engineering background to redirect towards roles in business, finance, retail, IT etc (directly or via a conversion course), the opposite does not typically hold true for those wishing to enter technical or engineering careers from a non-cognate discipline (eg business), as an engineering-related undergraduate qualification is often required.

Panel: The key skills employers want today

“Employers tell us that the key skills they require are commercial awareness, good communication skills (written and verbal), teamwork, negotiation and persuasion, ability to solve problems, leadership, organisation, perseverance, motivation, ability to work under pressure and confidence,” says Peter Lewis of TU Dublin’s career development team. “Luckily, all graduates, regardless of what their degree is in, will have developed most of these skills to varying degrees.”

Academic qualifications alone aren’t the only route to developing these skills: a well-rounded graduate in demand will also have developed those skills through clubs and societies, work experience, volunteering or even running their own small business (or set up their own club or society in college). An actuary student could gain valuable journalism experience on the college paper, a journalism student could gain experience of finances by becoming treasurer of a sports club, or a medicine student could hone their musical skills through getting involved in music societies or organising gigs in the college bar.

“Again, self awareness is important,” says Lewis. “Showcase the skills you have but also be honest about the areas that need development.”