Imagine waking up the next day after your graduation. You are feeling accomplished. You worked long and hard to reach your goal, and you have arrived. And you are ready for the pay-off. After all, a college degree means you can start earning real money.
And yet, as you head out on the job market, you find that prospective employers are not at all impressed with your college degree. Sure, having a degree is a requirement of the job, but a degree alone is not enough. What do these employers want?
First, the good news. The attributes employers are looking for are all available for taking at college. In fact, most are required in many of your classes. At least one other requires a little initiative on your part. As a student, you need to recognize these opportunities as they arise. Then you need to tell prospective employers that you have these attributes.
What are the top five attributes employers are looking for? In reverse order:
Communication skills (verbal). Nearly 70% of all employers say that they look for evidence of excellent verbal communication skills in prospective employees (and that includes listening, too). Workers need to be able to clearly deliver and receive messages, whether it is in a team meeting, sales pitch, presentation, or a one-on-one discussion with a boss, co-worker, or subordinate. You can hone these skills in seminar classes and other classes that are largely discussion-based.
Problem-solving skills. Just over 70% of all employers say that they want prospective employees who can solve problems as they arise. In other words, employers do not want someone who only follows simple procedures. They are looking for employees who are able to work independently and address novel problems in creative and effective ways. If you want to build this skill while in college, you should seek out opportunities for independent research projects. You can often do these for credit. Sometimes, you might be paid to work to work on research projects.
Communication skills (written). Over 70% of all employers say that they look for evidence of excellent written communication skills in prospective employees. In college, you will do a lot of writing. Think of writing as a skill, and commit to improving your writing. I advise my own students to write for 15 minutes a day, every day. You get better through practice.
Ability to work in a team. Almost 79% of all employers say that they want prospective employees who can work in teams. While employees complete most of their job duties independently, that work is done in the context of a broader goal. You need to be able to work well with others and to have other people be able to count on you. Many of your professors will have you work in teams for some projects. Most students dread this—the bulk of the work seems to always fall on one person, while one or two others end up doing little or no useful work at all. Recognize that working on a group project is a pretty valuable opportunity. It is a chance to develop strategies for effective teamwork.
Leadership. Over 80% of all employers say that they look for evidence of leadership in prospective employees. It makes sense. Organizations will thrive if they make an effort to recruit future leaders of that organization. The most important skill good leaders possess is communication. Their ability to manage, direct, and inspire others depends ultimately on their ability to be excellent communicators. Leadership skills are not forged in today’s college classrooms. You find campus leaders scattered among student organizations, or in other extra-curricular activities. There is likely a student organization that matches one of your interests. Get involved. If you stick with it long enough, you may eventually find yourself in a leadership position.
Future posts will drill down on each of these areas in detail. But for now, focus on the big picture. Your employer is going to be much more interested in which of these attributes you bring to the job than in the C you got in your chemistry class.