Do employers think that university degrees are a waste of time?

Do employers think that university degrees are a waste of time?

Our research team asked employers (across industries) –

What are the ‘superskills’ (soft skills/core skills) that uni graduates need?

They responded –

  • Communication

  • Motivation/Initiative

  • Leadership

Employers elaborated on each skill. They want employees who can write emails and reports with a professional tone and in full sentences with proper grammar and without spelling mistakes. They want employees who can think on their feet and speak with authority and confidence in meetings. Employers hire graduates who can demonstrate that they are motivated and take initiative.

Employers described this desirable characteristic as get-up-and-go. Employers described excellent employees who make the most of every opportunity, bring in relevant new ideas and do not leave on the dot of 5 o’clock if there is a project left to complete.

Employers used the word leadership to describe employees who are not only motivated themselves, but inspire others to excellence. Instead of sitting back and waiting for others to direct them, employers described leaders as those who are self-initiated, recognise challenges and opportunities and propose helpful solutions to their supervisors.

We asked employers these four questions:

What should students be doing during uni that will make you want to hire them after uni?

They responded –

  • Internships

  • Volunteering

  • Career Counselling

Does the type of degree matter?

They responded, unless a specific degree is required for accreditation or insurance (e.g. engineering or accounting) – NO. They do not pay a lot of attention to the discipline studied in the degree.

Do grades matter? Do employers only recruit straight HD grads?

Employers responded, not only do they NOT recruit for straight HD grads, they tend to move them to the – Do Not Interview pile.

Employers said-

‘For a student to graduate with straight HDs, they would have done nothing but study. This is not what we want. We want well-rounded graduates. We want those who know how to communicate. We want those with interests. We look for students who have participated in sport, music, student societies and clubs. We want those who have given back to their communities.’

To follow-up, we asked employers whether they would hire students with poor grades. They again replied ‘No.’ Employers said that they recruit for future employees who have high (but reasonable) self-standards. In other words, they want employees who produce high quality work, but within a reasonable time-frame.

They do not want people who strive for such perfection that jobs never get done. Students who have mostly Distinctions, with a few Credits and a few High Distinctions demonstrate that they care about their work and are willing to put in the effort, but are also well-rounded, doing other things besides studying.

Putting the responses to these four questions together, employers are sending messages that:

• They are not looking for graduates with career micro-skills, but instead, people who can communicate effectively, demonstrate motivation and are leaders.

• They believe that employable graduates are those who have used the services of their uni career centres, in part to arrange internships and volunteer work, thus participating in life beyond the university.

• The type of degree rarely matters (except if graduates are pursuing a specific professional, accredited line of work e.g. accountant, doctor, engineer, lawyer, psychologist).

• Grades should be kept at an acceptable standard, but not achieved at the expense of a well-rounded student experience.

An employer expressed this view succinctly.

‘I look for a resume that almost looks like they’ve been working for four years in addition to studying. They’ve been working part-time, volunteering or doing community work. I like to find people that look like they’ve been busy and have a full life, that they’re doing lots of things apart from just studying and sitting in their room.’

After hearing this from employers, we started to wonder whether employers value university degrees. Employers seem to be emphasising the importance of all of the activities that students do outside of studying and beyond the classroom.

We specifically asked employers –
Does university education matter?

They answered – Yes.

We asked employers –
Are you just as likely to hire someone who does not have a university degree?

They answered – No.

Employers told us that university graduates tend to make better employees and are more likely to be promoted once within the organisation. They said that through university, students usually develop a strong work ethic, refine their ‘superskills’ and achieve some of the necessary career-specific knowledge, skills and attributes.

One of the employers explained,

‘Some universities do a good job of teaching people to think and that’s the skill you actually need. A good degree should teach you how to think, should teach you how to critically analyse information and how to present options, and to argue with the silly thing that someone else said in the meeting.’

Employers’ perspectives can be synthesised into 8 ways uni students can make sure they are employable by graduation.

  • Throughout university, practice your communication skills including proof-reading for grammar and spelling mistakes and developing confidence in verbal presentation.

  • Think about what motivates you and exercise your self-initiative throughout university.

  • Show leadership in your university group-work and extracurricular activities and be prepared to share these examples when interviewed for jobs.

  • Sign-up for an internship, if possible, and maximise this opportunity to develop skills and extend your networks.

  • Volunteer while in university to demonstrate that you are willing to give back, and remember to include your volunteer work on your resume.

  • Visit the career centre at your university, often and early, listen to the counsellors’ advice and take-them-up on the many opportunities they have on offer.

  • Follow your passions rather than selecting a degree based on which types of graduates are currently getting work.

  • Strive for good grades, but not at the expense of getting involved and having a well-rounded university experience, which you can (and should) share on your resume.

About the Author

Shelley Kinash

Professor Shelley Kinash is University of Southern Queensland's Director, Advancement of Learning & Teaching. She is dedicated to research and action to nurture graduate employability and high quality student experience.

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