Brush up your soft skills for a hard job market

Published on: 2 Nov 2011

Life is getting harder for postgraduate students. Not long ago a Masters degree was almost a passport to the job you wanted. In today's more competitive market, however, students have to be much better organised about how they seek work. Employers are also looking for more than knowledge and technical skills. They want "softer skills", such as communication, teamwork and initiative as well. The result is that universities are increasingly competing on how well they train and equip postgraduate students for life outside academia, and that is changing how universities see themselves and function.

"Students are accustomed to being rewarded for their academic skills and it can be hard for them to understand that other skills are also required. The most important thing for me is to help them transfer their skills into the workplace. We help postgraduates students develop a career plan and think about where they want to be at the end of their academic career," says Martin Coffey, careers management skills developer at the University of Leicester.

Broadly, the sort of skills employers want are clear focus, can-do attitude and the ability to compete successfully, says Jacqueline Steinmetz, postgraduate programmes co-ordinator at Westminster Business School. But before students can impress potential employers at interview, they need to get their foot in the door. That means learning how to search for the right job,draw up a CV and write application letters.

Many universities are now providing increasingly elaborate services to help students through these hoops. The services fall into three basic categories: practical assistance with the application process, for example CVs; work experience, principally through internships; and careers advice, including help with actually finding a job.
At the London campus of the French business school ESCP, students are put through an intense programme of training on how to apply for a job. The school's services include checking individual CVs, a mock assessment centre, and personalised, filmed interview training. "We return CVs and application forms as quickly as we can to possible employers, because it's important to get ahead of other applicants," says Laura Raznick, head of student careers at ESCP in London.

Foreign students can find applying for jobs particularly difficult. Zdenko Zvada studied for a Masters in management at ESCP. He had help writing a CV and cover letter, and with interview techniques. "They helped me through the various stages. I found it very useful. Coming from Slovakia, I found the way to apply for jobs here is difficult," he says. Zvada now has a job as a mergers and acquisitions analyst for NM Rothschild, the investment bank.

Westminster Business School, which has a high proportion of students from the European Union and overseas, offers a mentoring programme for foreign students. This involves volunteers, many with long business experience, helping students to understand the UK job application process and bolstering their confidence.

The first semester takes three months. Steinmetz has a list of mentors and invites students to apply for the programme. She matches students with mentors, but these are in short supply and candidates are partly assessed on their motivation. "It's no use matching them with the wrong people - they really have to be up for it," says Steinmetz. "I have to turn people away."
One student who joined the mentoring programme is Nasir Gilani, a German of Pakistani origin who studied for a Masters in international development management. "My mentor provided help and guidance on how to develop a career, how to find employment, and gave moral guidance. But it was a two-way conversation. The student has to ask the questions. Just sitting and listening might not be useful," says Gilani. He graduated last year and almost immediately started work as a human relations diversity officer for Historic Royal Palaces in London.
Students' willingness to take advantage of these career services is critical. Leicester, which has more than 6,000 postgraduate students, offers one-to-one services on CV writing and consulting on career options, workshops on subjects such as presentation skills, and career symposia where students can listen to and meet prominent figures in fields such as medicine, the law or the police. But "a key issue is enabling students to see the value of this training," says Coffey, who admits that only a minority - albeit a growing minority - of students are using the university's career services.

One area of value that the students have little doubt about, however, is internships. An internship can lead to a job with the same employer, as well as being valuable work experience. "Top employers tend to prefer people who have had work experience and especially work experience with them," says Coffey. ESCP builds two internship periods, in different European countries, into its Masters in management degree. Students also have to divide their studies between two of its five European campuses. "It's the work in an another country as well as studying there that is important," says Raznick.

Business students tend to have a clear idea of where they want to work and what kind of job they want, especially if they have already been employed. "They're coming in to enhance what they've already got. Many have internships behind them. They're not going to do anything radical, like becoming a farmer," adds Raznick.
The value of internships is illustrated by the experience of Joel Abrahams, who graduated from the University of Warwick with a Bachelors degree in French and history. After a brief spell in a job he didn't like, Abrahams took a Masters degree in European business at ESCP, because he wanted to work in France. Through a connection at the school he found an internship with the French bank BNP Paribas in Paris. That is where he's working full time now, as a global communications associate in the bank's corporate and investment banking arm. "When it came to advice on which job to take, the school was very good," says Abrahams.

The big question is how to make the connection between the university and the job. Increasingly, universities are going to great lengths to build connections with employers to help steer students into internships and ultimately into careers. Many universities have compiled databases of employers and internships, with jobs advertised on intranets and via social media.
The key is networks. For example, alumni are no longer just a source of money, but are another route to employment. Westminster, for example, is working with Gilani at Historic Royal Palaces to set up an internship programme there. "Being on the employers' side now, I see it's very difficult to develop these internship opportunities," says Gilani.

The upshot is that students will increasingly choose their university according to the career services they provide. "I believe it will get more important. Students will look to a university's overall service and their employability on graduating. The practical side of their education will become more important. And when higher student fees kick in, it will be even more important," says Steinmetz.