How we can give our graduates the skills that employers want

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

With the labour force rapidly changing, there's no denying our education systems must shift to meet the changing demands, but it's also incumbent on the individual to recognise the skills they need to succeed, if Australians are to remain competitive in a global job market.  

With so many conflicting predictions out there on the future of work, it can be hard to determine what skills will actually be needed – but amongst the mountain of research, in my mind, one thing is emerging:  Practical workplace skills will always be highly-valued by employers.

I read an article recently about some homegrown research on the skills employers want, and it found something interesting – there is a sizeable gap between the skills graduates think employers want, and the ones they actually do.   

Students looking inward, employers outward

Recent graduates ranked 'creativity' as the number one skill that employers want, employers, on the other hand, went down a far more practical route:  Problem solving. And although on the surface this might seem like a small problem, the disconnect can have a flow-on effect, impacting the courses a student chooses, the way they learn, and ultimately, their efficacy in a workplace. 

It didn’t stop at creativity; other skills graduates ranked in the top five included organisation and leadership, where employers listed communication and adaptability.  The disconnect here is clear; graduates are looking to the skills that are inwardly focused – all about themselves, but employers are looking for the outward-facing skills – all about working with others. 

In my opinion, this is influenced by a world increasingly driven by online interaction, immediate response and instant gratification.  As a result, younger generations can be more focused on leadership competencies and how to get to the top quickly, rather than the basic skills that will ensure they succeed long-term.

Educational systems need review

I've talked before about how our educational systems, from schools to tertiary, are failing our students in these practical areas, particularly those communication-based skills that all employers want, and in my opinion, the shift to digital learning may exacerbate this. 

While moving to an online learning model has advantages in terms of speed and access to education, it is further reducing the interaction needed to build these critical skills. With much of our world, from shopping to socialising, increasingly occurring online, we are reducing human interaction and so it's easy to see why we are losing these core skills. 

In any review of our educational system, it is imperative that regulators work closely with industry to ensure that any curriculum, whether delivered online, face-to-face or as part of a blended model, is closely aligned to what employers need.  If we fail in this as a country, increases in unemployment and skills shortages are potential outcomes. 

Developed in the real world, not a classroom

Although all levels of our education system must adapt if we are to be more forward-thinking, VET does have an advantage. From certificates to diplomas, VET courses are designed to build practical, real-world skills that ensure a graduate is employable, particularly through work placements that enable them to prepare for the realities of the workplace. 

Many VET students also have the opportunity to participate in workplace mentoring as part of their traineeship or apprenticeship, and this is another great opportunity to foster and develop the skills that will make them more employable – across roles and industries. 

At the end of the day, these skills aren't learnt in a classroom – they are developed through experience in the real world, so individuals and education providers alike, need to look at ways to increase interaction and opportunities to learn on the job, whether through work placements or internship models.

These skills will help us navigate an uncertain future

If researchers are correct, emerging generations will have higher job mobility, so setting them up with skills that aren't industry or role-specific is key to success in the longer term.  

I recently read an article that somewhat contradicted this, suggesting Australians are staying in jobs longer, and while thinking about this, I realised something fundamental.  Whether or not young people have many jobs or careers, or stay in the same one, we live in a world where change is a constant, so whether you are in one industry, one role, or many – the environment will change around you, so these skills still remain critical for success, no matter what. 

Whatever the future of work looks like, with youth unemployment on the rise in many communities, young people facing a tougher job market than ever before, and skills shortages threatening some of our key industries, one thing is certain: Building solid foundations for workplace success is a must.