What key skills do employers look for in young employees and how are these skills being developed at school and university?

I sat down with a group of employers and UCAS representatives in our research centre, The Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning (CIRL), to explore their views on how we can better prepare students for university and the workplace.


Those at our roundtable discussion felt that whilst there is undoubtedly huge variation in the employability skills needed for different careers and university courses, across the board students and employers can still be relied upon to disagree on the importance of particular character traits. Employers most value passion for the business, resilience, communication skills and problem-solving skills. Equally, employers are looking for applicants with a service mindset and human support skills; however, these are not necessarily easy to teach in the classroom. Also, graduates may not always be aware of how important these skills are.

In particular, digital skills were highlighted as an area of interest and worthy of additional analysis. Is there a disconnect between employers’ perceptions of what the younger generation, those digital natives to whom the latest technology seemingly comes naturally, should be able to achieve in the workplace and the levels of work-related digital skills actually taught in schools and universities?

Career Support

What if the career support process and development of employability skills can occur earlier in a student’s education? If personalised and targeted, these will better represent each student’s journey. And if our students really understand themselves, particularly their strengths and motivations, they can identify careers that fit around those areas of interest. This can really drive their passion for a particular university or employer, which is something both are keen to find in applicants. Our roundtable discussion also identified a need to place more emphasis on students being able to provide evidence of their skills in action.

Although the work being done in sixth form settings to prepare students for the world of work is monitored, regulated and often undertaken in collaboration with employers, there appears a disconnect between this work and what is undertaken in universities. There is a perception amongst the employers that universities, who face their own pressures and challenges, are less willing to collaborate with employers in order to understand their needs and build on the work done in sixth forms to teach students employability skills.

Perhaps employers can be forgiven, then, for feeling as though they are largely taking it upon themselves to build their own framework of employability competencies and creating bespoke methods of measuring these in potential applicants. These assessment processes have been developed considerably since the pandemic, with movement towards more gamification and virtual assessment centres, which is not something schools and colleges are preparing their students for.

Next Steps

Over the next couple of years, UCAS plans to bring more parity to the application process for apprenticeships and other tertiary education establishments. This has the potential to both level the playing field for applicants applying for a range of higher education options and increase the impact employers can have on that application process. More focus and education on self-employment and side-line businesses, which are on the increase, is needed.

This shift is consistent with an obvious thirst for developing a change in the school assessment process in combination with producing a skills-based measurement system to assess and compare a student’s strengths beyond academic qualifications. If one nationally agreed system could be developed and rolled out to students earlier in their academic careers, this ‘passport’ system could be carried through to the workplace and provide a national taxonomy, regardless of what route a student decides to take after secondary education. It would, however, be dependent on developing a recognised ‘currency’ for these personal development trackers to be validated by employers.  In addition, keeping a broader and more balanced curriculum for longer may also be beneficial – as would a focus on global citizenship. 

Deprivation and social mobility represent a key focus in the minds of employers and universities, especially in a post-pandemic world.  Finding ways to enable those of all backgrounds to access the same levels of education and employment are of prime importance. Changes to both the personal statement and employers’ outreach programmes are aimed at providing more equal opportunities for those from disadvantaged or under-represented backgrounds, which are of increasing importance as the numbers of applicants are anticipated to increase over the next few years.

Digital Natives, Innovators and Creative Thinkers

Another key concern from employers and universities is the high levels of anxiety they sense among the younger generation. This is prompting a shift in focus from skills which enable you to thrive in the workplace rather than just survive.  It was, however, highlighted that younger generations have always had challenges – it is merely the nature of those challenges which shifts. Current students are educated in a more measured and exam focused system; they have grown up in a world of instant gratification; and social isolation has impacted their confidence and relationship skills.

However, you could flip this. Today’s society has produced the most educated generation ever, not to mention driven and proactive learners who are passionate about their own growth and development. They are digital natives, they are innovators and they are creative thinkers who think outside the box. That’s rather exciting, isn’t it?