AGR Blog

Skills gap: What do employers want from graduates?


AGR Chief Executive, Stephen Isherwood, delves into the data to consider the skills gap and what employers really want from graduates.


The skills gap gets talked about so much it’s become a cliché. But it’s a cliché that is real for many students and employers.

Back in 2009, at the height of the recession when headlines howled about a lost generation of job seekers, our annual survey showed that a number of graduate employers couldn’t fill all of their vacancies.

Now, here in 2017, our winter poll revealed that 52% of our members who responded to the survey did not fill all of their graduate vacancies last year. In fact, of the 13,156 graduate jobs they had available in 2016, 5.4% of those vacancies remained unfilled.

Why? With over 300,000 students graduating every year from UK universities, supply should match demand but it doesn’t. On the flip side a significant number of graduates struggle to find the graduate level work they want. This is the skills gap.

Before I unpick exactly what this skills gap is let me dispel a couple of myths. Firstly, employers don’t like rejecting applicants. Saying ‘no’ to people takes a lot of time and costs money. Employers would much rather say ‘yes’ and get on with their core business. Secondly, employers don’t expect new hires to be 100% work ready on day one. More than 80% don’t even ask for a specific degree.

But employers do recruit for potential, which means different things to different employers. Some businesses may want specific technical knowledge yet others will want leadership skills. And some will be prepared to train their hires in areas that others aren’t.

While each employer wants to hire graduates with a different mix of knowledge, skills and abilities, we can offer some insight to the skills employers are looking for and struggle to find as well as the areas they’re prepared to offer training.


Pic for SI blog


Some of the skills language employers use can need decoding, so it pays for graduates to become familiar with what’s required.

Commercial awareness can be demonstrated though an understanding of what drives a potential employer’s organisation. This will be different for the NHS, Jaguar Land Rover or Barclays Bank, but if a graduate is not motivated by the core business of an employer they will struggle to persuade them to invest in them.

Most graduates have some experience of teamwork, but a piece of groupwork for a module rarely highlights the potential they have to deal with difficult people situations and manage conflicting demands. Being self-aware will help them to learn from mistakes (we all make them) and develop as a person through their professional life.

Essentially, almost all employers seek those with:

  • The people skills to get work done with and through others
  • Resilience to deal with difficult situations and the flexibility to deal with change
  • The practical intelligence to solve, sometimes complex, problems
  • A level of self-awareness that drives self-learning and development
  • The drive and motivation to do the job – this may sound obvious, but many employers speak of candidates who can’t demonstrate they have a meaningful interest in the work that they are applying to do

These skills can be developed in many places and not only as an intern. It’s a myth that only students who have done a lengthy internship get the top jobs. Whilst it is true that employers are investing more in intern programmes, there are twice as many graduate jobs than there are internships.

But, employers really do value experience.

Experiences, and what a candidate has learned from them, can demonstrate to an employer that they have the skills or the potential to develop into the employee they seek.

Work experience, an internship, volunteering, a part-time job, all count as long as a graduate can reflect on their experiences and articulate their abilities through the application process.

Every other applicant can talk about their academic achievements and the problems their group had to get a piece of work done on time. However, volunteering shows they have the drive to get out of bed and do something other than study and watch day-time TV, while running a busy restaurant shift shows they can deal with difficult people under pressure and looking after a football team’s budget shows an aptitude for finance.

You would be surprised by how many applicants say they want to work in business, but don’t pay any attention to the business news. Also, many recruiters talk of candidates who fail to translate an obviously great experience into the transferable skills of the workplace.

Graduates need to put themselves in an employer’s shoes, of someone who wants to hire them, to say ‘yes’. But they will only do that if they think they are someone who is worth investing in, someone who will add value to their organisation.

Our latest data on the skills gap will be launched at the AGR Development Conference on 14 March. Register for your place today.

Terms and Conditions | Sitemap | Privacy Policy | Accessibility | AGR Policy Statements

Membership Web Design by Senior

Association of Graduate Recruiters is the trading name of the Institute of Student Employers, limited company no. 01042932. Registered offices: 6 Bath Place, Rivington Street, London, EC2A 3JE