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Employability skills: 6 ways to get a job and keep it

30 November 2016
Tips from employers on how to find a job and build a career

These days, more than ever, having a university education isn’t the only thing that’ll land you your dream job. We spoke to employers to get their top tips on the employability skills you should have.

In the 2017 QS Graduate Employability Rankings, the University of Sydney was ranked number one in Australia and number four in the world for graduate employability.

The result saw us outrank institutions including Cambridge, Oxford and Columbia universities.

The rankings surveyed 37,000 employers and mapped the careers of 21,000 individuals to give an in-depth indication of how universities are perceived in the global graduate jobs market.

But what type of employability skills do employers actually look for in new employees?

Well, we asked a few employers, and came up with their six top tips for getting a job, and keeping it.

1. Attitude and passion are key employability skills

Employers we spoke to agreed that attitude and passion were key factors that they looked for in terms of employability.

Dr Crighton Nichols (PhD ’15) whose career has seen him employ staff at some of the world’s biggest corporations, including PwC where he is currently the Technology Innovation Leader, said today most employers were “less strict about things like having the right degree” and more focused on attitude.

“Do they have a growth mindset? Are they proactive, honest about their strengths and weaknesses, willing to learn and mentor others?” he said.

He also said passion was something he always looked for in prospective staff.

“What do they love doing, such that they have worked on it for free in their spare time, or have volunteered in this area? And does their passion align with our vision and direction?”

Fellow alumni Theodora Chan (BA(Media&Comm) ’10, BA(Hons) ’12), co-founder of content marketing and production agency Hey Sippy, agreed attitude, more than anything else, was a major deciding factor.

“As an employer, I can teach someone the ins and outs of a job, and how to use different systems and processes. But what I can’t teach is a willingness to learn, a humble attitude, and sense of self-discipline,” Ms Chan said.

“So, when I look at prospective employees, of course I’ll tick off all the usual things like their work experience, any internships, and so on. However, what really makes a difference is their attitude. Are they a good cultural fit?

“If an applicant has shown that they respect both my time and theirs by putting in the effort to proofread their resume, look at my company beforehand, and prepare any questions they might have, then I’m far more likely to overlook any lack of experience.”

2. Get involved in extra curricular activities at University…

Another point employers all agreed on strongly was to add as many ‘strings to your bow’ as possible by getting involved in activities – from paid work and other experience, to mentoring and studying overseas.

Strategy consultant Peter Corbett (BCom ’07, BA ’07, CA, GAICD) has led multidisciplinary teams across countries, cultures and competencies in areas including operations, digital, IT, human capital, risk and corporate finance.

His advice: take advantage of the many opportunities university life presents.

“Take a variety of course studies covering business, arts and sciences; and get involved in student communities that can connect you to potential employers.

“Try a semester studying abroad which shows a willingness to explore and adapt to new situations.”

Mr Corbett also said internships and other work experience programs were invaluable.

“We hire 90 percent of our graduates from our summer vacation programs and many have done more than one.”

Edward Ovadia (BA ’09), who has established a successful career in journalism and more recently government relations since graduating, agreed that careers and employers are less linear and vocationally driven today, more than ever.

“This means that it's harder to distinguish yourself, and rightly or wrongly, it's not always enough to rely on a degree,” Mr Ovadia said.

“The soft skills, extra-curricular activities, and experience you might have pieced together, will go a long way to helping you stand out.

“Equally important is knowing what your strengths and experiences are, how they all come together, and how to articulate them – or pitch them!”

Dr Nichols said volunteering as part of the 1996 World Solar Challenge did more than just help him prepare for work as an engineer.

“It also provided first-hand experience that small teams can achieve great things if everyone is motivated and aligned towards achieving the same goal.” 

3. … and outside of university

“Outside university, students should find freelance work, volunteer, and join meetups,” Dr Nichols said.

“The most important thing is to gain relevant experience.”

Mr Corbett agreed and said a good way to do that was to seek out a mentor or mentors, and meet with employees from companies that interest you to find out as much as you can. Along with Ms Chan and Mr Ovadia, Mr Corbett works as a mentor as part of our mentoring programs.

“Try to start a business with your friends, even if it fails,” he added.

Ms Chan said she was also a big fan of mentoring.

“There’s so much that I wished I’d known at the start of my career. There were so many mistakes and bad decisions that I could have easily avoided if I’d had the benefit of guidance from someone who’d already made, and learnt from, those same mistakes,” she said.

“Mentoring basically means that you don’t have to make those mistakes. Plus, did you know that in a study done by Forbes [magazine], employees who receive mentoring are five times more likely to be promoted and 20 percent more likely to receive a raise?”

Mr Ovadia said he spent all his free time at Sydney pursuing journalism opportunities, which included writing for various magazines, websites, and publications.

“Aside from much-needed spending money, it meant that I graduated with tangible professional experience, and allowed me to continue working as a journalist.

“Even years after giving it up for a corporate role, I still use those skills and experience in my current job every day.”

4. Be adaptable and broaden your skill base

Today’s employers are looking for employees with a broad range of skills, according to Dr Nichols.

“There is a greater focus on the degree to which they can do the job … on soft skills and behaviour, and recognition of diversity.”

Mr Corbett agreed.

“We live in an increasingly complex, volatile and dynamic world where the pace of technological change is exponential and our client’s challenges are global in nature,” he said.

“We look for employees and graduates who have the ability to learn new skills and adapt their experiences quickly to new situations.”

He also said there would be an increasing shift to ‘the art of business’.

“The analysis of business data will increasingly be performed by machines – ‘the science of business’,” he said.

“Along with the ability to learn and adapt quickly to new situations, employers will be looking for people who understand and have experience in the softer side of business, for example, relationships, storytelling, leadership, facilitation, change management – a focus on ‘the art of business’,” he explained.

Ms Chan said the digital space was also looking for graduates with a wide skill-set.

“Many roles are becoming broader and broader. So, for example, a digital producer for a website would be expected to know how to write copy, use Photoshop, edit videos, manage social media, book ads, and code in HTML.”

Digital and ICT skills were in ever-increasing demand across the board, Mr Ovadia pointed out.

“They are growing in relevance, and soon it will be hard to find any job that doesn't require some level of tech literacy.

“Additionally, STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) skills will be particularly important in a changing job market – in terms of increased demand, increased opportunities, and job resilience.”

5. Make the most of your University networks

The employers we spoke to also stressed the importance of taking advantage of clubs and societies to build networks while at university, and staying in touch with fellow alumni throughout your career.

“It might sound cheesy,” said Theodora Chan, “but the connections you make at university are priceless”.

“I graduated from Media and Communications and I still keep in touch with much of my cohort and it is honestly amazing where they are.

“We’ve got women who are marketing directors for major record labels, managing editors for well-known publications, PR managers for major Australian landmarks and more.

“Many people struggle to network but the beauty of staying in touch and remaining close with your graduating class is that all the work’s already been done.

“Sure, my internship helped me get started and launch my career. But knowing that these strong, remarkable people were doing so well for themselves made me push myself even harder. It also means that if I ever need a bit of career support, all I have to do is call them up and promise them a coffee.”

6. Turn your job into a career

Mr Corbett puts career development down to five key factors: business knowledge, research, networking, and getting things done – which can be started before you even apply for a job.

Career paths, specifically corporate ones, are much more flexible and dynamic today, said Mr Ovadia.

“They’re based on a matrix of skills, experiences, and positions, pieced together over a long period of time.”

Dr Nichols said a deep understanding of his own passions and purpose, helped him be an authentic leader.

He also said having the courage and confidence to be proactive and recommend certain strategies and actions without being asked, and being creative when exploring solutions, were important career development traits.

Ms Chan said you also need to keep showing that you’re a hard worker.

“When I got my first job after university I was project-managing clients’ schedules, liaising with printers, and talking to media.

“But I also did coffee runs. I washed up the dirty cups and dishes. I took out the trash. Doing these tasks weren’t necessarily part of my job, but showed I was a team player and that I had a good work ethic."

She also said it was important to keep learning.

“I’ve been working in the industry for about a decade now. I’ve managed accounts for some pretty big companies, written books on social media, and run training courses. But there’s a staggering amount that I don’t know – and that’s OK. So, I read industry blogs, I listen to webinars, I take online courses.

“Learn as much as you can during your university career and don’t stop learning once you graduate.”

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