What skills do employers want?

General skills

There has been a lot of research about what employers look for in potential employees, and what they're looking out for when they interview candidates. These surveys typically result in lists of skills, abilities and work behaviours like this:
  • teamwork
  • proactive problem-solving
  • communication
  • time management
  • IT/computer skills
  • customer awareness.
These skills and abilities are general, or 'generic', which means they are likely to be necessary in most types of job.
However, the way you demonstrate these skills depends on the requirements of each job. For example, communication is important in most jobs, but if you will be selling, teaching or negotiating, it’s likely you will need to show an even higher level of communication skills – and communication might be considered more important than teamwork, for instance.

Specific skills

‘Specific’ skills are those that are essential to fulfil the requirements of a particular job. This might include using equipment or having knowledge of a particular subject (such as law, medicine or teaching).
What employers want is directed by the organisation’s needs, and the tasks of the role you’re applying for. For example, a law firm is likely to require good general communication skills from all staff – but they will also need a high level of advocacy skills from those training to be barristers, or strong interviewing skills from solicitors. (Find out more in Law and legal studies: Careers.)
As you can see, even generic skills can vary depending on the context (the organisation and the role), so it's important to think about the workplace where the skills will be used.
Remember – if you're applying for a job, don't be afraid to call or email the company and ask what specific skills they are looking for.

Entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial skills

Finally, employers often expect graduates they hire to be enterprising. The term ‘enterprising’ or ‘entrepreneurial’ is often associated with being an entrepreneur – which means being self-employed and getting your own business ideas off the ground.
However, you might be ‘intrapreneurial’ – this means being enterprising within an employed role, and having resourceful ideas that could benefit the organisation you work for. In fact, more and more employers are looking for this quality when they interview candidates.
If you want to show that you have ‘intrapreneurial’ skills, talk about how you:
  • can take responsibility for your own ideas
  • think creatively about problems
  • lead yourself and others in new practices
  • cope with uncertainty
  • can be innovative and bring about change
  • thrive on new challenges.

Matching your skills to the job you want

Thinking about the workplace can help you to understand what the employer wants. It’s important to understand what they mean when they ask for particular skills, as well as to make sure you demonstrate these skills and abilities in the right way.
For example, the word ‘creativity’ will probably mean something very different in an advertising agency than in an electricity company. One employer might mean ‘thinking creatively to solve problems’, but another will mean being creative with writing, images and films.
Another example is ‘initiative’ or resourcefulness – one employer's understanding of 'using initiative' might be considered 'risk taking' by another. In organisations where it’s important to follow strict procedures, such as in healthcare, there is less scope to take chances and try out new ideas than in the entertainment industry, for example.
So when you’re talking about the skills and abilities you have, use examples that are relevant to the employer who’s interviewing you. The best way to prepare is to research the company as much as possible before your interview – a company's website, blog and social media pages, for example, can tell you a lot about its policies and internal culture.

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