Are students focusing on the wrong skills?

This blog, co-authored with Helen Liddle of SRS reports on new research that shows that students are often focusing on the wrong skills as they prepare for the recruitment process. It was originally published on the ISE Knowledge Hub on the 12th July.

Many students recognise the importance of gaining and demonstrating skills. This can often drive them to engage in a range of developmental activities while they are at university with one eye on the jobs market. But, are they focusing on the right things? We included some questions in this month’s poll of 482 ISE members to find out and also polled 567 students and recent graduates.

How are students developing their skills?

We asked students what they are doing to develop their skills whilst they were at university. Almost all of them (91%) said that they were doing something to develop their skills, with most seeking part-time work, placements or internships and substantial minorities joining clubs, doing charity work and volunteering or taking part in university events. One even reported that they had developed their skills by becoming a ‘social media influencer’.

But, the question remains as to whether all of this is enhancing the skills that employers are actually looking for?

Skills mismatches

We asked employers what they were looking for in the recruitment process and offered them 12 of the most cited soft skills. We then asked students what they thought would be most important in the recruitment process. The following table provides a comparison of the proportion of employers and students and graduates highlighting each of the skills as most important.

The most important skills for employers are problem solving, resilience and learning agility. These are then followed by self-awareness, commercial awareness and emotional intelligence. Taken together these demonstrate that employers are most focused on underpinning skills which will support new hires to develop once they are in work.

Students and graduates agree with employers that it is most important to demonstrate problem solving during recruitment processes and also rank learning agility highly (albeit not as highly as employers). They believe that it’s more important to demonstrate good time management skills than employers report to be the case. They are also considerably less likely to highlight resilience or commercial awareness. In general students answers to this question are less concentrated than those of employers, perhaps showing a level of uncertainty about what employers are really looking for.

Improving alignment

Many of the issues highlighted above are not surprising. Students often have very limited exposure to employers and inevitably build their pictures about what they are looking for partially on the basis of what they have heard, partially on what they have seen valued in education and partially on the basis of myths and assumptions.

It is important to ensure better communication between employers and students and to support students to clarify their understanding of what is really important.


  1. Interesting research. Surprised that communication skills doesn’t feature here – it has in almost every other survey of employers and it’s usually a high priority.

    • We basically picked the skills that employers were most commonly raising concerns about in previous ISE surveys. If you look at the 2021 Development survey it has more to say about how employers felt about different types of communication skill.

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