If getting a job was as simple as ticking off a checklist of accomplishments, the process would be far much easier. Unfortunately, however, it isn’t. Schools and universities are often accused of not preparing us as well as they should, and while it’s easy to apply for a job that wants a degree you don’t have, it’s not so easy to know if you have the skills they want that can’t be proven with a piece of paper: your employability skills.
Employability skills are those skills that go beyond knowing how to do your job; they’re about how you work with others, how you manage your workload, and how much handholding you’re going to need. They’re also known as transferable skills, as they can be applied to any job in any industry and in different ways.
You have your degree and you have your theoretical "I am capable of this job" skills, but do you have these top extracurricular employability skills, too?
1. Communication Skills
Communication skills are about more than simply being able to open your mouth and communicate; they’re also about being able to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), work in a team, and they are closely linked to your interpersonal skills. An important factor to remember is that good communication is about your ability to listen as well as your ability to talk.
You’ll often see this in job advertisements as the "ability to communicate effectively at all levels." What this really means is how well you adapt to different situations, such as:
- Being polite and respectful when talking to a partner in the business.
- Being respectful and helpful without being condescending when helping a customer.
- Effectively communicating with your team and immediate superiors.
On the job, you could be writing anything from a quick memo to a lengthy report, so employers like to know that you can write. You will first prove this with your perfectly crafted covering letter, then perhaps with a writing task in the interview, and then an eloquent thank you note after the interview.
Even if you prefer to work alone, it’s unlikely that you will be able to avoid teamwork forever. Teamwork can mean anything from a small group working on a project to you understanding your part in the bigger picture; it always requires interpersonal skills such as:
- Listening. Whether it’s actively listening so you can give the best response, or listening to understand even when you don’t agree with someone, it’s an important skill that’s always appreciated and helps to build rapport.
- Managing conflict. Both avoiding it and diffusing it before it goes too far.
- Behaving appropriately. You react in the right way to different situations, without making inappropriate or insulting remarks.
- Collaborating. How you work with others, your ability to take the lead, and your ability to network to improve relations.
2. Taking Initiative
MindTools defines initiative as acting instead of reacting: you do things without being told, find out what you don’t know, don’t give up when things are tough, and take advantage of opportunities that others miss. It’s a difficult skill to learn if you aren’t naturally confident.
Unfortunately, even if you are more than capable of taking on any additional tasks than what you’re meant to, employers don’t usually want to have to ask you. Here are six ways you can develop initiative:
- Develop a career plan. As well as knowing the goals of the organization, it can help you to know where you’re headed yourself; people who know where they want to be are more likely to take the initiative to get themselves there.
- Build self-confidence. This can be done by setting yourself small goals that will build your confidence when you accomplish them, or by simply pushing yourself more; every time you make yourself do something and it goes well, you will feel better about doing more.
- Spot opportunities and potential improvements. You notice opportunities by keeping yourself open to them; tackling a small problem no one’s noticed before it becomes a big problem can be a great way to show initiative.
- Sense-check your ideas. When it comes to convincing an employer to hire you, it isn’t enough to say "I came up with a great idea but nothing ever came of it." You want to be able to say that it became a successful change, and the best way to ensure that is to do your homework before you ever say a word to anyone.
- Develop persistence. Don’t let difficulties stop you, and don’t let the closed minds of others stop you from doing what you set out to do.
- Find balance. While you need to know when to take the initiative, you also need to know when not to. Do you do it so often that people are starting to hate all the extra work you create? Recognize it and know when to stop.
3. Being Flexible
Another common line in job advertisements is "Your duties will include, but not be limited to" rather than "Your duties will be." In terms of progress, you should see it as a good thing, as you’re being encouraged to take on different tasks and show the initiative and willingness to progress, while using the interview as an opportunity to make sure you won’t be taken advantage of. When considering your flexibility, employers look at several factors:
- Intellectual flexibility. Do you have an open mind? Are you able to take on new information, and switch between the bigger picture and the details?
- Being receptive. When things change, do you respond with a positive attitude and a willingness to learn the new ways?
- Creativity. You’re interested in finding new ways to do things and aren’t afraid to improvise.
- Ability to adapt. You have a history of being able to adjust your working style in times of crisis.
4. Time Management Skills
Once you’ve shown your flexibility and accepted the additional tasks, you need to use your time management skills to ensure that the entire workload gets done without sacrificing quality. It’s another difficult one to prove in an interview, but a good start is to get your application in before the last minute and without forgetting the attachments.
Some time management questions you might get asked in an interview include:
- Describe a time when your workload was heavy and how you handled it.
- Describe your work style.
- What motivates you?
- How would you describe your work pace?
- How do you handle stress and pressure?
5. Numeracy Skills
No. Not algebra, but rather basic numeracy skills. Not only do employers expect them but they can also benefit you when it comes to accepting a certain salary or commission, planning a budget, or even just making an educated guess. Depending on your job, the numeracy skills expected of you could range from simple calculations to the ability of manipulating figures.
The University of East London says that you can prove your knowledge by putting past achievements into numerical form, such as "our team consistently exceeded our monthly targets by 5%." The skills they highlight as being important are:
- Numerical skills: mental arithmetic (adding, subtracting, etc.), making estimates, calculating percentages, converting units, and working out proportions and ratios.
- Statistics: understanding averages, identifying trends, making comparisons, and interpreting graphs.
- Applying general arithmetic in a work environment.
- Understanding financial terminology (GDP, inflation, key markets, and being aware of an organization’s financial position.
6. Critical Thinking Skills
Critical thinking skills refer to your ability to deal with problems. Employers like people who can handle problems by themselves, but they also appreciate it if you can use your teamwork and communication skills to know when and how to ask for help to avoid a small problem becoming a bigger issue that they have to step in and deal with.
There are three ways you can improve your critical thinking skills:
- Hone your questioning skills. You can’t think critically and learn how to find answers if you don’t ask questions, whether you’re questioning your assumptions, questioning authority, or just wondering how things work in general.
- Adjust your perspective. Learn to consider things from other points of view, whether it’s putting yourself in other peoples’ shoes or just broadening your mind through literature, and get in the habit of thinking more than one or two steps ahead.
- Put it all together. Surrounding yourself with people smarter than you will help you to change your thinking, stop being afraid of failure, and realize that you are rarely stuck with only one option.
There are the top skills employers are looking for, as well as a degree, a brilliant résumé, and a perfectly written covering letter.
Do you think employability skills are important, or should the focus be on your degree? Do you think schools and universities should take more responsibility for making sure we’re ready for the world of work? Let us know in the comments section below.