Over the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenge companies have employing graduates. There’s an increasing mismatch in what companies need and what many graduates have to offer, and I’ve seen it unfairly blamed on all sorts of factors: millennials’ laziness or pickiness, older workers not retiring, universities being insufficiently focussed on job skills, companies being impatient. Some of these might have an element of truth, but unfortunately I believe the fundamental problem is something more complex and more difficult to address: a shift in the nature of work.
When I started work 15 years ago, there was a lot of office work that was simple, but not automated. These were tasks that someone could explain to me within an hour, and I could then do the task each day. The tasks wouldn’t require judgement to perform accurately, but would make me valuable to the company, giving me time to gain broader experience within the company. For example, I had to type data into spreadsheets, or manually compare draft and final sets of accounts to ensure all differences were explained.
Since then, our use of technology has improved to the point that most of these tasks can be automated, and the remaining tasks are ones that can’t be easily explained – ones that require more significant judgement. This means that there is significantly less opportunity for a new graduate to add value to the company in their first 3-6 months.
I don’t believe the answer is to stop automating tasks – as a graduate I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to do tedious and unnecessary work *just* for the sake of having something to do. But, I don’t think we can expect companies to be quite as grateful to have graduates, and graduates are going to have to work a bit more cleverly to give employers what they need.
I believe there is a greater need to take personal ownership for learning useful skills, rather than waiting to learn them on the job. (Addressing two objections to this: firstly, yes, some people have always done this – what’s new is that there are fewer opportunities if you don’t do it; and secondly, while it may seem unfair that you have to do the learning and the company reaps the benefits, I’d suggest that you will be sufficiently rewarded by companies for having the skills that they value.)
Obviously there are some things you can only learn on the job, but there’s a lot you can learn, and the good news is that there’s never been an easier time to learn new skills. The internet is filled with content – videos, screenshots, questions and answers, interactive guides, that are free or cheap (compared to what companies regularly pay for internal training).
It is still a challenge to discover which skills to learn. No one wants to waste time learning a useless skill, and it is difficult to be motivated (needed for effective learning) if you don’t see the point. Firstly, I’d caution against worrying too much – no one knows for sure what skills are going to be in demand, and employers know that people who can learn particular skills can pick up others more quickly.
But I definitely think it is worth researching what skills are going to be useful to help you be more valuable in your chosen field.
And I believe there’s a huge amount of value in employers collectively analysing and documenting the skills they’re wanting their employees to have. The more accurately (and convincingly) employers communicate the skills they value, the more likely they’ll be to find employees that have these skills.
In order to explore what such a listing might look like, I’ve performed a survey of a lot of my friends that work for companies, and put together a prototype at http://guylipman.com/skills. It is very preliminary – for example, it doesn’t give you a way to search for skills valued by a particular job or company, and it would be nice to have some social features (eg an ability to create a profile and identify which skills you had or wanted to get). But I hope it will be useful to some people, and will inspire some useful comments. So please do check it out and let me know what you think. Thank you!