Employability skills and how to develop them

Employability skills is a phrase that you will hear often over the next few years. it basically means the skills needed to make you more ’employable’ and help you to get a job. The sooner you start on this the better. A lot will come through part-time or seasonal work experience, but also from a variety of other means.

For any new students who are reading this, or any of my contacts who have sons or daughters who are going to university, I hope this will be useful. It’s based on my thoughts as someone who sees hundreds of student and graduate CVs a week, while making decisions on shortlists of the best for interviews. There are some tips on what I feel makes a good profile when it come to applying for vocational student work, or graduate roles, and how to work towards this.

Not everyone will be able to do all of the recommendations, but the more you can do the better – and getting some kind of work experience would probably be the most important thing.

It’s never too early to start planning ahead and developing your employability skills. Though I don’t want to put a downer on things – so a couple of weeks after starting university will be ok as I am sure you will have a lot on in Freshers week! The main thing initially would be to look at getting some part-time work.

It will not be easy balancing work with your studies, but it will be a good exercise in time-management and planning- and will hopefully be well worth it when the time comes to apply for graduate jobs. Having said that, if you are not finding it easy then you can step back and concentrate on your studies- your health is the most important thing.

Your degree on its own is not guaranteed to get you a graduate job.

When applying for graduate roles your degree is very important, and most employers would look for at least a 2:1. But the overall picture is key. I would go as far as to say that I, and the vast majority of the employers that I work with, would much rather see a graduate with a 2:1 and work experience, than one with a 1st and no work experience.

When I recruit for a graduate job I often receive hundreds of applications, and some really stand out. Some of the reasons may be: related work experience; professional association membership; demonstration of interest in the area; voluntary work; non-vocational work; related work done as a hobby; and continued learning in your own time. All things that show a work-ethic, commitment to learning, and an interest in the industry.

Many others have nothing on their CV apart from the degree, and they can find it difficult to get a graduate job.

The time to start planning ahead for a graduate career is from when university starts (or even before). This may seem extreme, but every day I speak with graduates who wish they had been given this advice when they started university. Not everyone will be able to do all of this, but anything that you can do will increase your chances of getting a graduate job.

University careers services

I believe that employability related work should be embedded into the university curriculum and be mandatory for all students- and I am pleased to see that this is becoming more common. But even then, the onus still needs to be on the student and graduate to a great extent. Firstly by making the most of the support that is there; and then acting on the advice that is given, and using the resources that are available.

I would strongly recommend  you make an appointment with a careers advisor: they will have loads of advice and guidance for you. And make use of  books, courses, and publications that are available.

I would also advise setting aside some time to do work on developing your employability skills each week. Whether it be 30 minutes or an hour. Make sure you stick to this as it is very important.

And remember that although you will see and hear a lot about the big graduate schemes, these are not the be all and end all. SMEs offer great opportunities.

Vocational experience

Realistically, without some kind of work experience (whether it be retail, hospitality, or something similar) it will be difficult to get a graduate role. But those with industry experience still have a huge advantage, and if I was choosing a degree to study I would pay particular consideration to those with an embedded placement. That is not to say that the majority of graduates who do not have a placement are not in contention for graduate roles- far from it. It just means that they need to shine in other ways. And the graduates who do have the experience still need to prove that they are the best person for the position at interview.

Not all students will know what they want to do when they graduate, and some enrol on courses that are broad for this reason. For these, often seeing a particular role advertised may spark their interest. And they could be suited to a range of career types

For those who do have a specific career in mind, it is a good idea to try and get some vocational work- if you are not doing a placement then perhaps a summer internship. I have undergraduate internships and placements available each year, so please look out for these.

There are certain niche degrees and industries where only a small percentage of graduates will get associated work- for these it is even more important to get relevant experience. There is a lot of competition, and things like previous work history are taken into account. You may be applying for an internship only a few months after you have started your course, so try and get some kind of part-time work lined up quickly.

Remember that applying for these internships and placements is like a practice run for when you are applying for graduate jobs, and all part of the learning process. If you were not successful, build on this for next time- especially if you are given specific feedback.

If you do get an internship or placement, make sure you take note of things you have done in the role, particularly achievements. This will be important when adding the job to your CV. Even better, create a CV now and update it on an ongoing basis.

Professional associations

Membership of professional associations is a good idea. For example the Women’s Engineering Society, which SME Graduate Employment is a Partner of. Or PESGB which is for Geoscientists. Often these associations will have student memberships, and they can be very good for networking and keeping tabs on latest news and developments. Sign up for newsletters and publications.

Whatever your field of interest, there should hopefully be something relevant, and a quick google search can often provide more information- or you could ask your lecturers or careers team.

General work experience

Non-vocational work is increasingly becoming a minimum requirement when applying for graduate roles. All work experience is valuable in helping develop your employability skills; whether it be a part-time Saturday job, voluntary work, your own side-hustle, university society work, cleaning, catering, or anything else you have done.

Occasionally I hear from students and graduates that they have been advised that such work is not relevant for a graduate job (and some students and graduates will even leave it off their CV), but this is a huge mistake. Be proud of this experience. It will help you develop skills, and will be valuable when supporting competency based answers to interview questions (these are often best related to work experience rather than university work).

I used to be Manager of a betting shop, and employed many undergraduates in part-time jobs. It was great to see them grow in confidence and develop a range of skills. They were then able to give examples in many work-related areas, including: teamwork, working under pressure, numeracy, communication, prioritisation, handling difficult situations, and many more. And don’t underestimate the importance of showing that you can hold down a job, with all that entails – including having a reference.

Personal interests and ongoing learning

For many roles it is also a huge advantage to show personal interest and ongoing commitment to learning in the area. Computing related roles are a great example. It could be learning new technologies, or working on projects. And having a GitHub repositorie to show work you have done. Read books, or look online for free courses, or invest in ones with a cost if you can afford it. Or practice coding for fun, there are sites that will give you a daily challenge to solve, for example.

Many job adverts will ask for someone who is keen to continually learn and develop, and this really demonstrates this. It also shows you have a genuine interest.

A similar approach can be taken to all other degrees to varying extents. For example marketing: you could offer voluntary services to a small business or society: maybe plan a marketing strategy,  set up social media channels, write content- and track the results to see how effective the actions have been. This will look great on your CV.

University societies

These are a good way to meet people, and can also help with developing a range of skills. Especially if you take on extra responsibility for organising or promoting things: this can be added to your CV and used for giving examples when asked a question in a job interview.


I would also strongly advise setting up a LinkedIn profile- a lot of recruiters and employers actively look on LinkedIn for suitable candidates for jobs. A LinkedIn profile is essentially an online CV. You can find out more here

Matthew Parry,
Director. SME Graduate Employment

SME Graduate Employment is a specialist student and graduate recruitment agency covering permanent jobs, placements, and internships across the UK. Most job types and business sectors are covered.

You can see student and graduate jobs advertised here and read more blogs and advice to help develop your employability skills here

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