Employability: How can we help our students bridge the skills gap?

An article by Jonathan Goode (Head of Alumni Relations at BU) and Steen Stones (Business and Partnership Manager for SportBU)

How can we develop career-ready students with the technical and soft skills that employers are looking for? That was one of the questions we set out to answer as colleagues gathered for the first BU Employability Conference last month (October 2021).

The conference was an outcome of the work being led by the Fusion for Students – Employability and Professional Practice Group; a cross-departmental group supporting the Fusion Learning strand of BU2025. The aim was to bring together those with an interest in employability, to explore the challenges and to highlight existing best practice from across the institution.

The conference began with a panel discussion featuring two BU alumni (Charlie Ayling, Global Marketing Director at Fujitsu; and Phoebe Pullen, Learning Insights and Operations Manager at BBC Studios) together with Rebecca Davies, Head of Enterprise, Skills and Industry at Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership. While Charlie and Phoebe could share their first-hand experiences of how BU had prepared them for what followed, Rebecca shared key themes arising from her work with employers across the region.

Here’s what we heard:

  • Problem solving and communication skills are among the soft skills most prized by employers. Employers expect technical competency but want to be assured that candidates can still deliver when a situation doesn’t go to plan – and communicate effectively along the way
  • Employers are increasingly focused on demonstrable skills (both soft and technical) alongside academic performance
  • Younger graduates can struggle to adjust to working in mixed teams; particularly when needing to tailor their styles of communication to work with more senior colleagues
  • Core technical skills, such as using Excel to capture and present finances and PowerPoint to make a case for internal support, are features of most jobs but are not always covered by degree programmes
  • While graduates may not feel they come to a job application process with adequate experience, they often overlook how many of their past experiences could demonstrate the skills that employers are looking for. Those working with young people can support them to reflect on and articulate their experiences and explore how they map to the requirements of a graduate role
  • Employability needs to start early – our two alumni on the panel discussed the value of part-time work, placements and extra-curricular opportunities such as PAL Leadership in developing a well-rounded graduate. Students must be encouraged to make the most of these opportunities and to document them as they go
  • Mentors are valuable at any stage of the career journey, but recent graduates should particularly be encouraged to find a mentor who can help them make the transition from student to professional practitioner
  • Building resilience is key to enable graduates to navigate a competitive employment market

Having heard from the panel, conference delegates dropped into a series of virtual breakout rooms, where BU staff highlighted the employability practices already embedded in academic programmes and offered by professional support services.

A recording of the panel discussion can be found here, following an overview of the project introduced by Dr Sara White and Julie Northam.

Thanks to all those who contributed to the day. The next steps are to capture existing best practices as we develop centralised online resources – potentially in the form of a toolkit – to help BU staff best support students at any level.

If you have employability practice you’d like to share, please email the group at F4SEmployability@bournemouth.ac.uk

Jonathan & Steen

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