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Skills for Graduates in the 21st Century
by The Association of Graduate Recruiters


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The Association of Graduate Recruiters, established in 1968, consists of organizations which recruit and employ university graduates, or which offer services in connection with graduate recruitment.

The Association aims to facilitate the recruitment of graduates into all spheres of employment, and to promote good graduate recruitment practices. It also seeks to enable constructive dialogue between employers of graduates, careers advisors, universities, government and other organizations directly concerned with graduate recruitment.

We are highly appreciative of the contribution by Rose Lim, Managing Director, Alpha-Maps (S) Pte Ltd ( and Jonathan Winter, Managing Director, The Career Innovation Company ( who helped obtained approval from The Association of Graduate Recruiters, to release extracts from the Report: "Skills for Graduates in the 21st Century".

The pace of change
Nobody in employment today, whether in the public or private sector, can afford to be unaware of the pace of change. In business especially, the global forces of competition, deregulation and new technology are creating the need for international organizations that can respond rapidly to market demands.

The shape of organizations is changing as a result: delayering, out-sourcing and the growth of multi-disciplinary team structures are examples of changes which affect the ways people work.

It is impossible to imagine that the skills needed at the workplace will remain the same in the 21st Century. The pace of change can be hard to judge, but it is clearly faster than any current response. The task of this research has been to identify the skills graduates will need, and to suggest ways they can be developed.

This could not be achieved by asking employers which skills are most useful to them. Few companies have taken a long hard look at the future world of work to formulate graduate recruitment policies accordingly. At best, selection is on the basis of the competencies of existing staff, so this research has examined the changes taking place in graduate careers in order to predict the kinds of skills graduates will resultantly need.

New careers
In the new world of work, careers are very different. Gone is the job for life with its planned career structure and company training scheme. Gone too are clear functional identities and the progressive rises in income and security. Instead there is a world of customers and clients, adding value, lifelong learning, portfolio careers, self-development and an overwhelming need to stay employable.

For most graduates, the routes into employment are also changing. The sight of a large recruiter taking on 300 graduates through the national milkround is already becoming scarce. The milkround to graduate training schemes still exists, but traditional positions will not absorb the vast numbers of new graduates. Instead they find themselves facing the challenge of a small business, or in positions previously filled by school-leavers. In even the larger companies, decentralization often means that small company conditions exist.

New skills
In the 21st Century the most significant challenge for graduates will be to manage their relationships with work and with learning. This requires skills such as negotiating, action planning and networking, added to qualities of self-awareness and confidence. These are the skills required to be "self-reliant" in career and personal development; skills to manage processes rather than functional skills. They are as valuable in education as in the workplace, and as valuable to organizations as they are to individuals.

In developing these skills there is a part to be played by students, higher education, employers and policymakers. The research team consulted on a wide range of stakeholders, and identified the barriers that have limited the success of previous initiatives. Each of the barriers represent a challenge, which, if overcome, will enable different organizations to work in partnership so that the students can develop the skills of Self-Reliance.

New opportunities
In order to make full use of their skills, graduates need new opportunities to apply them. Traditional graduate jobs will not absorb the growing numbers of graduates. The greatest potential is likely to be in smaller businesses, which have not tended to recruit graduates in the past. But to make this work, small businesses will need to understand the benefits graduates can bring. Graduates will also need to understand the labour market.

A new direction
Recommendations for action include a fundamental review of the way universities and their staff are rewarded for teaching and learning, the inclusion and assessment of Self-Reliance Skills (including career management) in the curriculum, and a campaign to inform smaller businesses about the benefits of employing graduates. Students can also take positive steps to develop their Self-Reliance Skills, following the Action Plan presented in this Report.

Changing Roles for Graduates
The changes which are taking place in the worlds of graduate employment will have far-reaching effects on the careers which graduates pursue - if indeed we can still call them careers in any conventional sense.

"Down-sizing" and "de-layering" have left organisations leaner and more efficient, with responsibility passed further down the organisation, providing satisfying jobs for many more employees. They have also resulted in huge numbers of redundancies, overwork for the remaining employees and destructive effects on morale. Few graduates can be unaware of the damaging consequences of these changes - many have seen their parents made redundant - and arguably the deepest effect on the next generation has been the death of loyalty as a part of the employment equation.

Drawing on discussions with employers, graduates and academics, it has been possible to identify the structural changes which are occurring in the graduate job market in the way individuals approach their careers ("Changing Graduate Expectations"). These two sets of changes are altering the vocabulary of graduate careers, and the psychological contract between graduates and employers ("Changing Graduate Careers").

The New Vocabulary of Graduate Careers

Ladders and Escalators Bridges
Career Clarity Fog
Employer Customer
Job Adding value
Functional Identity Project Team Role
Career Portfolio
Progression Personal Growth
Rising Income and Security Maintaining Employability
Education and Training Lifelong Learning

In its immediate effect on routes into employment for graduates, "out-sourcing" is one of the greatest of the changes described. It has contributed to the growth of the small business sector, and means that some of the professional roles which graduates filled within large organisations in the past have now been given to small consultancies or self-employed individuals.

Smaller proportion of graduates in traditional graduate jobs
The fact is that traditional graduate jobs do still exist! But the huge increase in the number of graduates means that, as a proportion, there are many fewer jobs with formal graduate training programmes. AGR members recruited an estimated 80% of graduates available for work. Today the figure is 50%. Graduate expectations have not yet caught up with this.

The vanishing career ladder
Reduced management hierarchies mean fewer opportunities for "vertical" promotion. In the past there was a career ladder for graduates to ascend in an orderly fashion. Now the opportunities for career development are more subtle, and graduates are struggling to find them.

More graduates filling "non-graduate jobs" within large organisations It was reported that more than two thirds of organisations indicated that they recruit graduates to positions outside their formal scheme. In the telephone interviews, most thought that there had been an increase in this recruitment.

More graduates in small and medium-size businesses
Small firms have played a leading role in job generation. Between 1989 and 1991, those employers fewer than 20 people created over a million extra jobs, twice as many as large firms. Although there are no figures available, it is likely that this is reflected in graduate job creation. In addition, large decentralised organisations are like SMEs, so their skill requirements are similar.

More graduates becoming self-employed
Over the last economic cycle - between 1979 and 1990 - the number of self-employed people rose by 56% to 3.2 million, or 12% of total employment. While much of this was in agriculture and construction, more and more professionals and skilled workers are becoming self-employed. The computer industry is a case in point. Some graduates are self-employed from the day they leave university.

Many graduates need to cope with unemployment Around 12% of graduates in 1993 were believed to be unemployed at December 31st. This is twice the figure in 1988, and equal to the percentage in 1983 although the numbers are now much greater. Newspaper headlines have regularly drawn attention to the unprecedented levels of graduate unemployment.

Many graduates underemployed
Underemployment may already be a greater problem than unemployment. According to an NIESR survey within the financial services industry, as many as 45% of all graduates recruited in a recent 12 month period appear to have been deployed in unmodified, clerical-grade jobs for which a degree was not required.

Growth and professionalisation of voluntary and community-based sector A recent survey consulted graduates six months after graduation. Of those looking for a job, 25% said they have been involved in voluntary/charitable work (Guardian/Gallup). Graduate skills are increasingly valuable in supporting the growth of this sector, and in fact this may be one positive consequence of the high unemployment rate amongst graduates.

Changing Graduate Expectations
In examining the changes in graduate careers, the picture is not complete without considering the changing expectations of graduates themselves.

* Aware there is no ‘job for life’
* New focus on maintaining employability
* Decline of loyalty
* Desire for variety
* Expectation of multiple careers
* Desire for autonomy
* Desire for “worthwhile” work
* Desire for a balanced lifestyle
* Desire for a comfortable lifestyle
* Still expecting a ‘graduate job’

This reflects recent research by David Cannon for Demos. Boredom is the anathema for the new generation, and variety is the Holy Grail. So the New World of multiple careers would seem to suit them well. Each job is seen as a stepping stone, and the top graduates are well aware that the best way to achieve career progression is often to change companies.

In the future most graduates’ focus will be on maintaining employability, and continuing training and development is seen as the best way to stay marketable.

The greatest gap in graduates’ understanding is that so many remain unaware of the change in the types of jobs available. This is almost certainly because it is still the traditional graduate jobs which are widely advertised.

Changing Graduate Careers
In the future, most graduates' focus will be on maintaining employability, and continuing training and development is seen as the best way to stay marketable.

The greatest gap in graduates' understanding is that so many remain unaware of the change in the types of jobs available. This is almost certainly because it is still the traditional graduate jobs which are widely advertised.

Psychological Contract
The changing expectations and new roles for graduates will alter the "psychological contract" between employer and employee. This expresses what each party wants from the employment contract and what each offers in return. It is generally unwritten, hence the term "psychological contract". In the past graduates have offered loyalty and skill, in exchange for the security of a stable job. Currently, for many people, there is no greed psychological contract at all. In the future, the new contract will be about flexibility and lifelong learning.

The Old Contract
Today - No Contract
The New Contract
skill and loyalty
skill and hard work
offers ability to learn
security and career
lifestyle and development
employability and quality of life

The Old Contract
Today - No Contract
The New Contract
skill and loyalty
wants productivity or long hours
wants flexibility
security and career
offers a job
offers high pay or good experience

1. Graduates will need to negotiate and manage their relationship with work, including the relationship with an employer or client.
2. Graduates will need to learn, in order to be adaptable.

These new activities, in turn, indicate the future skill requirements for graduates.

Self-Reliance Skills - The Emerging Need
Simply asking employers what they need from graduates is not an adequate way to predict the skills, which they will need in the future. Yet this is what most studies have done.

Employers have vastly differing requirements, despite the similarities in language, which exists. For example, "communication skills" will mean very different things to a publisher and to a local government employee. This adds further confusion.

In addition, employers’ requirements are usually based on past, or at best current requirements for the jobs which graduates will initially fill. They are rarely derived from a strategic assessment of graduates’ future roles within the organization. They are also unlikely to take account of the need for skills to know when and how to leave a job, not just to find and keep one.

Self-Reliance Skills enable people to manage the processes of career progression and effective learning. As such, they enable people to develop and make use of all their other abilities. Without the skills of Self-Reliance, other skills can be wasted. This explains why they deserve special treatment.

Self-Reliance Skills must be underpinned by a knowledge of the changing world of work, because few students will be motivated to develop the skills, which are described here if they do not see the urgent need, which exists.

Self-Reliance Skills
The Self-Reliant Graduate is aware of the changing world of work, takes responsibility for his or her own career and personal development and is able to manage the relationship with work and with learning throughout all stages of life.

Career Management Skills and Effective Learning Skills


  • Able clearly to identify skills, values, interests and other personal attributes.
  • Able to pinpoint core strengths and "differentiating factors".
  • Equipped with evidence of abilities (e.g. summary statement, record or "potential").
  • Actively willing to seek feedback from others, and able to give constructive feedback.
  • Able to identify areas for personal, academic and professional development.


  • Able to define and promote own agenda.
  • Can identify "customer needs"(academic/community/employer)and can promote own strengths in a convincing way, both written and orally, selling "benefits" to the "customer", not simply "features".

Exploring and Creating Opportunities

  • Able to identify, create, investigate and seize opportunities.
  • Has research skills to identify possible sources of information, help and support.

Action Planning

  • Able to plan a course of action which addresses:
    *Where am I now? * What do I want to be? * How do I get there?
  • Able to implement an action plan by:
    *Organizing time effectively * Identifying steps needed to reach the goal * Preparing contingency plans
  • Able to monitor and evaluate progress against specific objectives.


  • Aware of the need to develop networks of contacts.
  • Able to define, develop and maintain a support network for advice and information.
  • Has good telephone skills.

Matching and Decision Making

  • Understands personal priorities and constraints (internal and external)
  • This includes the need for a sustainable balance of work and home life.
  • Able to match opportunities to core skills, knowledge, values, interests etc.
  • Able to make an informed decision based on the available opportunities.


  • Able to negotiate the psychological contract from a position of powerlessness.
  • Able to reach "win/win" agreements.

Political Awareness

  • Understands the hidden tensions and power struggles within organizations.
  • Aware of the location of power and influence within organizations.

Coping with Uncertainty

  • Able to adapt goals in the light of changing circumstances.
  • Able to take myraids of tiny risks.

Development Focus

  • Committed to lifelong learning.
  • Understands preferred method and style of learning.
  • Reflects on learning from experiences, good and bad.
  • Able to learn from the mistakes of others.

Transfer Skills

  • Able to apply skills to new contexts.


  • Has an underlying confidence in abilities, based on past successes.
  • Also has a personal sense of self-worth, not dependent on performance.

There is an urgent need for the skills of Self-Reliance. In the past they have been assumed or neglected by both employers and high education. They cannot be neglected any longer, and there are several factors, which summarize the reasons why these skills are so important:

1. Career transitions are more frequent
Jobs are less secure, and career transitions are more frequent. Even in higher education, modularization has increased the number of choices to be made. So the skills to mange career transitions are essential.

2. Graduates need to manage uncertainty and change
We are frequently exhorted to achieve the impossible: to be "comfortable" with constant change and uncertainty. Change is never comfortable. However, there are skills, which enable people to cope with change. Some of these skills are those which enable people to learn in order to adapt to change. Lifelong learning is not just a ‘90s buzzword. It is an essential survival tactic for the 21 st Century.

3. Knowledge rapidly becomes obsolete
The world is changing so fast that knowledge and skills soon become obsolete. In addition, more frequent career transitions accelerate this, making it necessary to learn new skills and adapt to new situations. Hence the need for "effective learning skills". Degree-based knowledge will rapidly become useless unless a degree has also provided learning skills of the highest order.

4. Supporting structures have disappeared
Organizational structures have previously supported people in their career and personal development. Now, many of these supporting structures have disappeared. Slimmed-down personnel departments indicate that "self development" is the order of the day. In SMEs, few formal training and development structures exist. The smaller the organization, the greater the need for Self-Reliance Skills.

5. Growing student-staff ratios
The growing number of students and declining "unit of resource" mean that some of the changes in business are mirrored in higher education. Information technology will have a role to play in over-coming this situation, but this can only be effective if students can become self-reliant learners. The work of university teaching staff will then be focused on enabling learning rather than teaching knowledge.

6. Graduates need to be "flexible and adaptable"
The pace of change is often reflected in the demands of employers for graduates who are "flexible and adaptable". The concept of flexibility has a simple meaning. It is the ability to adapt and apply existing capabilities to new situations. It is therefore, to a large degree, about the transfer of skills.

7. Graduates need to manage their relationship with work
Professor Peter Herriot (IES) describes the graduate’s greatest future challenge as "managing the relationship with work". This will include negotiating with an employer or client, often from a position of weakness. Professional Herriot describes the increasing number of sub-contractors and part-timers as being at "extreme risk" of being exploited. This makes Self-Reliance, especially negotiation skills and political awareness, even more important.

The Complete Graduate
Self-Reliance Skills are the enabling skills, which will be essential for graduates to survive in the 21 st Century. They are the skills to manage a lifetime’s progression in learning and work, rather than to do the work itself. They are process skills rather than functional skills.

This differentiates them from the other attributes which graduates need in the workplace. The complete graduate needs four types of skills:

Self-Reliant : Graduates must be able to manage their career and personal development (e.g. confidence, self-awareness, action planning, political awareness).

Connected : Graduate must be team players (e.g. management skills, meetings skills, negotiation skills, networking skills, presentation skills).

Specialist : It helps to be an expert at something (e.g. marketing, tax, accounting, family law, aerospace engineering, marine biology, organizational psychology).

Generalist : Graduates must have general business skills and knowledge (e.g. finance/basic accounting, written communication, problem-solving, use of IT).

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