What employers want: Understanding the employer perspective on graduate skills

Our previous entry provided a broad overview of the importance of universities focussing on student outcomes. We build on this now by exploring a particular avenue of this theme, namely what employers look for when recruiting for graduate level (or professional) roles.

For the purposes of this blog we focus on results from the most recent Employer Skills Survey (ESS). This survey, undertaken by IFF on a biennial basis on behalf of the Department for Education is – we believe – the largest telephone survey in the UK, acquiring interviews with close to 90,000 employers. The survey offers a rich stream of data, covering recruitment, skills shortages, training, underutilisation of staff, and the monetary investment towards training. Our focus here is on skills shortages specifically: the recruitment difficulties employers face, and the skills lacking from applicants, particularly those applying to graduate level roles.

In the most recent ESS study, published in 2018, UK employers reported a total of 309,000 vacancies for positions at graduate level, i.e. managers, professionals and associate professionals. Interestingly, around half of these vacancies occurred in just two sectors: Business Services (which includes recruitment agencies, business support companies, law firms etc.), and Health and Social Work. The most common professions therefore where employers were citing vacancies at a graduate level were Nurses, HR managers, Sales executives and IT professionals: clear areas where universities can look to focus their employability interventions.

Around 25% (79,000) of these graduate-level vacancies were considered hard to fill due to a skills shortage within the labour market (remaining vacancies occurred due to non-skills related issues such as low numbers of applicants, competition from other employers, poor terms and conditions of the job etc.). We consistently find each time we run the Employer Skills Survey that the skills lacking in applicants relate as much to ‘human’ or ‘people’ skills as they do to technical ones. As the chart below highlights, the ability to manage their own time and prioritise tasks is considered to be the most common skill lacking among those applying to professional roles: indeed, 43% of all professional-level skills shortage vacancies were due to a lack of time management skills. Other common skills lacking include the ability to persuade or influence others, and managing or motivating other staff.


Due to the sheer volume of interviews acquired, the survey also allows us to explore regional and local skills needs, to enable universities whose graduates are typically less mobile focus their employment support according to local needs.

The ESS is a vast (and complex) data source, but when used appropriately can bring individual universities new insights into the recruitment needs of local and target employers. It is a relatively untapped source of data offering masses of potential to universities as they seek to help students progress into the workplace, and therefore improve their institution’s student outcomes.

Seeing beyond the Fog: University Horizon Scanning of the Future Labour Market

Dr Anthony Mansfield

University of East London

At the heart of Higher Education (HE), universities strive to ensure students achieve their aspirations. For many prospective and current students, the baseline after their journey through HE is a meaningful and fulfilling career. Of course, efforts are routinely made to enhance student and graduate opportunities, however, in the ever-changing landscape of employment the question remains: how do HE providers ensure the programme portfolio and wider provision of support give students the best possible prospects?

The environment that universities operate within has laid out a clear mandate to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. Three drivers outside of university fuel the desire for increased knowledge of the labour market: government, public perception, and the employer – all of which have an interconnected relationship.

University leadership has always been interested in league tables. Published rankings have measured employability amongst other metrics such as good honours, completion, and even research quality. Therefore, a focus on improving these metrics has always been present. Government emphasis on outcomes of education, nevertheless, has grown in part due to the availability of big datasets. The impetuous has been underscored in the formulation of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) as well as the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) dataset. The former – up to this point – has focussed heavily on the rate of graduates in highly-skilled roles; by contrast, the latter has highlighted the earnings of graduates. Such publications and datasets are visible and impact the reputation of a university at a time when Higher Education providers compete in fierce conditions for undergraduate enrolments.

We cannot underestimate the influence of tuition fees in the renewed focus on outcomes. Students carry a heavy burden through taking out loans and leaving HE with up to fifty-thousand pounds worth of debt – a wellbeing as well as financial drain. The increasing levels of participation, furthermore, have seen regular column inches dedicated to challenging the significance of HE and at times diminishing the achievement of graduating. The perception has become that a degree is commonplace and not an accomplishment in itself, has permeated the labour market too.

The increasing number of graduates gives employers a highly-educated workforce, and they seek, therefore, to differentiate candidates. Other skills, competencies and experiences are desired in addition to a degree as society stands on the precipice of Industry 4.0. In the age of big data and increasing impact of automation, employers need a workforce that is resilient, adaptable, innovative and passionate.

None of the observations above is to say that the stress on outcomes is misplaced or incorrect; instead it has required universities to recalibrate their efforts in which they hone in on the later stage of the student journey. An undergraduate degree can instil the skills and traits that an employer needs; however, the prevailing belief is that graduates need more and consequently the university needs to provide students with guidance, training and significant job opportunities.

Rightly, senior leaders, academics, and service staff are working to understand the labour market to prepare their students for life after graduation. To provide answers to these challenges there needs to be a strategic approach in understanding the environment outside of the institution’s walls. In any organisation, leaders need to have information to allow them to appreciate the broader context and confidently make decisions in the best interest of the students. For many institutions, such contextual insight is gleaned through a strategic horizon scanning function.

The horizon scanning function – often an activity led by a Strategic Planning unit– allows a university to see emerging trends that are not clear today. The process enables the assessment of potential opportunities and threats for effective planning and portfolio management. Understanding the labour market over the next ten years is not a light undertaking; gaining a sense of the market for just 2019 is not enough either. The decisions that will be made take time to implement and bare fruit; therefore, the labour market needs to be evaluated for at least the next ten years.

For a university, initiatives that promote highly-skilled employment are not enough. The programme portfolio needs to be critically reviewed to establish if it provides students with what they need for skilled jobs. Consequently, a deep dive of the labour market through investigation of large quantitative datasets, policy reports and even qualitative interviews is crucial from sources such as government, professional bodies, policy groups, and confederations. We should not forget the importance of the qualitative approach supporting the use of big data as projections based solely on datasets can be misleading in predicting future trends in the labour market – a poignant consideration as we come closer to the integration of further automation.

Although conclusions drawn from these datasets focus on the student journey from the perspective of outcomes they do also inform the front end. Universities can use this data to review their portfolio and align it to growing sectors in the economy which will meet the demand of prospective students and employers. As a student enters the university, an institution can provide assurance and opportunities outside of the classroom by using labour market data to set up initiatives (accreditations, knowledge exchange partnerships, apprenticeships or even internships) and develop programmes that allow students to develop their key competencies.

In the end, the focus on the outcome has caused a renewed appraisal of the student journey in its entirety which cannot be considered a bad thing.

Reflections on the use of labour market data in Higher Education (HE)

This week, it will be 20 years since I started working at IFF Research, so I thought it was a good time for a quick spot of reminiscing, and to reflect on some of the work I’ve done and the impact it has had.

For a large chunk of this time I’ve been heavily involved in the development of the Employer Skills Survey (ESS) series (and its predecessors). As I’ve discussed before, and as my colleague Andrew highlighted only last week, ESS is one of the largest, if not the largest, employer skills surveys in the world, and is an envied source of insight that provides the gold standard for labour market information.

ESS has always had a significant impact on national level policy. It directly informs UK immigration policy through its use by the Migration Advisory Committee to help decide which occupations should be placed on Shortage Occupation List. And it is a key source used to measure the impact that various policies have on employers and their staff (e.g. the Apprenticeship levy and wider funding reform, T-levels). It is also widely used by Local Enterprise Partnerships to help develop regional skills strategies.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve been doing more and more work within Higher Education (HE), and now head up IFF’s large and rapidly growing HE offer. We conduct some of the highest profile studies for the likes of DfE, HESA and OfS, and work with individual institutions such as University of Portsmouth, University of East London, University of London and Open University.

The landscape of higher education is constantly evolving, but over the last decade there has been a period of fundamental change – tuition fees, alternative providers, lifting of the student cap on student numbers, TEF, proliferation of league tables, Brexit etc., etc., etc.. One change that I have had first-hand experience of, since IFF first undertook the Longitudinal DLHE survey for HESA in 2005, is the increased scrutiny placed on demonstrating evidence of successful progression of graduates into the labour market.

However, despite the critical importance of graduate outcomes to the sector, it still surprises me how little is known about ESS and how little it is used in institutional planning and portfolio development. To some extent, this could be blamed on the fact that ESS has not always been publicised as much as it could or should have been, and other less reliable surveys with much smaller sample sizes often get more attention in the press (take CBI’s Education and Skills Survey, for example). However, there is also a lack of widespread understanding of other powerful data sources that would help providers better understand their local labour market. Working Futures is another example. Working Futures projects the future size and shape of the labour market by anticipating changing skills needs – powerful insight for providers looking to refine their provision to best meet employer needs.

In the Advance HE conference next week, my colleague Liz will be delivering the keynote speech investigating the process of aligning higher education and the labour market, and will provide a practical framework for doing so. I hope that, through IFF’s involvement in events like this, over the next few years we will get more opportunities to help people understand the value that we see in this sort of labour market data, and to see it have a greater impact on the HE sector.