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.