Re-defining the Skills for Success Formula: What Job Hunters Demonstrate, What New Hires Anticipate, and What Hiring Managers Expect

By Tylor Behrens posted 12 days ago

  
September 15, 2020

Dr. T. Tylor Behrens is associate vice president of STRIVE Career Center at St. Mary’s University.  

If a student were to ask 100 career counselors this question: "What skills are necessary for success in the workplace?"—except for a few similarities, chances are that student would hear 100 different answers. In order to reduce confusion and try to dispel some myths, my team of corporate recruiters and university career center leaders conducted an informal, four-month long study. We interviewed 152 students who were recently offered a job, 159 new employees who were students as little as 18 months prior, and 166 seasoned hiring managers. Quite simply, we asked them the question, "What skills are necessary for success in the workplace?"—and guess what happened? That's right—lots of different answers!   

The reasons the answers differed are because the skills needed at one phase of the "career-success formula" are quite a bit different from those at another stage. For example, the skills a student must possess to secure a job offer from an employer might differ greatly when it comes time for that student to perform on the job 12 months later. Let's explore these “situational” skills in depth.    

The Student Survey  

The survey asked the students which personal qualities they thought were necessary to make a successful transition from college to the work world and how these skills have helped them establish their careers. The top 10 responses are as follows:   
 

  1. Effective writing and communication skills— (the top priority regardless of career choice)  
  2. Leadership skills  
  3. Time management skills  
  4. Confidence, but not overconfidence  
  5. Willingness to start at the bottom  
  6. Studying the company ahead of time to save time in training  
  7. Treating your classes like you are at work  
  8. Openness to a wide variety of opportunities  
  9. In an interview, show that the company is #1 on your list and know in advance what you will likely be doing  
  10. Willingness to work in teams. 
 

One liberal arts student from a small, private college stated, “Even though you have a degree, it doesn’t mean you’re in the door. A lot of students rejoice after finally obtaining a degree and assume jobs will come looking for them, even those who have never worked a day in their life.”   

Another student, an engineering major from a large public university commented on how college does not prepare you for all job conditions. “Graduating as an engineer provides you with a lot of technical foundations to adapt to the tasks of assigned work, but what the academic curriculum does not do is prepare you for a working environment in which verbal and written skills are probably more important than the technical savvy you gain in the classroom.”   

Overall, most students agreed that being personable and having exceptional communication skills were most significant when job searching.  

 What Recent Hires Say  

We also received responses from 159 current employees (recent college grads) that have been participants in their company’s college recruiting and hiring programs. We wanted to get their input on what worked and what didn’t when they were in college looking for a job. We also wanted to identify the skills that have helped them progress as well as reasons why they have stayed interested in their careers and their newly joined organization.   

The new employees were asked how their formal education has helped them secure the position they hold currently. Most agreed that their college degree helped them greatly in attaining the technical knowledge and training needed for a career. One recent grad and new employee with a mid-sized advertising firm in Chicago reported, “I use 2 percent of the technical knowledge gained (in high school and college), the rest is reading, writing, arithmetic, and people skills.”  

 Here are their top 10 bits of advice to current students about the skills and behaviors they should bring to earn a position within a reputable company:  

  1. Communicate effectively  
  2. Manage your time well  
  3. Focus on customer service  
  4. Ask lots of questions  
  5. Accept change  
  6. Manage stressful situations  
  7. "Job shadow" a veteran staff member  
  8. Network  
  9. Have patience in the hiring process  
  10. Don't try to make a big splash right away: Learning the ropes takes time 
  

Others stated the importance of being willing to learn on your own time and do whatever it takes to get the job done. Learning the basics of the company and the position in the beginning can be rough, so learn about each ahead of time and know that, as one new hire and former history major reported: “detail-oriented people do very well in the real world.”   

We asked new hires to describe the skills that have helped them with their transition into the workforce. The most common response: Get involved in day-to-day operations up front and work with a senior employee to develop the right techniques to succeed. Being able to demonstrate your understanding will give you credibility, and keeping your manager informed on your progress is important as well.    

Advice from the Managers  

Distributing a survey to managers across North America was a great opportunity to find out what they are looking for when hiring students. It also gave them an opportunity to share some advice and discuss the management techniques they use to retain employees. After surveying 166 hiring managers from small start-up to Fortune 5 corporations, the data yielded an interesting mix of answers to some rather straightforward questions.   

The question was “What personal qualities do you look for in hiring a college student and what other characteristics should one possess in order to succeed on the job?” Their top 10 answers were as follows:  

  1. Personable  
  2. Upbeat  
  3. Not intimidated to ask questions  
  4. Analytical thinking  
  5. Doesn’t need continuous supervision  
  6. Firm but not overbearing  
  7. Prior work experience  
  8. Goal-driven  
  9. Willing to take on the unknown  
  10. Punctual  

Many managers stressed that they stay away from students with no previous work experience. It was interesting to note that nearly all of the managers—many of whom had backgrounds in engineering, business, manufacturing, research, and finance—were much more concerned with the student’s people skills than the technical skills needed for the job.    

Get Excited  

Secondly, the managers were asked to list just one quality that can set a student apart from other applicants. No surprise, there were 166 different responses—however, attitude and communication skills seemed to be the common thread. This also supports the earlier comment from one of the new hires from a large public university on the West Coast: “Having a degree doesn’t mean you automatically have a job. You must have excitement for the job to work well with others.”   

They also mentioned what not to do, specifically during interviews. Most managers told of students who are too cocky and demanding and wanted to know primarily what the company can do for them. Body language is the most important part of an interview—appearing nervous, not making eye contact, chewing gum, and wearing unprofessional attire are major turnoffs. Talking about what you don’t want to do, lacking knowledge of the company, and as one hiring manager articulated, “telling a manager what you think they want to hear and not digging from within to give an open and honest response” are common student interviewing mistakes.    

Best Advice: Get Involved!  

This survey was a great way to get advice from managers—and pass it on to students who are still in school. "Get involved in extracurricular activities" was the most common response. Students accomplish the most development of communication skills by putting themselves in situations that involve engaging with people who have a variety of lifestyles.   

Nearly all the managers mentioned learning concepts that are not taught in the classroom, and the importance of practicing speaking in front of others. Students also should take classes that require them to form opinions and create something new. It is also important to get to know the teachers and professors and do something to leave a positive impact on the school. One HR manager from an international conglomerate said, “Challenge yourself to overcome your fears. Put yourself in a situation you aren’t comfortable with, work hard at it, and it will do great things for your confidence.”   

Overall, hiring managers were much more concerned with the student’s soft skills than the technical skills needed for the job. No matter how intelligent the students are, or how many degrees they have earned, young professionals must have a solid set of interpersonal skills in order to be successful.     

If You Stay...  

Finally, the managers were asked to list any management strategies they have used to retain employees, and things students can expect from a supervisor once they are hired. Being honest, upfront, and using one-on-one meetings are most important. Managers should also lead by example, reward employees with things besides money, and try to set up events outside of the office that are non-work related.   

One manager of a Dallas-based manufacturing facility also stressed the importance of having a mentor: “Find your best employee who loves to teach and put the new person with them. The employee first must want to train and be responsible for the success of the new person. We are trying to get new employees to be the best they can be as fast as possible, so what better way than to try and replicate your best employees?”   

Some mentioned they look for long-term hires—students looking for stability—and are sure to give a lot of information on the position up front so the student immediately knows what will be expected of him or her. The vice-president of operations at a large health care provider asserted that “An employee’s impression of our company will be determined in their first year. If we set them up to succeed, train them and fill them with positive successes in that first year, then they will remain with the company.”     

SKILLS FOR SUCCESS FORMULA: Comparing the 3 Lists  

  MANAGERS' TOP TEN:  

  1. Personable  
  2. Upbeat  
  3. Not intimidated to ask questions  
  4. Analytical thinker  
  5. Doesn’t need continuous supervision  
  6. Firm but not overbearing  
  7. Prior work experience  
  8. Goal-driven  
  9. Willing to take on the unknown  
  10. Punctual  

  NEW HIRES' TOP TEN:  

  1. Communicate effectively  
  2. Manage your time well  
  3. Focus on customer service  
  4. Ask lots of questions  
  5. Accept change  
  6. Manage stressful situations  
  7. "Job shadow" a veteran staff member  
  8. Network  
  9. Practice interviewing  
  10. Have patience in the hiring process  

JOB SEARCHERS' TOP TEN:  

  1. Leadership skills  
  2. Time management skills  
  3. Confidence, but not overconfidence  
  4. Willingness to start at the bottom  
  5. Studying the company ahead of time to save time in training  
  6. Treating your classes like you are at work  
  7. Openness to a wide variety of opportunities  
  8. In an interview, show that the company is #1 on your list and know in advance what you will likely be doing  
  9. Willingness to work in teams  
  10. Deal with rejection.  
 

At first glance these three lists seem to have very little in common. Sure, effective communication can be found in all three lists, sort of. And sure, time management is important to all three groups...kind of. What does it tell us when there are seemingly no overwhelmingly solid skills that rank #1 or #2 on all three lists?   
 It tells us that "situational skills" are critical at different phases of life, work, and school. These skills must be developed to meet the challenges of that phase, then the skills must be built upon and sharpened to continue the growth and success a student and new employer desire.   

One example of how the formula works: When you look at the three lists, a student is asked to have confidence, but not too much confidence. This can be interpreted as humility. If we follow this "confidence" skill to the list for the new hire, you can see that a critical skill is "ask lots of questions". This skill is easier for those who are humble, lack arrogance, and are curious. And, of course, a skill like this is critical to survival in a new career—which can be built upon a solid foundation of humility (a critical skill from the students list). Finally, once we get to the list that hiring managers believe are critical skills, our student's humility and our new hire's curiosity become a combination of the two: Don't be intimidated to ask lots of questions.   

 Situational Skills and Some Universal Truths  

By examining the skills on all three lists and attempting to follow them from one phase to the next, you should be able to make complete sense of these “situational skills.” Regardless of the situation, nearly all hiring managers agreed on these universal truths when hiring college grads:  

  • Their expectations start with a foundation of integrity, trust, ethical behavior, and honesty. Add a positive attitude, a smile on the student's face, a good work ethic, and a professional appearance, and the student is on his/her way to a successful career.  
  • They expect students to meet deadlines, follow through on commitments, pay attention to details, and produce quality work. They want students to be able to think outside the box and have great organizational skills so you don’t lose the box.  
  • They want students to go with the flow and keep their cool when everything changes. Be confident, not cocky. Be curious, courteous, and competent. And be dedicated, dependable, and determined.  
  • They want students to understand that excellent communication skills are a must. And being a team player is not optional. They want students to know it all, but not act as if they do.   

This study both uncovered and underscored the fact that students’ success in life and in their careers is based on their ability to master the utilization of soft skills, transferable skills, interpersonal skills, and situational skills. We must work together to make sure our student leaders of today have the tools they need to succeed in the ever-evolving workplace of tomorrow. Following our participants' Skills for Success Formula is a great way to start! 

Give your students the keys to success in the job market and the workforce. NACE college members will find a student-directed version of this on NACEWeb's Grab & Go. 

 

Permalink