What skills are employers looking for in a school leaver?

After leaving education getting a job can seem like a very daunting task, and your perceived lack of skills and experience could make you feel like gaining your first full time job an impossible hill to climb.

An employer is well aware of your lack of work experience, and when it comes to the skills they expect to see from a graduate, you would be surprised to realise that they are all achievable and don’t require any previous work experience or specialist skills.

Having the right key skills along with a positive attitude and focus is what’s important to an employer, and identifying these skills is what will give you the very best opportunity at getting your foot in the door.

What skills would an employer look for? 

First job skills

A positive attitude towards working as a team, training, learning new skills, communication, and an ability to adapt are extremely important to an employer.

Certain qualifications and technical skills may be a mandatory requirement at the application stage, however the right personal qualities and attitude are equally important and in some cases seen as more vital to a successful candidate.

Being able to cope with the stress and pressures during a typical day is a fantastic trait to have, and one which an employer would not overlook. Staying calm under pressure, being able to take criticism and stay intrinsically motivated are especially important when it comes to your first job.

It’s important to remain professional at all times – be punctual and have a great attendance for instance. Having a positive attitude at work for any task, no matter how trivial it may seem is a great way to show the employer you are committed and happy to give 100%, no matter what the task may be.

On graduates:

“They seem to lack the basic social communication skills, especially online etiquette skills. Most of the young girls that I come across seem to think texting a client or their manager is the same as when they text/email their friends — bad punctuation, abbreviation of words, etc. I would value or welcome basic skills, such as communication and reliability. It seems basic but it’s sure difficult to find prospective employees with those kinds of skills.”

Claire Barnes

CEO/Founder, Premier Beauty Solutions

What types of skills are often missing? 

An employer would usually look for a set of skills which would be a foundation for a successful employee. Basic skills like literacy and numeracy are often lacking when it comes to graduates, as well as problem solving, poor communication skills and the ability to self-manage.

All of these skills provide a foundation for a graduate to learn and thrive from a new work environment, coupled with the ability to handle pressure and meet deadlines as expected by an employer.

Having the right attitude is often seen as more important in a work environment than being highly qualified. Someone who is willing to learn and work hard will always do better in any new position, and will push themselves further and gain more experience.

On graduates:

“In my experience, the modern business now looks for employees that are imaginative, resourceful, and most importantly, adaptable in the workplace. Additionally the ability for an individual to work well within a team and a company’s way of working are equal to that of their academic achievements, perhaps more so. Therefore building your personal portfolio of business and people skills is essential. Our workshops are designed to encourage creative thinking and teach some of the fundamental skills required for a successful career”.

Simon Payne

Director, Mind Adrenaline

How to develop essential skills 

It will often be difficult for most school leavers to already have these skills, and with a lack of work experience it’s understandable to feel a little lost and to wonder how these skills can be obtained in preparation for a new position.

There are however lots of ways to acquire these skills, and you may already have some of them without realising it!

One of the best ways to discover the skills you already have and develop them further is to look at what’s called ‘transferable skills’. Whether you have come straight from secondary school, college or university, you will have had the opportunity to focus and improve these skills without probably noticing.

Here is a great list of more specific types of skills an employer would look for and expect an employee to apply on a daily basis –

  • The ability to problem solve and find solutions independently
  • Be proactive
  • Creative thinking
  • Good organisations skills and time management
  • Good communications skills and rapport with other team members and departments
  • Good team working skills and helpfulness

At one time or another you will have had the opportunity to gain the skills above, which may mean that now having read the list you are already starting to build up a picture of what you have achieved and learned so far.

A common misconception when it comes to graduates is the belief that their lack of work experience means they have little to no skills when it comes to a work environment. Although the above skills will certainly be at a lower level to someone who has extensive work experience, it doesn’t mean to say they are not already to a good standard providing you with a great foundation with which to work on and develop further.

An employer is well aware of your lack of experience, and will account for that when looking to hire. You are obviously not expected to be on par with an existing employee, so don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure. It’s far better to focus on what you have achieved to date rather than what you haven’t, and a positive attitude along with the ability to present your current skills to an employer is a great place to start.

Click here to read our work experience guide.

Building experience through voluntary or part time work

If you feel that you are lacking most of the skills above or would prefer to develop them further before you head into full time employment, there are two great ways to do that. The first would be voluntary work, and should be something to consider even whilst you’re studying.

When it comes to voluntary work you should have no trouble in finding a position and getting started as soon as possible. Although you are expected to provide a CV and give a good interview, the expectations are typically lower than what a paying employer would expect, and is a great place to gain valuable work experience, skills and knowledge of a working environment.

A part time role is also another way you can gain lots of skills and work experience, and could be something to consider whilst in education. Getting paid for your efforts is also a great learning experience, and will often provide you with a more realistic environment with which to learn from when working towards a more full time permanent position.

Part time and voluntary roles can also sometimes lead to full time work and greater opportunities. Always give it 100% in everything you do even if you’re not getting paid, as you never know what may come of it. It’s also important to remember that the references you are gaining will add a lot of value to your CV and overall application.

Places to find volunteering opportunities include: Do-it website, Volunteering Matters (young, older and disabled volunteers), VSO (overseas placements), the local Volunteer Centre website, Reach (volunteers with specific skills), Volunteering Wales and Volunteer Scotland

Places to find volunteering opportunities include: Do-it website – Volunteering Matters (young, older and disabled volunteers) – VSO (overseas placements) – local Volunteer Centre website – Reach (volunteers with specific skills) – Volunteering Wales – Volunteer Scotland. Additional places that young people can find volunteer opportunities include the National Citizen Service website (16 – 17 year olds in England or Wales, 15 – 16 year olds in Northern Ireland), and the International Citizen Service website (18 – 25 year olds who want to volunteer abroad).

Click here to read our guide on volunteering for work experience.

Choosing the right CV template

The ideal CV template for a school leaver is one that helps you take into account experience and skills that may not have been gained through traditional employment. Our CV template for a 13, 14 or 15 year old works very well for school leavers. There’s a guide underneath that helps you complete it – including ideas for non-traditional work experience.

Click here to see our CV template for a 13, 14 or 15 year old.

Watch the vid:

Here’s a great vid from EYUKcareers with top tips for school leavers looking to land their first job:

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