Author: Alistair Cox, Chief Executive, Hays
This is the time of year that university undergraduates around the world start to prepare to take those daunting first few steps into the world of work. Hours of research and job applications, right at a time when the demands of completing a degree are reaching their peak in the final year of study. There are vast tomes of advice out there around ‘how to start a career with a bang’ or ‘how to successfully apply for (and maintain) a first job’. Yes, all of this is useful stuff, to an extent. But, as each year passes and the world of work changes even more, I have started to wonder how relevant some of this advice really is.
I left university back in 1982 and back then, my career journey started with the grand total of four carefully hand-written letters to four companies I liked the look of. I got three interviews, two offers and selected one. Relatively painless, not a great deal of time spent and I was launched. But I wasn’t alone and frankly my experience of the graduate job search back then seems to have been common with virtually everyone else. Today’s world is totally different. Hours and hours of internet surfing for opportunities, endless forms, online role-plays, hundreds, yes hundreds of email or online applications and usually a deafening silence in return as prospective employers are inundated with a barrage of applications, many of which never even get acknowledged. No wonder it’s soul destroying. It’s as if the explosion of information, choice and ease of application has actually made it significantly harder to get that first start in professional life.
Things are still evolving at a rapid pace too. Many professionals in their late twenties now find that the wisdom they themselves learned when entering the jobs market not so long ago is now out-dated due to the impact of changing employer appetites, talent flows and emerging technology. Yet a lot of advice is still around today and has hardly changed in years. This must change. Surely we owe it to the next generation to give them the most current advice so that they have the best possible chance of making the best decisions at this early stage in their careers – a stage, I’m sure you would agree, which is often the most influential for so many reasons.
So, if you are entering the world of work for the first time, or know someone who is, I hope you find my advice helpful. Equally, if you have any of your own thoughts to share, then I welcome you to leave your comments below.
1. Be open minded and adaptable now, and in the future
Don’t shoe-horn yourself into a role just because your degree is a typical ‘feeder’ into that type of job. The world of jobs is changing ever faster and there’s plenty of research to suggest that the majority of jobs we will be occupying in 15 years’ time haven’t even been invented yet. The fact is, a large number of people will be changing roles and sectors in our future world, probably several times, so don’t be afraid to change to a sector that fascinates you right now. I’ve crossed sectors and roles myself – from engineering through to energy and now recruitment – but at all times I’ve followed those roles that let me explore the topics I’m passionate about.
So, rather than being pigeon-holed by your degree, really think about how the skills you’ve acquired throughout your studies can be applied to a field that you’re intrigued by. The recent integration of skills that I’ve witnessed in technology, marketing, design and engineering for example throws up opportunities to move into areas that previously may not have seemed logical. We now see huge demand for these sorts of skills in the fast-growing creative industries for example, and that’s very different to the typical skills such sectors sought just a few years ago. So you may find that the financial prowess you’ve honed in your accountancy degree could be just as valuable to an up-and-coming tech business, the music industry or anywhere else for that matter, as opposed to just a large consultancy firm.
Remember though, this level of adaptability and open-mindedness isn’t just relevant as you start out in your career. Because of the changing world of work and digitalisation, it’s pretty much impossible to predict what you will be doing in ten, twenty or thirty years’ time. So you absolutely need to keep open-minded and continue to be adaptable in order to achieve real, sustained success in the long-term.
2. Take your time to really consider your options
At this early stage of your career, the choices you make will ultimately mould you into what you will become. I know that this may sound overly dramatic but it’s true.
I can see how many graduates may feel that there is something of a race to find that first job out of university. After all, you’ve just spent years in education and probably want to start making your way in the world and, importantly, you really want to start earning some money. Understandably, these are high priorities. But don’t forget that the first few years of work after graduating will set the path for your future career, as it can become difficult to deviate from this track once the obligations of a home, family etc. come along in the future.
To that point, I remember reading some interesting research conducted back in 2014, which stands true today. It found that a staggering two out of three graduates regretted accepting their first job offer. Do you really want to be in this position? To me, it’s a false economy. So, when considering that first job offer, remember that there’s a lot you need to consider – all of which will impact you now and in the future.
There’s a real dilemma here though. In a world where getting a first job seems harder than ever before, isn’t it better to just get any job, because at least that will help your journey to find the one you really want in the future, having demonstrated that you have the skills and attitude to be an asset to an organisation? There’s some truth in this in my mind and I will always look favourably on someone who has at least made a go of something, anything, rather than doing nothing. But don’t fall into the trap of assuming that ‘starter’ job is anything more than just an entree into the world of work and use it to the fullest to get the role you really want, because that ‘right’ job will build the foundations of your long-term career, equip you for the future, and ensure you stand head and shoulders above the rest, in an increasingly competitive job market.
3. Learning doesn’t stop just because you’ve graduated
Graduating is just a step along the way of a lifetime of learning. You simply can’t afford to end your education the moment you’re handed a degree. It just doesn’t work like that anymore. I believe that the next decade will belong to hybrid professionals – people with qualifications for traditional roles running in parallel with new and emerging skillsets, combined with strong soft skills.
This mixture demonstrates to employers that you can be deployed across a range of projects. It also demonstrates that you have the knowledge base to communicate with specialist colleagues and understand the potential – or limitations – of the assistance they’re able to provide. For instance, a marketer with Java or HTML5 coding skills will be able to liaise with web developers and easily grasp whether their team’s latest online marketing idea is feasible. But don’t just think AI and blockchain. Understanding how to run a productive brainstorm session or how to deal with an under-performing team member are just as vital skills as the purely technical ones that formal education tends to imbue in us.
You should never allow yourself to stop learning. Ultimately, continuous upskilling should feel like a habit, rather than a chore. And this is something you and only you can instill in yourself – so it’s never too early to start. There are a host of online courses, live events or even teach-yourself podcasts available across a variety of subjects. My advice would be to read widely, consider how your chosen industry is likely to change over the next five years and what you can learn from other sectors that may point to the future of your own. In my view, every industry that exists today will be profoundly impacted by the inventions and discoveries we make in the next five to ten years. When I graduated in 1982 I joined the oil industry, seemingly safe in the knowledge that we would always need energy and fuel and that my future was therefore secure. Today, you cannot make that assumption. Blockchain will revolutionise financial services and entire supply chains. Genetics and bioengineering will transform the role of healthcare professionals and their industry. Cars will be electric and driverless so the transport industry will look very different. Administration tasks will be automated by robots. Nothing will be as it was and nothing can be taken for granted anymore, so you need to keep your skills relevant to the world we become.
But learning doesn’t start and end with technical skills. Soft skills are becoming ever more important. If a robot can do the processing job that a human brain used to be employed for, then things like strong intuitive skills, creative flair, relentless proactivity and a positive attitude will really set you apart from the others, both humans and machines. These things tend to be innate within people and hard to teach. So, as you take your first steps into the world of work, take every opportunity to recognise which soft skills you have, and hone them as you go to make you unique.
And never forget that last point. You are unique. Sometimes it can seem like you are just one of thousands and thousands of similar people, all applying for that one job. But the fact is, they are all different from you and it’s your job to understand what makes you different and more suitable than the competition. Focus on what value you can bring to a prospective employer, not how you stack up to others in the field.
A word here for employers too, because many of you are missing a trick. Dealing with a tsunami of applications is a daunting task. Many have therefore sought to automate the process in some way, filtering the incoming applications via some form of online assessment tool. Many of the banks for example now have online ‘role-play’ scenarios that they invite prospective applicants to conduct, and these act as a filter through to the job application itself. It all sounds very good in theory, but I’m not sure it’s the best way to find that unique talent that will make your company hum. I was amused when a good friend of mine, a senior executive in the financial services world, actually took one of these tests himself, just to see what was expected of young people applying to his and his competitors’ organisations. Despite thirty five years of experience in the industry, having seen almost every conceivable issue across that time and occupying a position at the top of the tree, his ‘system’ deemed him unsuitable for a graduate intern job. How many other future superstars had been eliminated by the computer before they were even given a chance? So, employers, look deeper for the unique nuggets that will make your business fly and don’t rely on software tools that look for the lookalikes.
4. Appreciate the benefits temp or contract roles could bring you
Temp or contract roles are much more than simply providing convenient stop-gap jobs while searching for a permanent position. If you’re fresh out of university, temp or contract work can be a fantastic way to refine your skillset and sample different opportunities. It’s also a great way of building your CV if you are lacking in experience.
By moving from project to project, you should also build a strong network of professional contacts, which can either result in a steady flow of additional contract work or even a full-time position further down the line. At the same time, long-term contract work can also be very lucrative and enjoyable. Freelancers often enjoy higher day rates than employees in permanent positions and can focus on what they’re best at and most enjoy, free from the distractions of traditional office politics.
5. Don’t ever lose your sense of adventure
You’ve just spent some amazing years at university – some say these are the best days of your life and in many ways I tend to agree. You will have learnt so many things and met so many people. Your eyes will have been opened to the world and everything it has to offer. So, my last piece of advice is to never lose that sense of adventure that you’ve no doubt developed over the past few years. Approach this next stage of your career journey with enthusiasm, creativity and an unwavering positive spirit. All of these things will stand you in good stead to stand above the rest in what is, and will continue to be, an unpredictable world of work.
Entering the world of work for the first time can prove daunting, but it should also be exhilarating. The jobs market is currently in one of the most exciting phases I’ve ever known. Roles that have stayed the same for decades are being redefined by advances in technology and fresh practices like flexible or remote working, and, at the same time, entirely new roles are being created.
Amidst all this change, it’s not enough to rely on age-old advice that served your parents or older siblings well. Neither should you take a scatter-gun approach to job applications either. Are you really deeply fascinated by the one hundred companies you are about to send your CV to on a mass email campaign? No, so carefully consider the career path that you’re really interested in. Understand what you’re passionate about and devise a career plan that focuses on this. Take small yet consistent steps towards the direction and field you want to move your career in. Seek out and talk (talk, not email or WhatsApp) to people in those businesses and ask them about it and about opportunities there. You’ll be amazed at the sort of response you may get. This should stop you sleepwalking into an ultimately unsatisfying role and getting stuck there.
And, lastly, I recommend graduates set about really understanding the fresh challenges facing their area of expertise and think how you can stand out from the crowd. The candidates who grasp the issues of today are often those invited for an interview tomorrow and more than likely the ones who enjoy a varied and fulfilling career.
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