Career advice

New study reveals the skills and attributes employers value most in new hires

Do you have what it takes to thrive in the modern workspace? A new report has determined the skills and personal attributes that employers say they look for the most when they are evaluating potential new recruits.

For this research (PDF), the team at the American Association of Colleges and Universities surveyed roughly 500 executives and hiring managers who are responsible for making hiring and promotion decisions at a large number of company types and sizes across a wide range of industries.

While the academic association's primary aim was to determine if employers felt that post-secondary institutions were adequately preparing their graduates to enter the workforce, the input from hiring professionals provides some interesting insights into what companies say that they are looking for in successful candidates.

While many organizations list a university degree as a job requirement for most roles – even those that do not seem to require that level of education in order to perform the duties of the position – this is often seen as a filtering tool. The theory is that there will be fewer applications to look through, and these will be the more qualified candidates, if those without a degree are discouraged from applying. See: How to apply for jobs when you don't have all of the required qualifications.

However, it also turns out that many of the skills and attributes gained while earning a degree – just about any degree, regardless of the subject matter studied – can be valuable assets on the job hunt and at work. Those same highly sought-after abilities can also be acquired through learning or on-the-job experience – even if you don't go through the formal education process.

Here's what employers say they look for when evaluating candidates.

The majority of survey participants agreed that a liberal education can provide the knowledge and skills that they view as important for career success. Beyond this, the completion of active and applied learning experiences outside of the classroom gives job applicants a clear advantage. Furthermore, personal aptitudes and mindsets are also very important contributors to a successful career.

So, while earning a university degree may be associated with many of the attributes that hiring managers look for in a candidate, possessing and exhibiting the combination of hard and soft skills may not actually require a job seeker to have a college degree.

At least half of the employers surveyed found the following skills to be "very important" for candidates to have.

Essential skills

  • Ability to work effectively in teams
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Ability to analyze and interpret data
  • Application of knowledge/skills in real-world settings
  • Digital literacy
  • Ability to demonstrate complex problem-solving skills
  • Ethical judgment and reasoning
  • Ability to communicate through writing
  • Ability to locate, evaluate, and use information in decision making
  • Creative thinking
  • Ability to communicate/work with people from different cultural backgrounds
  • Ability to communicate through speaking/presentation skills
  • Ability to work with numbers and statistics

Along with those abilities, your on-the-job attitude also matters. An equal number of employers and hiring professionals participating in the work readiness survey found that a candidate's range of mindsets and aptitudes are essential for success.

Desired aptitudes

  • Drive/work ethic
  • Ability to take initiative
  • Self-confidence
  • Persistence
  • Self-awareness
  • Resilience
  • Leadership
  • Connection with workplace
  • Empathy
  • Curiosity for lifelong learning
  • Emotional intelligence

Along with valuing an education – and the associated skills that generally go along with earning a degree – the employers expressed a preference for candidates who had augmented their studies with other learning opportunities. Those candidates who had a variety of experiences were considered to be more 'work ready' than applicants whose only previous experience was in the classroom.

The research found that participating in certain active and applied educational experiences had a demonstrably positive impact on a candidate's engagement in their chosen field and their ability to perform on the job. Impactful activities that employers like to see in an applicant's background include the following.

Experiences that impress employers

  • Having performed an internship or apprenticeship
  • An experience that involved working in community settings with people from diverse backgrounds or cultures
  • A work-study program or other form of employment during school
  • A portfolio of work showcasing skills and integrating college/university experiences
  • A global learning experience that included exposure to diverse experiences and perspectives and evidence of applying what they learned to their field of study and their own life

The value of higher education in the workforce is less about the prestige of the credentials and more about the professional attributes that are associated with the attainment of a university degree. Employers want to hire candidates who are collaborative, skilled communicators, and critical thinkers. They seek out applicants who have a positive work ethic, are self-aware and motivated, and have leadership potential and a love of learning.

Candidates who possess those sought-after traits along with some knowledge and experiences of other cultures, practical training or mentorship in their field, and some community involvement round out the profile of what hiring professionals are looking for right now.

The key takeaway for job seekers is to hone your communications skills. Being a great communicator enhances your teamworking and leadership abilities. It showcases evidence of emotional intelligence, good judgement, and many of the other factors hiring professionals look for in potential team members. The vast majority of employers surveyed—90 percent—ranked communication skills as being important for new hires. However, only 44 percent of them feel that today's graduates have adequate communication skills for the workplace. Showcasing well-crafted resumes and cover letters along with polished conversations in the hiring process can be a way to highlight your communications skills and stand out from the crowd.

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