· 3 min read · Features

Looking for a new job? Graduates must get those soft skills shining

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As examination time looms for the UK’s final year students, they will all be thinking about how and where to find their dream job after graduation.

This generation of talented young professionals will need to look for ways of making themselves shine and stand-out from the crowd.

Virgin Media Business surveyed 5,000 businesses to find out what they want from new recruits. It is clear the tide has turned and we are looking at a new age of HR professionals who want to see something above and beyond a crackshot CV.

The results revealed soft skills and having a ‘can-do’ attitude are preferential to having a convincing arsenal of IT, writing and administration skills. Having a great degree from a good university and a bunch of extra-curricular activities are no longer like having a golden ticket for Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory.

The reality is that employers in 2011 want to be inspired, charmed and surprised. More than eight out of 10 (85%) of those surveyed see soft skills such as communication, personality and ambition as a top priority. In contrast, the survey found that just 28% of employers look for professional qualifications when they begin recruiting for a position.

That's quite a small proportion, when you think about how much we invest in getting a good education these days (it is estimated the average student spends £25,000 on a university education). This is most likely a reflection of the fact that attending university is now the rule rather than the exception. It is easy to see that, as the number of people with a degree grows, there is more need for employees to offer a convincing USP, but what is even more surprising is that just a quarter of employers claim to look for computer literacy. Only 26% of business leaders looked for this asset in the initial stages of recruitment.

Considering the UK’s 30 million workers are most often engaged in office jobs, that’s a big departure from the HR policies of old, where job specs called for ‘Microsoft Office-literate’ individuals. IT skills are expected to be part of the package now, meaning that employees need to find ways of differentiating themselves from the pack by having the right personality and communication skills. If it is more about a can-do attitude and the ability to negotiate, and not about bean-counting or being able to pass an exam, we are looking at a fundamental culture change.

But what lessons can be learnt from this shift in culture? More importantly, what soft skills are the most important? Firstly, a ‘can-do’ attitude is vital to today’s businesses. No-one wants a doom-monger in the office, especially during hard economic times. Smiling and having a positive approach to challenges at work will almost certainly rub off on those around you, making for a more dynamic working environment.

The second lesson should be ambition and tenacity. By encouraging people with drive and a tendency to break the mould, and valuing a ‘never say die’ approach to work, we are ensuring the future of the workforce and encouraging a motivational atmosphere. Lastly, HR wants excellent communication to extend beyond the written word, to verbal and emotional skills. It is not about writing a good email; instead it is about tenacity and fostering great relationships with customers and colleagues.

What is really interesting about this research is that people with the right soft skills are now being seen as more valuable to the bottom line. By employing likable people, your customers will have a better relationship with your staff and this will boost up-sell and cross-sell opportunities. A good atmosphere, which is full of inspiring professionals, will also attract others who want to work for your company, acting as an employee magnet and reducing recruitment costs.

This in turn will boost productivity and employee engagement, leading to better staff retention. What we need is better collaboration between education and business. More vocational qualifications are coming out of the woodwork and they look set to be the future of higher education.

The school of life could be what is important in 2011, and it is important that the type of lessons we learn extend beyond academia. Street-smart is fast overtaking book-smart on the list of UK business desirables. With backing from the Government and educational institutions, employers will get the type of staff they want walking through their door for years to come.

Phil Stewart (pictured), director of customer service, Virgin Media Business