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Getting ‘the edge’ as an Under-grad or School Leaver.

December 5, 2013 - Published in Undergraduates

I must have spoken with, interviewed, presented to and coached well over 20,000 undergraduates… maybe even many more? That sounds like a lot, but when you think there’s over 1 million students enrolled in universities across Australia, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. And I’ll never get to meet such a big number face to face, which is why I wanted to create this blog – to at least reach out to more students and give them the chance to ask me questions about finding that first job.

That figure, 1 million students, astounds me. It’s like filling the MCG ten times over with just students…. all competing for the ‘ideal job’ once they’ve finished their studies. Reality is of course, that most students struggle to attain that ideal role, especially so soon after graduating. There simply aren’t enough jobs to match the number of graduating students – at least when we speak of ‘graduate programs’. The rumoured figure these days is around 20% (or less) will strike ‘luck’ in securing a graduate role, with the remainder left to dig deep within themselves to find a job by other means. So is it really ‘luck’ or something else?

I was a uni student myself once upon a time.

I studied Arts/Commerce at Monash Clayton. I graduated in 1997 with an Honors year in Finance and Econometrics, feeling pretty important. I had a management consulting graduate role lined up with Arthur Andersen which was then, part of the ‘Big Six’. AA, as we called it, spectacularly went under a few years later after being found guilty of ‘cooking the books’ with Enron in the USA, and Price Waterhouse merged with Coopers and Lybrand to become PwC – so today it’s the ‘Big Four’ (PwC, KPMG, Deloitte and Ernst & Young). Anyway, I got a gig with AA during my Honors year to start following my graduation.

The interview process was tough – three separate interviews with managers and partners, two case studies plus a group exercise. I couldn’t believe how many students they were putting through the ringer. What I remember most was just how focused all the questions and interviewers were around my skills and experience. They focused on my involvement in sport, and acting classes, and committee involvement and part-time work, and professional development – but what I’d studied at university was hardly ever a topic of conversation. They wanted to know how I approached problems, how well I could communicate, how I’d manage priorities and stick to deadlines and whether I could work to meet the demands of clients. Fortunately for me, I’d been pretty involved in extra curricular activities outside my degree, which to them showed initiative and commitment – two huge qualities every employer today (including me) looks for. And through these activities, I’d learned so many transferable skills (which became apparent) which made me stand out from the others all going through the recruitment process. I think that year they had something like 4,000 applications – all from uni students – and hired 50 grads nationally.

So the fact is, it’s not about ‘luck’. I had very fortunately developed a profile (a personal brand) which stood out over many other grads, and the skills and experiences I’d gained through those activities are what got me the role. Today, it’s become even tougher because student numbers at uni are greater, but there are not an equivalent higher number of grad roles available, so competition is fiercer. I’ve been on the recruitment side too. I headed up Grad Development with PwC across Australia in 2005-7 and each year, the numbers of applicants would rise well into the thousands, with so many good students knocked back because they just couldn’t match some stronger candidates. Same at ANZ where I led the global Talent Management function for the Institutional Division. Thousands of quality business, marketing, law, arts, engineering and accounting students all applying for the lure of working in the ‘sexy’ part of banking – only to be turned away because they didn’t have the ‘edge’ in skills.
Employers across all industries, large and small, global and local all want the same thing – people who can contribute value to their business, from day one. Not to say you don’t need training – on the contrary – but the fundamental business (life) skills are expected of you when from the moment you start. And with the huge over-supply of graduate labour, employers can afford to be extremely picky. If you don’t have things on your resume which demonstrate commitment and initiative, which in turn show vocational skill development, which in turn raise you to the top of a monstrous pile, you’re just counting yourself out of the job market. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking for a small firm or a big one – if you can’t prove how you’re better (in terms of skills) than the thousands of other students studying your exact same degree, you’re going to find it very difficult to get a job – let alone your ‘preferred job’.
So ask yourself these questions… and answer them honestly for yourself.
What makes me stand out (in terms of skills/experiences) from my peers?
Why would an employer hire me, what value do I bring?
What do I have to show for my time at university that is meaningful to an employer – (good grades alone are not the answer)?
What should I do now to enhance my personal brand so I can maximize my chances of getting a job?

Sacha is a founding Director of Upskill Learning and active speaker and facilitator with the graduate employment sector.

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