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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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Careers: Filling the graduate skills gap

Economically viable rather than just academically brilliant, in my opinion, sums up perfectly the situation that many of today’s graduates find themselves in. This is especially true for actuarial students, who study a very focused and intense course that requires huge amounts of academic commitment to graduate with the outcome they need to succeed in their chosen field.

While people debate on a near-weekly basis the state of the graduate recruitment market in terms of the volume of roles and number of applications per position, one thing that the majority agree on is that a ‘skills gap’ still exists — with many of today’s graduates leaving university without the attributes required to join the real world of business at the levels expected of them. From my experience 
as a graduate recruiter, and more recently as a relationship manager in the careers service at Cass Business School focusing 
on actuarial students in particular, I have 
seen this for myself and believe this lack of professional — and in some cases interpersonal skills — needs to be addressed in order for new graduates to both survive and succeed in their careers.

With so many graduates facing problems getting on to any sort of career ladder and employers becoming increasingly vocal about graduates failing to meet their expectations, something needs to be done. Employers expect graduates to demonstrate a range of skills and attributes such as team-working, communication, leadership, critical thinking, problem solving and often managerial abilities or potential for managerial positions.

A recent survey by The People Bulletin has identified five main areas that employers feel their expectations of a graduate are not met: lack of business acumen, emotional intelligence, English language, personal capability and specialist skills. These broadly cover the competencies most organisations look for when hiring. Thankfully, as an actuarial graduate the final point should not be an issue for new recruits, however, the other four skills are increasingly lacking and feedback from employers shows there is still a lot to do to close this gap. In January of this year a study commissioned by Edge, the education charity, warned of a serious failure to “promote employability across higher education”, meaning a ‘notable majority’ of graduates were unable to function in the workplace. The positive news is that, as a graduate, there are things that can be done so you can present yourself as a well-rounded candidate and therefore an ideal employee in this increasingly competitive recruitment market.

Lack of business acumen, or commercial awareness as it is often referred to, is the main area where graduates fall down. The fact that it is hard to define makes the situation even tougher, however, it is widely agreed that it is defined as a person’s understanding and practical application of how businesses work; linking global economic issues and their subsequent impact to an organisation or sector. Recruiters want to see that you can link current global and economic issues and demonstrate an understanding of how these can impact businesses. As a potential hire, you need to show you can stretch your theoretical knowledge and apply it to real life. If you can’t do this then you will struggle.

Simple things like keeping up to date with current affairs and financial news can help enormously, as well as reading articles and blogs on industry-specific topics and linking these back to what you have learnt. At interview stage this is a key area and one you cannot avoid, so be prepared to be pushed by the recruiter. There are multiple resources online that can provide you with sample questions so do your research and practice as much as you can.

Emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills are areas that graduates can naturally be sensitive about, but they are essential to master so you can excel in your career and integrate into a new team with ease. Self-management, being responsible for your own time, showing resourcefulness and networking are all key. For graduates who characterise themselves as introverted, this can seem like a huge barrier to overcome. However, understand that employers aren’t looking for you to change your personality to fit their culture, they just want you to become independent, creative and personable. You may have outstanding technical skills, but if you aren’t aware of your surroundings and the impact you have in a team situation, then you won’t get far. Many graduates have developed a ‘fear’ of taking risk, but by speaking up, sharing ideas and pushing yourself out of your natural comfort zone, you will see benefits and earn respect from those around you.

Take feedback on board from your peers and then try to implement what they say. There are also many simple tools and techniques such as concentrating on your listening skills, contributing to conversations and always ensuring you network at any event you attend can really help.

Poor English language skills, ranging from graduates finding it hard to make the transition from academic to business writing, to basic inadequacies in grammar and spelling, are still seen as areas that need improvement. With the increased use of email as a primary source of communication, graduates need to be clear on the correct etiquette and how getting it wrong can seriously damage your reputation. This applies from when you send your application in to when you start with a firm.

The vast majority of job applications are rejected before you have even had a chance to sit an online test, let alone attend an interview, and one of the key screening criteria set by employers will be your use of language and grammar. 
The smallest mistake or oversight can see you end up in the reject file quicker than you would like to imagine.

Personal capability is arguably the least talked about of the skills gaps but one that holds considerable weight. Whether or not you believe that generation Y (those born in the 1980s and 1990s) work to live or live to work, one thing that is becoming more common is the view from employers that graduates’ expectations are out of line with reality. From wanting substantial responsibility as soon as joining a firm to unrealistic salary demands, today’s students need to look at the bigger picture and realise their own shortcomings.

When applying for roles, really consider your skills and the impact you will have when joining a firm by putting it into perspective. These days the notion of a job for life is rare so understand that your first role is unlikely to be where you will live out your entire career, and because of your limited experience — if you have any at all — you can’t expect everything straight away. You’d be surprised at how many graduates have no perception of what they will be doing in their first year in a firm and, when asked at interview, their answer is so far removed from what is actually the case.

Do your research — many companies have profiles of current employees available for you to look at which gives you an idea of the progression they have had and the opportunities that have been on offer. Also, look at job adverts for more experienced jobs in your chosen field. This will show you the types of skills that will be required as you progress in your career.

Although more work needs to be done by both universities and careers services to help close this gap, students themselves need to be the one to drive their development forward and must take advantage of the range of resources on offer while studying.

Over the last 18 months at Cass Business School, we have seen a huge increase in the uptake of professional skills workshops we offer and it’s great to see individuals taking control of their future. Whether you are just starting your actuarial degree or have just graduated this summer, it’s never too late to start building on the professional skills that will serve you a lifetime. As you progress through your career these competencies and skills will be used to measure your progression, so the sooner you master them the higher you will climb, becoming most definitely economically viable in whatever you do.

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Alexandra WaltonAlexandra Walton is a relationship manager at Cass Business School London, focusing on actuarial students