Straight ‘A’s or sportsmanship?

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At last Thursday’s Graduate Employment Conference in Auckland, Professor Roy Crawford, chair of Universities NZ and vice-chancellor University of Waikato, suggested that Kiwi employers are favouring transferrable skills over excellent grades, the New Zealand Herald reported.

“Quite often they [employers] are not looking at the grades, they are looking at the individual and the broader range of skills that they have hopefully developed at the university,” he said. According to Crawford, employer surveys demonstrated that graduates’ interpersonal skills, for example, were more highly valued than academic grades.

Tim Watts, Director of GradConnection New Zealand, sat on an employability panel that discussed  the current job market for graduates. He tended to agree with Crawford. “What gets someone the job doesn’t tend to be their grades, it tends to be more about them as an individual,” he said.

For Watts, it comes down to organisational fit. “An employer is really looking for someone who fits in their organisation and fit is generally determined by those softer skills around your interpersonal skills, your teamwork ability, leadership, time management, planning and organisation, communication skills, as opposed to how many ‘A’s you got,” he added.

His panel also discussed where graduates should be acquiring these skills, concluding that, in general, you didn’t learn them while completing course work. “It’s actually during that university experience you tend to pick up those other things. So it all comes down to having that right culture at that right university,” Watts said. He added that students who went away to university, instead of remaining in their hometown, tended to show them earlier on.

“If you’re sacrificing a part-time job, getting involved in a sports team, culture group, whatever – if you’re sacrificing that to get top grades, it’s being more detrimental to your chances of employment than doing good,” Watts said.

However, a graduate’s grades are still important because employers use them as a selection tool. Employers generally consider the top 5-10% of graduates, according to Watts, and he doesn’t see this changing. If you have 1,000 applications for a role, and you’re only looking for 10-15 people, looking at their grades is an effective way of culling a group of applications. This is especially true since many of those top 100 students will also have the softer skills.

In other words, graduates still need both sets of skills – soft ones and academic ones. “Somebody who gets that role is going to be very strong in those skills … however, if they don’t have the core qualifications, they’re not going to be even getting past that first hurdle,” Watts said.

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