Getting a good degree is a big achievement, but it's not enough to guarantee you'll be attractive to potential employers in today's competitive graduate job market. However, assistance is at hand. Accenture, one of the UK's premier graduate recruiters, is helping students develop the skills you can't learn in a lecture theatre.
The Essential Skills Series is a collection of five short films designed to help you boost your job-related skills and get yourself ready for the workplace. The talks will cover five key skills: influencing, presenting, problem solving, project management, and time management. We caught up with Jessica Davies, Head of Graduate Recruitment at Accenture, to find out more.
Head of Graduate Recruitment
Why are the five topics covered in the series important?
Recent graduates working at Accenture told us they'd needed to learn these skills to move successfully from being a student to being an employee. And we think they're not only essential for a graduate role at Accenture, but also for roles in many different organisations and at any stage of your career.
What steps can students take towards acquiring these skills at university?
Work experience is at the top of the list. Students need to be thinking from the moment they start university - if not earlier - about what they can do to build up their experience of employment. If you don't manage to secure a formal internship, you can still gain valuable experience from other kinds of work, even if it's part-time or voluntary. Wherever you're employed, there are always things that you can do to develop your skills - any job requires good time management and problem-solving skills, for example.
Then there are extra-curricular activities. Having a position of responsibility within a society is a great forum in which to develop the skills you'll need to present ideas, influence others and manage projects. We've also been very impressed by the volunteer activities that students we meet have on their CVs - some have worked on high-profile international projects, or even set up their own charities. You can develop many skills through these kinds of activities, and they're especially valuable if you're applying to a company like Accenture where corporate social responsibility is important.
What's the best way for an applicant for a graduate job to showcase in an interview the skills they've acquired at university?
Think about what skills you have. It sounds like a very basic step, but unless you've sat down and identified, for example, how you've been influential or solved problems in the past, it's very difficult to come up with an example in an interview. And be aware that you need to demonstrate passion - sometimes people underestimate how important it is in an interview for a graduate job. You can talk about your skills in a way that's very impressive factually, but unless there's passion behind what you're saying it won't make an impact.
Two of Accenture's recent graduate recruits tell us what they've learnt on their journey from student life to the workplace
The skills that got me the job
In my penultimate year of studying management at Manchester University, I decided that I wanted to work for Accenture. I knew that Accenture would want to see I'd acquired transferable skills during my time at university and I thought I had a lot to offer. In my first year, I'd organised an end-of-year ball, which had involved thinking about things like budgets, marketing and delegation and, in putting it all together, project management. I'd joined RAG and got involved with fundraising activities, which helped me develop skills, such as presenting and influencing, that are essential for working at companies like Accenture. I was also in several university sports teams.
However, when I first I applied for Accenture's graduate scheme I didn't get a place. I was disappointed, but realised I needed to add to my CV and learn to market myself better. After taking some advice, I decided to go travelling in South America and make it work to my advantage career-wise by learning Spanish and doing an internship. It was fantastic! I started in Colombia and worked my way through South America, taking language lessons along the way, and ended up in Argentina, where I worked as an intern for a non-governmental organisation (NGO). I wanted to show that I was independent, good at planning and managing my activities, and that I was keen to make myself a better candidate. When I came back, I applied to Accenture again - and this time I was successful.
The skills I'm learning at Accenture
When I first started at Accenture, I found managing my time really challenging. One of the things I wrongly assumed was that if you get given a large number of tasks, you have to say yes to everything if you want to make a good impression. I'd get stressed, and not be able to complete tasks on time or end up rushing them. Through feedback sessions, I then realised you gain a lot more respect if you show you can prioritise the tasks that you're given and manage people's expectations of how much work you can do effectively in a given time.
Looking forward, I want to develop my analytical skills, which become more important as you progress, and I'm also trying to get better at public speaking. I've joined a network here called Accent on Women that provides targeted training for female members of the workforce. And I'm even thinking about moving to the Accenture office in Barcelona to improve my Spanish!
My advice to others starting out in a graduate job is don't be afraid to ask for help. When I've felt overwhelmed by something, I've asked more senior people how I should manage the situation. I've also asked for advice from people who I don't work with directly - for example, people who are good speakers or are managing a big workload. I've found they're happy to meet for a coffee because they remember being in my position. So, even though the idea might be intimidating at first, have the courage to speak to anyone you'd like to learn from!
The skills that got me the job
Before joining Accenture, I studied engineering at Oxford University and then spent two years on the Teach First programme, teaching science in London schools. In the summer in between my two years of teaching I did an internship at Accenture, and then joined the firm the following autumn.
Going from university to Teach First was a big leap. I'm an academic type, so I found it difficult at first to do a job where it doesn't matter how clever you are if you can't get information across to others. Learning the necessary communication and presentation skills was a challenge, but doing so has equipped me well for my role at Accenture. The other thing I learnt while teaching that's been useful at Accenture is how to manage your time when deadlines are coming thick and fast. At university, you might have two deadlines a week, whereas teachers often have five lessons a day, which are all deadlines - and the pace is similar at Accenture.
I think the new skills I acquired through my crash course in teaching differentiated me from other applicants with similar academic backgrounds when I applied to Accenture. Another advantage that I had was that at university I'd rowed in my college's First VIII and had also done some rowing coaching, leading and motivating my crew through some tough times. In my interview at Accenture, I was able to talk about the valuable teamwork, leadership and problem-solving skills I acquired by doing so.
The skills I'm learning at Accenture
Since joining Accenture I've continued to learn new skills and have found that the amount you absorb from watching other people, particularly managers, is incredible. I've become much better organised through being accountable to other people and seeing how they work. People at Accenture are also very good at actively helping others learn. I've noticed a strong discipleship culture - junior analysts often align themselves to managers and executives they admire. One of the senior people I work with keeps me in the loop with what he's doing, and I've acquired a lot of knowledge and skills from him.
In the future, I'd like to develop my ability to get to the core of an issue quickly. The art of the consultant is being able to spot what a client's real problem is, and find a solution. I've seen managers in meetings listen intently to what a client says and then interject with the perfect question that completely changes the thrust of the meeting and drills down to where the real challenge lies for the client. I also hope that in time I'll be able to keep on top of as many projects at once as some of my managers do.
At Accenture, I've got a lot of control over how I progress within the company. It's not like being at university where there's a single track to follow heading towards getting a degree - there's a lot of options here and I've got to navigate actively to learn and develop rather than, for instance, just making sure I go to the lectures on a timetable as I did at university.
I'd advise students who are thinking about where to take their own careers to find a kind of work they really like to do and then try to do it a lot. You'll then become excellent at the skills involved, and will eventually be able to lead others along a similar path.