Preparing your students for the job hunt


Employers today are very clear on the importance of skills in young people entering the jobs market. Jackie Sherman looks at how school-leavers may demonstrate their employability skills.

Whatever the unemployment situation may be, for every job advertised there is one applicant who ends up being offered the post. It is the role of schools to make sure that their students are the best candidates. There are a number of actions, both short and long-term, that can be taken to achieve this aim, and they rely on having answers to the following questions:

  • What are employers looking for?

  • What are the skills and personal qualities needed?

  • How can these be developed? 

  • What will convince employers that candidates have everything they require?

What employers look for

From large multinationals to small factories or shops, employers all want the same thing: staff who can do the work (or can be trained to do it), who are motivated and who fit in. Take the example of a small newsagents advertising for an assistant. If they don’t expect previous experience and are happy to train a school-leaver, their requirements might include:

  • Work-specific skills: such as using a till, handling periodicals, stock-taking, driving, security awareness, display of goods, ability to organise deliveries.

  • Transferable skills and personal qualities: numeracy, IT, physical fitness, efficiency, communication and interpersonal skills, reliability, punctuality, a neat appearance

  • Motivation: keen to arrive early, work in a small shop selling newspapers, be pleasant to customers, learn on-the-job, take on extra tasks/responsibilities.

  • Fit in and get on: with customers and staff and to have the same values, such as honesty and a positive work ethic.

Work-specific skills

This is the one area where most job applicants are weak. Very few candidates will have had the chance to carry out exactly the same work before they make job applications, although it is only when experience is demanded that it becomes a problem. Otherwise, it is a question of showing they have the potential to do the work and will be able to benefit from any training.


This comes from self-awareness and job analysis. To know what would be required in a job like this, they would first need to look at the job details very carefully and perhaps do some background research. One of the best ways to find out what is really involved in a job is to talk to people who do the work. Another is to read about the employment sector or type of work and to visit similar organisations. 

For the newsagent job, for example, they need to ask themselves questions such as: 

  • Would I be prepared to get up early every day?

  • Do I like the idea of selling ?

  • Am I interested in magazines and newspapers?

  • Would I enjoy talking to customers?

  • Do I feel positive about a job in a small newsagent?

Having developed self-awareness, they should know the answers. Then it comes down to projecting this motivation in their applications, including the efforts they have made to find out about the work.

Fitting in

With job knowledge and information from websites or brochures setting out employers’ philosophy and aims, it is possible to understand the type of people and attitudes that are going to be sought. So, for a newsagent, applicants need to show they can get on with the elderly, young mums, children etc, and that they are honest and reliable and have a strong work ethic.

This leaves the most important area for job-seekers – demonstrating that they have the necessary transferable skills and personal qualities.

Employers’ wish list

Whether applicants are school-leavers, graduates or mature, experienced workers, more and more job advertisements nowadays mention the same things. Here are 20 of the most common requirements:

  • Communication skills.

  • Interpersonal skills (relate well to others).

  • Team-work skills (work well with others).

  • Analytical skills.

  • Organisational skills.

  • Numeracy.

  • Computer literacy/IT skills.

  • Problem-solving skills.

  • A positive attitude.

  • Show initiative.

  • Strong work ethic.

  • Flexibility/adaptability.

  • Self-confidence.

  • Friendly/outgoing personality.

  • Well-mannered/polite.

  • Creativity.

  • Sense of humour.

  • Willingness to learn.

  • Honesty and integrity.

  • Reliability.

The questions for schools are:

  • Have students been made aware of these skills?

  • Can they identify what skills they personally can offer?

  • If there are gaps, how can these be encouraged or taught?

  • How can students convince employers that they have these skills?

Identifying transferable skills

By analysing each skill or trait in turn, students will be able to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. First they need to understand what the skill means in employment terms, and then find evidence that they have developed or used it. Here are a few school-based examples:

  • Communication: English Language GCSE, having a role in a school play, or attending a telephone skills course.

  • Team-work: playing in the school orchestra, member of the school netball team, or a group project in biology including preparing a joint report.

  • Organisation: helping organise an exhibition as a member of the photography club, organising a personalised revision scheme including colour-coded files, or planning a pen pal scheme with the French teacher.

It is very likely that, carrying out this activity with any class will show how hard it is to find examples for some of these skills. And although some students may end up with reasonably full charts, others will have very little to put down at all. Yet it is quite possible to build all of them into school activities.

Finding the evidence

Evidence or opportunities to develop transferable skills can come from a variety of sources. These will include:

  • Qualifications and courses.

  • Self-learning.

  • Using them during academic, work, leisure or family pursuits.

  • Demonstrating them during an interview or test.

  • From a reference.

In a perfect world, students will be involved in a wide range of work, family and leisure activities where they can display all the required skills. But in reality, inside a school may be the only place that they can develop them fully. 

So schools need to bring the skills to students’ attention, use every means to encourage their use and development, and ensure that students are able to provide evidence of their achievements. 

Relevant in-class activities might include:

  • Group work that develops team-work and interpersonal skills. These are especially important for students who do not naturally join clubs or teams.

  • Different forms of communication through group discussions and negotiations, role-play, presentations and various styles of reporting.

  • Asking students to organise more of their activities or work schedules.

  • Quantifying any problem-solving taking place so that students can understand the process by which they reached their chosen solutions.

Once students have developed confidence and real skills in all these areas, it should be far easier for them to complete application forms asking for the evidence. 

When it comes to their skills, instead of ignoring the question or using empty statements like “I am very good at problem-solving”, students should be able to provide detailed and convincing examples. And this will give them a far better chance of succeeding in the jobs market.

  • Jackie Sherman is a careers advisor, author and tutor with a range of experience in the world of careers and work preparation, including four years at the CBI and 12 years as a university careers advisor.


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