Being versatile is vital for a university graduate’s career success. Versatility’s importance is amplified in locations with emerging sectors. After interviewing alumni, current students and hiring managers, we were able to identify project management and customer interaction as critical skills for students to develop to increase their versatility.
The skills essential in finding reliable employment depend on the local life cycle stage of the sector. A narrow, specialized focus on a set of techniques could provide stable employment in regions with mature companies that can staff many roles within the organization. Unestablished companies, such as start-ups and scale-ups, cannot support a narrow job scope and favour versatile employees whose job function spans over several different roles, allowing employees to evolve along with the company. These adaptable employees are sought after in locations aiming for economic diversification through emerging sectors. Failure to develop versatility in the workforce will pressure new graduates to relocate to areas with more established sectors where it is easier to succeed, resulting in a brain drain. This is of particular importance in Canada, where there are approximately 2.4 times fewer large companies employing over 500 employees per capita compared to the United States.
Besides allowing employees to succeed with an expanded job scope, versatility protects against job loss due to changing organizational priorities. For example, businesses that lack versatile employees during a shift from prioritizing research and development to sales and marketing face a discrepancy between skills in hand and skills required to grow the organization. The difference leads to job loss, expensive training efforts or failure to maximize company growth.
When graduates have developed customer interaction skills, they can add value at different phases of a company’s growth cycle, which improves their career stability. It is uncommon for a company to produce and sell a product and service for years without change based on customer feedback. By retaining such versatile talent with customer interaction skills, young companies can nimbly adopt iterative design, jumping quickly between feedback and re-prototyping.
Giving students opportunities to develop project management skills further increases their versatility in the workforce. When organizational priorities change, these skills enable them to play an active role in transitioning a company from the current state to the desired state.
Employers noted during interviews that a lack of project management skills in new graduates of thesis programs is of concern. Although students practise project management during their dissertation, they are unaware of it and unable to communicate their expertise to employers. Along with creating opportunities for students to learn these skills and vocabulary, educators need to provide opportunities for students to interact with the non-academic community, breaking down silos of differing terminology between jobseekers and job providers. These interactions also help students build tacit skills and flex their customer interaction muscles through stakeholder engagement.
When preparing graduates to transition from academia to industry, skill development needs to be catered to the needs of the local sector to enable success. When start-ups and scale-ups are creating a high proportion of jobs in the sector, we have found that the best way to increase graduates’ career stability is to provide them with versatile skills, specifically in project management and customer interaction.
It shouldn’t just be one entity providing the training. Instead, it must be a collaborative effort between educational providers, students, alumni and employers. Educational providers need to give students opportunities to develop awareness of the versatility skills they are developing in school. Students must seek out opportunities to interact with industry by sharing their research and conducting informational interviews. Alumni should mentor students and advise universities about the skill expectations within their sector location. Finally, employers need to invest more in employee’s professional development. COVID-19 has rapidly accelerated the rate of organizational change. There needs to be a collaborative effort to help position employees to thrive in a changing environment.
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