Why soft skills are just as important as academic ability in science graduates
How can industry and universities work together to better prepare science graduates for employment?

Anne Sabine, Managing Director at scientific and technical recruitment agency Evolve Scientific Recruitment – winner of the 2015 SEEK Annual Recruitment Award (SARA) for Recruitment Leader of the Year and Small Recruitment Agency of the Year – shares her insights on the value of graduates with soft skills and why work-integrated learning is key to improving employment prospects.

While there are increasing opportunities in science employment, anecdotally, employers are concerned some graduates from Australian universities lack essential skills, particularly soft skills, and aren’t adequately prepared to enter the workplace once they have completed their studies.

With the growing need for STEM graduates, it is essential industry and universities work together to maximise the chance of graduates gaining employment by ensuring they have the right mix of skills to meet industry needs.

Skills that match industry needs

Key findings from Evolve Scientific’s recent study, ‘Science industry perceptions on preparedness of graduates’ (which surveyed 142 participants responsible for hiring scientists at their workplace), show recruiters place high importance on soft skills and team-fit when hiring, and they are increasingly finding these skills lacking in graduates.

Though academic ability is, of course, important, when it comes to recruiting science graduates, high level academic achievement was only considered essential by 6% of respondents, while the ability to work collaboratively was rated most important by 60% of respondents.

Skills recruiters considered essential:

  • Ability to work in a collaborative team (60%).
  • Adaptability (45%).
  • Interpersonal relationship building (41%).

Skills recruiters think graduates lack:

  • Critical thinking (23%).
  • Independence (20%).
  • Adaptability (18%).

Adaptability was the second most desirable skill but was third on the list of soft skills employers feel graduates lack competence in. Critical thinking skills and working independently were considered essential by about a third of respondents and these skills ranked at the top of the list that graduates lack.

On the balance of soft and academic skills in graduates, one respondent said, “Soft skills are just as important as academic ability. In a laboratory, you are working as part of a team and employees need to be able to work collaboratively. If they are not able to relate, adapt and deal with different personalities then they will end up getting frustrated and leaving.

“How individuals learn to interact with others isn’t the sole responsibility of universities, these are skills that begin developing from a young age but there are some things universities can do to help prepare graduates for work.

“In the workplace, employees will be challenged, they’ll need to think for themselves and to think outside the box, so students need to have experienced an environment that fosters that thinking. Universities need to challenge students, not just teach theory.”

With regard to what key skills employers look for, another respondent explained, “Most technical skills can be learnt on the job. It is the willingness to have a go, learn from mistakes, continuously improve, problem solve and adapt that is more valuable. An eye for detail is important, especially for data entry. Creativity is nice to have as it helps problem solve.”

Teaching workplace behaviour and soft skills may be outside the remit of the university syllabus but communicating to students the importance of developing these skills would significantly improve their preparedness for employment.

One way for the future workforce to acquire these skills is through internships or work-integrated learning that’s supported by universities and industry.

Work-integrated learning

The majority of organisations we surveyed offer internship or work-integrated learning placements for undergraduate science students. While companies are keen to offer placements, challenges include:

  • Lack of supervisory resources.
  • Administrative burden.
  • Insurance issues.
  • IP and confidentiality issues.
  • Current work-integrated learning offerings do not work for them.
  • No clear mechanism to engage.

Most survey respondents agreed on the value of internships to give graduates a sense of the workplace and skill development, but also saw benefits for their organisation like improving recruitment opportunities and providing mentoring opportunities for staff.

One respondent explained, “[Undergraduate placements] help us deliver and enhance what we are able to do on a small budget and limited staff resources. It also provides an excellent screening for new staff.”

Many organisations believe internship programs could be improved if they could work with universities to offer:

  • Less research-focused work-integrated learning programs and more practical experience in laboratories.
  • More flexibility in the way that work-integrated learning programs are delivered – vary the length and ability to choose the time of year.
  • More collaboration with individual organisations to address specific needs.

Of their experience with engaging with universities, one respondent said, “Universities are surprisingly poorly set up to connect graduates to jobs. Far too often, it depends on my relationship with individual academics, rather than to the school.”

“The interaction and collaboration between industry and universities to help graduates get into the workplace just isn’t there. Both sides need to take some responsibility for that, mechanisms need to be put in place to allow straight forward interaction and communication, which will help graduates,” another respondent explained.

“As an employer, one big challenge we have is managing graduate expectations of the workplace, particularly graduates who think they will walk into a lab manager role. I think there needs to be some work done at university to help graduates better understand the reality of the industry they are going into. There is also responsibility here on students, they should educate themselves on the industry, pay rates, so they can be realistic about their career aspirations.”

Universities should look to support and facilitate student placements with organisations, even if these cannot be used for course credit. Such placements serve to forge closer bonds between universities, students and industry and will improve graduate employment prospects.