It’s not what you know…

I recently ran an employability session at a secondary school. One of the themes of the day was about what students can do to make themselves more attractive to prospective employers.

Many of the students saw themselves as a trainee Superman or Superwoman – eventually capable of everything, knowing everything. They saw their time now at school and their future time at college or university as being a time for learning everything they needed – forever. And that somehow if they didn’t learn it now, they’d never do so.



Whenever I meet employers and ask them to identify the most important characteristics they’re looking for, three are consistently mentioned:

  • Bright
  • Enthusiastic
  • Motivated

This came as a big surprise to many of the students, who thought they would be expected to know everything on Day 1. In fact, almost the opposite is true. Employers aren’t generally interested in what you know. They’re more interested in what you can learn; in how much you can absorb; in what you can cope with. Bright, enthusiastic and motivated students are most likely to be able to learn new skills, develop themselves and become better employees.

So whilst the certificates are important, employers are likely to favour students in whom they see evidence of those three key characteristics. Students who understand this, and who focus on demonstrating this are at a significant advantage over those who don’t.

Employers routinely talk of students, apprentices or trainees who fail to show any signs of interest in what they’re doing or learning; who aren’t motivated to improve themselves; who don’t even appear very bright. Despite having (perhaps) all the necessary certificates or exam passes, they are failing themselves.

Stand out! Give these employers what they’re looking for. They’re not expecting Superman or Superwoman. A bright, enthusiastic and motivated sponge is what they want. And that must be seen as pretty good news, because it isn’t difficult to do. At least not as difficult as swotting for years to pass exams and get some impressive certificates. A previous post gives examples of specific things students can do to help them stand out.


Feel free to comment on this post – I’d be interested to hear your views.
Inixiti – Improving graduate employability.


5 thoughts on “It’s not what you know…

  1. It’s not surpising really that students think in that way because education kind of leads them that way doesn’t it – when I watch my kids revising for exams, it’s mostly about testing themselves to see how much information they can remember, so why wouldn’t they assume that this is preparation for the workplace? There’s still a lot of learning by rote around, which sends the message that knowing information and being able to churn it back out is highly valued.

    Out of interest, I’m going to ask my kids later what they think employers look for.

    Your sponge picture there is slightly disturbing my trypophobia though!

    • You’re absolutely right – this is exactly what the education process teaches them to do. So it’s not their fault and it’s entirely natural that it’s happening. But somehow there is a disconnect, because employers aren’t getting what they want. Schools just aren’t supplying what is needed. And the teachers aren’t at fault either, as they’re following the National Curriculum.

      Of course it isn’t an easy one to crack, because students certainly need to be learning things and passing exams too. But we need to be telling students that there’s more to employment than exams. Quite who should be telling them is far from clear. The really encouraging thing about all of this is that the ones who really understand it, who”get” it, and who do something about it – they’re the ones who shine, stand out from the others and get off to a flying start.

      Thanks for commenting, Vanessa, and do let me know what your kids say 🙂

    • And sorry about your trypophobia. I’d never heard of this until you mentioned it, so checked it out on Google. Yikes – those pictures are really scary, and I see what you mean. The funny thing is that I wasn’t entirely happy with the picture when I found it. I’ll see if I can get a better, perhaps more natural, picture. In the meantime, stop looking at it, and I’ll ping you when it’s safe to return…

      • Usually sponges don’t bother me, but that one is particularly gruesome looking! It’s not like a really serious phobia, it’s doesn’t impinge on my day to day life or anything 🙂

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