A standout issue at Gradcore’s 6th Annual Graduate Employment Conference in Sheffield last week was a common view from employers and recruiters that too many graduates were performing poorly at job interviews.  One of their  crimes?  Formulaic, robotic and predictable responses to standard interview questions.

Why are so many graduates leaving their personality at home?

In the rush to support the so-called lost generation, have those advising, guiding and supporting graduates inadvertently bred too much uniformity and consistency?  Or is it a fear factor caused by huge competition and a lack of jobs?  That if you go outside what is perceived to be the ‘right’ answer, you immediately lessen your job chances?

It reminded me of the film, The Stepford Wives, involving a conspiracy in a stereotypical middle class suburban town in America (like the one in ET). All the wives were being bumped off by their husbands acting collectively and replaced with robots that were exact replicas, programmed to obey and do whatever their husbands wanted.  The result is a misogynistic paradise in which the new wives have perfect smiles and an eerily similar (lack of) personality.  Until the wiring goes wrong and revenge hath no fury like a robot scorned!

As several employers indicated, what will separate graduates from other job seekers are not what degree they did, nor their class or grade achieved – these are taken for granted – it’s their personal qualities and the value they bring to the business.

Yet, the Graduate Apprentice of the Year at the conference reflected how from age 16 to 21 she spent little time or did not receive much specific support in understanding herself to gain clarity about those personal qualities and to inform her choices of school and university subjects, jobs and careers.

Celebrated researcher and author Daniel Goleman has been banging the drum recently for social and emotional intelligence skills to be taught at school.  With reference to careers, it’s developing self-awareness of what a young person enjoys, prefers, gets excited about, excels in and, with support, being able to make the connection with the world of work.

Having regular snapshots of oneself can provide anchors during a confusing time for many young people transitioning from youth to adult. They build confidence and encourage positivity, possibility, flexibility, and open-mindedness.

This idea fits well with the growing trend for strengths-based recruitment – what people can do, and their potential capability – rather than the competency-based approach which is more about meeting a defined standard.  For me, the latter can encourage a ‘why shouldn’t I fail or reject you?’ mentality, i.e. it’s about an absence of mistakes or an emphasis on probing for weaknesses to filter you out.

Many careers departments in UK universities have focused on the transactional, tactical elements of preparing young people for the workplace – CVs, interviews, application forms, assessment centres etc.  These are all important, but not enough is being done yet on considering the whole person to inform these activities.

I believe we need a more transformational approach that builds reflective capability in students to think strategically about their approach to finding a job or career that speaks to their emerging talents and aspirations.

How can you really enter the job market and hope to be successful (defined in your own terms) without some clarity and confidence about who you are, what you have going for you, what your existing limitations are, what your aspirations are, what interests or excites you and what constantly changing job types and opportunities exist for you to explore?  And that applies to all of us at any life stage and why employability is not just about graduates.

Having a handle on the above makes it a whole lot easier to tailor a CV, identify stories to tell face-to-face and to actively be yourself in front of an employer at interview.  It’s far easier and more natural if you play to your personality and genuine beliefs. You will be and will be seen as, genuinely interested and interesting.

The system of governance in higher education drives a transactional approach.  Despite the passionate commitment of many people in the education system, boxes inevitably do get ticked. UK universities get measured by Government on the destination rates of graduates into graduate-level jobs six months after graduation, a blunt measure driven by the questionable view that opportunities at graduate level are evenly spread across all sectors.  Different students will have different expectations post-graduation.  In reality, many students are ending up in non-graduate jobs, unemployed or economically inactive.

The system is flawed and incoherent.  Students are arriving at university not understanding what being a graduate really means; the school system, with its careers offering decimated, is disconnected from higher education; students are being criticised for having a sense of entitlement and not taking personal responsibility for their own learning and development; universities are wrestling with their core purpose and trying to pick up the pieces in an era of austerity; and employers are frustrated as they shadow dance with higher education.

Tom Peters once said that you can’t have a system without passion, nor passion without a system.  A system without passion produces robots and passion without a joined-up, aligned system produces a lot of noise and not a great deal of listening.