What Makes You Employable? Knowledge, Transferable Skills And Personal Qualities Top The List

Aug 05, 2014 1 Min Read

Employability is a word often tossed around during discussions related to getting a job or hiring someone. Even so, not many grasp the whole spectrum of skills, attributes and factors that have an effect on each person’s employability. Interestingly, the term defines a broader spectrum of components than what we usually understand by it.

Ronald McQuaid and Colin Lindsay in a paper they published in the Urban Studies Journal called The Concept of Employability, explain that “many policy-makers have recently used the term as shorthand for ‘the individual’s employability skills and attributes’”.

In the past decade or two, McQuaid and Lindsay argue that the term’s usage has increased because of its potential role in tackling the social inclusion of disadvantaged groups, a reaction to the consequences of high levels of the long-term unemployed and inactivity, as well as a trend that encompasses new types of relationships between employers and employees.

A Knowledge-based economy

A common phrase we hear these days is that we are in a knowledge-driven economy. That indicates that demand for knowledge is higher than ever before, and knowledge is what makes people employable.

However, in a working paper for the Cardiff University School of Social Sciences called Employability in a Knowledge-Driven Economy, writers Brown, Hesketh and Williams point out that “the view that we are entering a knowledge-driven economy is hotly contested”.

They point out that in fact, the application of knowledge to the economy was instrumental during the industrial revolution.

Perhaps more importantly, they argue that, “While many companies state that the intellectual capital of core employees is a major source of innovation, value and competitive advantage, the majority of the workforce do not depend on high skills to perform their occupational roles”.

In fact, they cite a study conducted in the UK that indicated that 57% of jobs required less than three months training, while 29% required two years of training. The study also reported that over a fifth of employees took less than a month to learn their job well.

Here in Malaysia, according to the Department of Statistics, we have the following distribution of employed persons by educational attainment:

The majority of those in the labour force are employees (76.6%), followed by own account workers (15.6%), and employers at 3.6%.

Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of the workforce is in the service and sales category of professions. This category is the one more likely to place emphasis on knowledge and educational attainments as a key determinant of employability.

In a knowledge-based economy, since knowledge is the scarce and valuable attribute that all employers are looking for, knowledge defines employability.

How do people extend and deepen their knowledge? The most common way of doing so is through university qualifications, and formal training programmes for specialised functions and skills.

Yet, the unemployed in Malaysia (as of 2011) possessed the following educational experience:

This indicates that those without formally obtained knowledge can get a job easier compared with those with secondary and tertiary education, either because they are in demand, or because they are not as picky on their choice of profession.

Knowledge specialisation

Having a degree increases someone’s chances of being employed. However, as Brown, Hesketh and Williams note, “employability not only depends on fulfilling the requirements of a specific job, but also on how one stands relative to others within a hierarchy of job seekers. This pecking order is not always explicit and will depend on the job being applied for.”

They argue that having a university degree may cover the knowledge requirements for professional employment, but it may not improve the person’s employability in the “‘positional’ competition for jobs”.

Having a degree, therefore, only allows an applicant to stay in the race. If many have similar degrees, then knowledge cannot be the key determining factor for employability.

Similarly, engaging and delving into formal training for a specialised job/function, limits one’s employability for other jobs. For example, if you decide to choose an academic route focusing on arts and humanities, you are excluding yourself from jobs that require and involve scientific and technical knowledge.

What employers look for

“Despite the rhetoric surrounding the skills agenda, it is by no means clear that employers should want skills per se; rather, they want the graduates they recruit and employ to perform in desirable ways – competently and effectively,” writes Len Holmes in his paper Reconsidering Graduate Employability: The ‘graduate identity’ approach.

Holmes goes on to say that it is the behaviour, or performance that is required. When employers talk about the sort of person they want – “a self-starter”, “confident”, “enthusiastic”, they are listing attributes rather than skills, that indicate the employers’ expectations about how the potential recruits should perform.

Understanding performance

Holmes identifies a key problem to the skills definition of employability. It assumes that what a person does is objectively observable, and that descriptions of performance can also be articulated in a way that would allow objective evaluation of progress.

Holmes argues that human behaviour requires interpretation rather than objective observation. It is difficult to observe a person’s performance in objectionable terms; instead, it requires what Holmes calls “an act of interpretative construction of activity as performance-of-a kind”, depending on a pre-determined set of social practices accepted as appropriate.

Developing your employability

What then, are the employability characteristics that are necessary and are usually desired by employers? These differ from industry to industry, and from employer to employer. However, let’s have a look at a few examples of what constitutes employability.

A 1999 paper titled Employability Through Work came up with a division of employability into supply-side and demand-side elements – supply-side depending solely on what each individual has to offer to potential employers, and demand-side, depending on external factors determined either by employers or the economy’s markets and industries. Here is the division:

Looking at the factors in the table, it seems that little can be done by those looking for employment regarding the demand-side external factors. After all, these are set by employers themselves, the education and training curricula in place in the country, and the condition of the economy.

What potential employees can do at most is to do their research well before aiming to study for or join a particular profession/industry, and be prepared as much as possible to join an industry that is healthy.

Even though there are training courses and the education systems are set, institutions are not likely to change their systems overnight, there is a lot a jobseeker can do to equip himself or herself to become marketable.

With the Internet, everyone has access to information at their fingertips, and even though it is not always possible to have a diploma or degree, a lot can be learnt online and this knowledge can be presented to potential employers during interviews.

As for the supply-side employability components, the jobseeker has more power to mould his/her future.

Starting with transferable skills, essentials skills for every jobseeker include:

  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Time management
  • Problem-solving
  • Organisation
  • Learning
  • Listening
  • Creativity
  • Leadership

Now, everyone knows the list above, or some variation of it. The issue is how to develop these skills and perhaps more importantly, how to demonstrate to the potential employer that we possess these skills.

Development of these skills comes through a combination of reading, learning, and practice.

It is not enough to say “I possess problem-solving skills”. That is why all those competency-based questions come about during interviews. Useful, indicative examples of our utilisation of such skills should be at the tip of our tongue when meeting a potential employer.

Alongside these transferable skills, employers always look for certain personal qualities. An indicative list of such qualities includes:

  • Responsible
  • Self-confident
  • Self-controlled
  • Socially skilled
  • Honest
  • Person of integrity
  • Adaptable and flexible
  • Team spirit
  • Punctual and efficient
  • Self-directed
  • Good work attitude
  • Well-groomed
  • Cooperative
  • Self-motivated
  • Self-management

On the supply-side of employability components, “access to information and networks” is included. This component refers, partly, to the possession of certain functional skills that all employees need.

Irrespective of industry and profession, all potential employees should have three functional skills:

  • Language (in the case of Malaysia, good command of the English Language in addition to Bahasa Malaysia, written and spoken)
  • Numeracy
  • Computer skills

All employees in any given industry would have to utilise these three skills at various intensities. Additionally, certain industries may require specific skills. For example, if you are looking for an accounting job, you should have at least basic accounting skill. If you are a computer programmer, programming languages should be something you are familiar with.

A simple search online can provide you with endless lists of all these transferable and functional skills that employers are looking for. Employers will indicate the qualities they are looking for on their webpages and advertisements for a job vacancy.

The trick is to understand deeply what each of these attributes entail – and find a way to, first master them, and then demonstrate to the potential employer that you have these attributes. At the end of the day, we live in an increasingly competitive world, and with the number of degree holders rising, we need differentiators that will make us stand out.

Employability, is a mix of skills, attributes and characteristics of the individual, and changes according to job position applied for, company, industry, and country. It is therefore essential to find a way to adjust your talents to fit the role you are applying for.

Kasuma Satria,

Vice President Human Resources,
Technip in Asia-Pacific

What makes a candidate employable?

Good qualification is a given. Candidates need to have this as it’s like having a passport for the journey. To be employed, employers also look for that “extra something”. We seek someone who can do the job, fit in well with the organisation and the team, shares our values and wants to build a long-term successful career with us, not just have a job.

We want that person to want to grow with us. So when we interview candidates, we look for possible career moves for them. We also look at how active candidates are during their school/undergraduate days. This enables us to picture his/her leadership and team spirit and how well they can work in our company alongside the multitude of different nationalities and experienced engineers.

What differentiates one candidate from the others?

Almost everyone we meet or interview has good qualifications. This is because we only shortlist the good ones. Eventually, we will only select those with that “extra something”: candidates with great communication skills, people who are confident and know what they want, have fire in their belly, who want to get things done right and are action-oriented.

Finding these people is challenging, but when we do, it gives us great satisfaction. To ensure this, we train our hiring managers and we often carry out our interviews in pairs, with the head of department evaluating the candidate’s technical skills while the HR expert evaluates the rest.

Do you find that Malaysian candidate excel and/or are deficient in certain aspects compared with foreign candidates?

In terms of qualifications and technical know-how, I am happy to say that Malaysian candidates are of world-class standard, at par with foreign candidates. However, what we often find lacking in our local candidates is confidence; they could improve on their communication skills and confidence.

Lately, we find that the quality of candidates’ English has improved, but the “packaging” still needs to be developed. Often, local candidates could be better prepared for the interview. They only present themselves and do not do enough research regarding the job they applied for, the company they may be working with and the industry they will be involved in. On many occasions, when asked general knowledge questions, they fumble.

Do you feel that those studying abroad have certain advantages over those that have gone through local education?

It depends on which universities they graduated from and the experiences they gained from studying abroad for a few years in a good university.

Students who return home with excellent communication and interaction skills, speak and write good English and possess a good level of maturity and confidence certainly have an advantage in the job market. However, in the end, it is very much an individual thing.

What are the three skills you would recommend all jobseekers to work on continuously?

We are our own brand. People will buy/hire us depending on whether they think we have it or otherwise. Jobseekers need to work on their brand to make sure that it is packaged right and advertised/communicated well. Don’t oversell or undersell but make sure that you are heard. Remember, the aftersell is as important; you need to live up to the expectations, deliver more than what you promised, work hard and smart, and have great fun along the way.

Aside from academic qualifications and relevant experience, a positive attitude and other attributes such as having strong initiative, creativity and resourcefulness are very important.

We will also consider if a candidate’s personal values are aligned with our corporate core values.

Nicole Choe,

Assistant Vice President – Group Human Resources and Administration,
See Hoy Chan Sdn Bhd

What makes a candidate employable?

Aside from academic qualifications and relevant experience, a positive attitude and other attributes such as having strong initiative, creativity and resourcefulness are very important. We will also consider if a candidate’s personal values are aligned with our corporate core values.

What differentiates one candidate from the rest?

A person who shows initiative, creativity in resolving work problems/challenges and who has a continuous learning mindset.

Do you find that Malaysian candidates excel and/or are deficient in certain aspects compared with foreign candidates?

The advantage that Malaysian candidates have is that they generally speak more than one language. Therefore, Malaysians may have that edge to work in different countries where we excel in the language(s) we are fluent in.

However, what I find deficient in most Malaysian candidates is that they are less vocal in voicing out their opinions as they may not want to offend others.

Do you feel that those studying abroad have certain advantages over those that have gone through local education?

From my observation, those who have studied abroad seem to be more vocal, articulate and confident in themselves.

What are the three skills you would recommend all jobseekers to work on continuously?

  • Communication, especially in the English language (both spoken and written)
  • Problem solving
  • Strategic planning and leadership

Ang Hui Ming,

Finance and HR Lead,

What makes a candidate employable?

The candidate needs to be a right fit for the role and organisation. It’s a combination of the candidate’s personality, goals and aspirations, skillsets, qualifications, experience and attitude.

Do you find that Malaysian candidates excel and/or are deficient in certain aspects compared with foreign candidates?

It’s difficult to answer this question. With the advancement in technology and the Internet, we no longer live in a world defined by national boundaries. It’s more a concept of a Global Village and candidates coming from any country belong to this “Global Village” talentpool. Many Malaysians also do well overseas.

The truth is most Malaysians are on equal or better footing compared with foreign candidates because Malaysians have multilingual capability and cross-cultural adaptability.

For the experienced professionals who have not been exposed to working in a regional or foreign environment, there is probably a slight disadvantage in terms of exposure and “corporate presence”.

In terms of skills, knowledge, technology, Internet and mobile connectivity, it’s hard to say, but it’s most likely that Malaysians can be as advanced or in some cases, more advanced compared with their global counterparts.

Do you feel that those studying abroad have advantages over those that have gone through local education?

When comparing fresh graduates, most of the time, those who studied abroad have a broader mind-set due to education systems overseas.

Their confidence and EQ are also, most of the time, stronger.

Local graduates, on the other hand, have better attitude, perseverance and no qualms to roll up their sleeves. They are hungry to learn and excel.

However, given equal opportunity, after a few years in the workplace both “high potential” local or foreign graduates usually become equally good, as long as they work on their weak areas.

Local graduates who actively get involved in many extracurricular activities, volunteer with global organisations or who have taken the initiative to get work experience during all their semester breaks, can be even better compared with overseas graduates.

What are the three skills you would recommend all jobseekers to work on continuously?

  1. Functional – build an expertise in one or two functional areas
  2. Leadership – personal leadership and leading others
  3. Business acumen

Originally posted online on 24 August, 2013.

Eva is the Digital Learning Design & Development Leader at Leaderonomics. She believes that everyone can be anything they wish, if they are willing to put in the effort and are curious to learn along the way. You can speak to Eva at editor@leaderonomics.com. To read more articles like this, click here! 

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Eva was formerly the Research & Development leader at Leaderonomics. Prior to that, she was an editor at Leaderonomics.com. Today, she is the Product leader of Happily, an engagement app at Leaderonomics Digital. She believes that everyone can be the leader they would like to be, if they are willing to put in the effort and are curious to learn along the way, as well as with some help from the people around them.

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