Competition for graduate jobs is at an all time high. If you want to get a position on one of the major graduate schemes, you are likely to be in competition with 80 or more candidates for one place.
With such large numbers, companies have in place a framework that allows them to differentiate between the people that apply for their jobs. This has historically been competency based.
Competencies are characterised by skills such as teamwork, handling pressure and communication. Assessment of a candidates competencies revolved around these skill areas. Questions such as “Tell me about a time you demonstrated organisational skills” are commonplace in interviews for graduate roles. Students spend hours perfecting responses to this type of question, and are likely to have a stock answer for everything come interview time.
There is currently signs of change in this area. With dissatisfaction amongst companies with their graduates to progress, demonstrate management qualities and attrition rates unnervingly high, there has been a clamouring for something different. Recruiters want a sustainable pipeline of future talent, a pipeline that will furnish their boardrooms in future years and a pipeline that will add value to their organisation pretty much instantaneously.
This has led to a review of the process of recruitment, and what companies look for in their new stars.
The answer, for some, is a shift towards strength based recruiting. This subtle shift in attitude is enabling organisations to outline more rigorous recruiting processes. The idea is to identify the strengths required to flourish within particular roles at a company. They also look at the strengths a company requires from it’s leadership team. They then extrapolate these strengths and organise their early stage recruitment around the identification of these attributes in their candidates.
Seems simple, but the simple things are often the most powerful. By identifying these strengths early a company is able to install personnel capable of making a difference, personnel likely to stay in the company, and personnel who are future leadership material.
The data has also shown an interesting side effect – strength based recruitment has increased diversity and social mobility. For example, engineering roles in certain companies – who usually attract predominantly male applicants – have had a huge increase in the number of female applicants for these roles. With social mobility high on the radar of organisations both private and public, corporate and educational, the results of strengths based recruitment cannot be ignored.
Universities are under the same pressures as organisations to increase diversity and social mobility. They are also the producers of the future talent who will captain our economy. As a result, university processes should be reflective of the processes in industry. Would a shift to strengths based recruitment of students increase diversity and social mobility? Would it also instil in students the thought patterns required to become employable at a much earlier stage? This blog post aims to explore these ideas.
Currently, the standard of university entrance is deemed by purely academic means. The A Level represents the academic standard an aspirant student must meet in order to gain entrance to the ivory tower. We often speak of the entry requirements to university courses in terms of grades or UCAS points. This is run in a supply and demand fashion, with the more popular courses using higher grade requirements as their filter to remove the surplus of students.
Success at A Level is very much environmental. There are huge discrepancies between the A Level grades a privately educated individual receives compared to those of an inner city, comprehensive educated pupil. Certain schools have A Level results down to a fine art. Teachers act more akin to coaches in how to pass exams, relinquishing the passion for their subject and intellectual curiosity for a conveyor belt approach producing A grade students. One of the most frequently asked questions amongst older school pupils is “Is it on the test?”, which represents a crying shame at what should be the juncture at which they are exploring the world around them.
Needless to say, if a pupil is in an environment of A Level focus, with like minded individuals determined to get the best grades possible, then an individual is highly likely to receive these grades. Better schools have a culture geared towards passing exams successfully. They make reputations from their positions in league tables, and correctly champion the quality of their school by way of their exam results.
Meanwhile, a school with a greater diversity of young people has a more challenging environment within which to operate. The majority of their pupils have grown up in an environment devoid of academic aspiration, with university being something that “the other lot” do. Pupils in this environment do not see the correlation between exam grades and their future success, so are more likely to create a culture of managing behaviour as opposed to passing exams.
A pupil who is “exceptionally gifted” (in todays narrow, short-sighted version of the phrase) in this environment is going to struggle to match the grades of her contemporaries in an environment where everybody is gunning for the top grades.
What is a greater achievement – a straight A student in a school of straight a student, or a B grade student in a school of Ds and Es? I would say the latter.
University entrance is set up to favour people who experience a better educational environment. If the sole cut off for universities are the grades a pupil receives then social mobility will be impossible. The issue will be self-perpetuating and our HE institutions will be forever dominated by the individual with access to better education. I say better education, but invariably the teaching is actually just as good in comprehensive establishments. The issue is that teaching occurs less frequently as behaviour management tends to take over.
Take medicine for instance. Medicine, as a profession, has an extremely high percentage of “more privileged” practitioners. In fact, the medical profession is verify much “keep it in the family”, with sons and daughters of doctors more likely to become doctors themselves.
The cut off for entrance to the medical profession is likely to be AAA at A Level. Allowances are made for people achieving AAB at less prestigious schools. Is this really an allowance? If a pupil gets AAB at a school where her peers are getting BBC, is this comparable to a pupil getting AAA at a school where a pupil’s peers are getting AAB? Not likely.
The medical profession takes a lot more than academic ability to be successful within. A doctor requires resilience, the ability to handle pressure, to make quick and decisive decisions, to work as part of a team, compassion, empathy ad infinitum. These are skills that the interview is designed to tease out – but you need the 3 A grades first to get an interview.
Our education system is a reflection on the economy. It is a training ground for the employees of the future and should therefore represent the requirements of our labour force. As an organised process, our education system was born during the time of industry, factories and labour. Important sills included diligence, being able to do as one was told, and being able to follow processes. For more skilled individuals, science, engineering and maths were crucial, as these were the lynchpins upon which the economy was built. Machinery needed tending to, logistics needed organising, beans needed counting and insights into our environment needed elucidating.
This education system survives to this day, but the economy is far removed from the roots from whence it came. The UK is more service based, with creative industries sky rocketing, the internet facilitating shocking changes in a matter of months as opposed to decades, and connectivity facilitating business like never before.
The preoccupation with grades and exams does not represent this economy. We require people who can connect with one another, people who can facilitate change, people who can lead, think creatively, be experimental, entrepreneurial and operate across curricular boundaries. We need all rounders, social beings who cam empathise with others, and resilient individuals who can cope with change.
By relying solely on grades as an entrance point into university, are we cutting out the people who are best equipped to cope in this new economy? These individuals could reside in all walks of life (and probably do). How do we get these people to the top of the chain, as opposed to losing their skills along the way, cut out with the rest of individuals who don’t make the grade boundary?
The answer may lie in Universities following the employers lead and implementing strength based recruiting.
By judging a person’s strengths as opposed to just their grades alone, we are opening up the field to a whole range of talented individuals. Doubtless to say, being academic is a strength – there will be some degree subjects that have a heavy requirement for being academic. That is fine, but being academic is one strength in a sea of strengths. We should be aiming for better.
Arguments may come back such as “how can a subject such as science be anything other than reliant on grades?”. To be an incredibly effective scientist, you require creativity, analytical thinking, pattern recognition, spatial awareness, determination, attention to detail and a whole host of other unrelated skills. How can an exam judging factual recall determine whether a candidate can visualise where one molecule will attack another in a reaction, and thus predict how to make a certain product? It won’t.
Universities should be striving to follow the lead of employers and create application systems designed to tease out the strengths of pupils as opposed to their ability to do as they are told and follow a recipe for passing a test. We have unbridled access to technology nowadays to facilitate such a process. Application systems can be developed that test for strengths, scenario tests can be developed, video interviews can be conducted, assessment centres can be undertook – much in the same vain as employers do.
Students will be encouraged that they will be rewarded for their strengths as opposed to being maligned for their inability to pass a test. The process will be wholly representative of what they have to face in the future when applying for jobs, and pupils will get into the mindset of strengths.
How refreshing would it be to hear a pupil speak of their “strength in creativity” as opposed to a soulless, lifeless exam result.
“Well, my strengths are creativity, resilience and empathy”. I would much prefer to hear my daughter speak in those glowing terms about herself as opposed to “I only got an A, not an A*”.
A shift towards this mindset would create a generation of people with a healthy attitude towards education. Education would be a journey of self-discovery, a place where you can learn of your strengths. No longer will people feel like failures due to exams, but they will be empowered to seek out careers for which they are made.
And the UK would be a much happier place.