Employability: What Are Employers Looking For?

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By Melanie Allen

What is employability?

There’s a lot of talk about employability in the recruitment community as competition for jobs in all sectors intensifies. But what does it mean?

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES)[1] gives the simplest and most accessible definition of employability in terms of skills: 'the skills almost everyone needs to do almost any job'. This is a great definition as far as it goes, although employability is not just about skills, it’s also about capabilities or competencies: aptitude, attitude and behaviour.

Employability is not the same as subject knowledge, qualifications or specialist experience. A brilliant first degree, a PhD and a list of published papers on your CV may not be enough to secure a position. You have to be aware of what employers are looking for in any employee. And you have to demonstrate that you are employable as a person, a team member and as a contributing member of the employer organisation.

Often, the problem is not that jobseekers in all sectors don’t have employability skills and capabilities, but with so much emphasis on qualifications, particularly in the academic world, they are taken for granted or dismissed.


Ruth had applied for a post-doctorate industrial research position, ideal for her, that she thought she was guaranteed to get. Her CV perfectly matched the job description and academic requirements, so she had not been surprised to be called for interview. She saw it as a formality.

She was devastated that she did not get through to second interview stage. When she phoned the company’s HR department to get feedback, she was told that although the interviewing panel had been impressed with her subject knowledge, they had commented that she seemed non-committal, lacking in enthusiasm and that they were ‘concerned that she would not engage’ with her colleagues or the company. 

Shocked, Ruth talked it through with a good friend. It hadn’t occurred to her that the interview was about anything but her academic qualifications. She began to understand why the interviewers had thought her lacking in enthusiasm. She had been focusing on answering the questions carefully, so she may have come across as withdrawn or even diffident and aloof. She hadn’t asked any questions about the company, the role or the team she would be working with.

Why is employability important?

In a recent survey on employability conducted by the Institute of Directors[2] (IoD), directors who employed recent graduates were asked to rate the importance of employability skills against specific technical or academic knowledge and skills associated with their degree:

  • 36% said that employability skills are much more important
  • 29% said that they were a little more important
  • 23% said that they were the same level of importance.

What are employability skills and capabilities?

So, what exactly are employers looking for? Look up employability on the internet and you will find lists and inventories of requirements, all broadly similar. Collated from a number of sources[3] and summarised, they are:

Personal attributes

  • A positive attitude: a ‘can do’ approach, good work ethic and willingness to learn
  • Good personal presentation
  • Honesty and integrity
  • Reliability
  • Timekeeping and personal organisation
  • Team working, collaboration and co-operation
  • Flexibility
  • Commercial awareness and customer focus


  • Communication – oral and written
  • Numeracy
  • Computer literacy/IT skills.

Demonstrating employability skills and qualities: hints and tips

Most people have these transferable skills and qualities, so the need is to identify them and demonstrate them. There are plenty of opportunities to present yourself well in the application and interview process.

Stage 1. Application and CV

 This is your first chance to show your written communication and presentation skills.

  • Make sure that your application looks good – clear, concise and with no spelling mistakes. Always get it in before the closing date in a format to suit the employer. Read the articles about application and CVs on jobs.ac.uk for more information.
  • If there is a name on the job advertisement or a number to ring and find out more about the position, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Do some research about the company beforehand, study the job description and ask questions – even if it’s just about parking or to find out how many people are on the interview panel.  This shows initiative and enthusiasm. It also shows that you are resourceful and proactive, and that you have telephone communication skills.
  • Always send a covering letter or email to support the application. This is where you introduce yourself, highlighting the personal qualities that match the job description and referring to the job-specific qualifications on your CV.  A good covering letter encourages recruiters to read more – demonstrating higher-level communication skills.
  • The personal statement at the beginning of your CV is also about employability. This needs to reflect the personal strengths and transferable skills appropriate to the position you are applying for – attention to detail or strategic thinking, initiative, flexibility, co-operation, willingness to learn.
  • Making sure that your CV is tailored to the position you are applying for shows that you have an understanding of what the employer is looking for, demonstrating commercial awareness and customer focus. Carefully match your successes and achievements to the job description: if you will be working in a team, highlight co-operative and collaborative activities; if you will be working on your own, focus on time management and personal organisation and your ability to complete a project. Remember to include your IT or computer skills.

Stage 2: The interview

Yes, an interview helps the interviewers to find out more about your specific job-related knowledge and skills. The articles on interview skills on jobs.ac.uk will give you information on preparation, answering questions and giving examples.

However, the interview is not just about what you say. Just as importantly, it’s about the impression you make and the way you conduct yourself. It gives the interviewers an idea of you as a person.

  •  Always be punctual (timekeeping and personal organisation)
  • Present yourself appropriately and look your best.  If you’re not sure about the dress code, always look smart - wear a suit or at least, a smart jacket. (Personal presentation, personal organisation)
  • Be positive, look alert and enthusiastic – and smile, even if you’re nervous!
  • Show interest in the organisation, the University or the work environment and ask questions. For example, ask about the organisational structure, who you report to, how decisions are made, how projects are run. Or – relevant at the time of writing this article - the effect of the recession on the organisation. (commercial awareness)
  •  If you lack experience in a particular area, express interest in developing your skills and knowledge. Ask about further training and development – demonstrating your willingness to learn.
  • Talk about your achievements outside work. Give examples from life, leisure activities, extra-curricular activities or projects, if appropriate. (Showing reliability, honesty and integrity, taking responsibility, flexibility, team working.)

How can you develop employability?

Employability is not rocket science, it’s common sense. Most of us are able to evidence and demonstrate it. However, as you go through a gruelling job application process, you can easily forget that recruiters are looking to employ a person and not a list of high-level skills and competencies. Keep that in mind and be aware of your qualities, value them and look out for opportunities for demonstrating them.

The best way to develop employability skills and qualities, of course, is to be employed – any kind of employment will do. The trick is to see that experience in terms of your transferable skills and overall capability. No employment is ever a waste of time.

Look for opportunities outside work. Volunteering is always a good idea, if you have the time. You can also take on more responsibility in leisure, sport and non-work activities: organising an event, taking minutes at a meeting - or just contributing and making an effort.  

And before you start, stand back, put yourself in an employer’s shoes and ask yourself ‘would I employ me?’


[1]  UKCES: www.ukces.org.uk)

[2] IoD: www.iod.com  Skills briefing, December 2007

[3] The Confedaration of British Industry (CBI):  www.cbi.com , The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD): www.cipd.co.uk , the Institute of Directors (IoD): www.iod.com, The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES): www.ukces.org.uk Kent University/careers: www.kent.ac.uk/careers

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