On Campus

As the workforce tenses, here’s how young job candidates are standing out

Isabelle Marmur | Contributing Photographer

Syracuse University students attending a career fair at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management on Tuesday. Employers are increasingly looking at job candidate's soft skills, opposed to technical skills.

In 1918, Harvard University researchers found that 85 percent of job success depended on people skills. Nearly a century later, the skills job candidates need to stand out still may not fit into a resume.

As the workforce tenses, companies are scraping traditional hiring methods that are based on academic qualifications and backgrounds. Instead managers are increasingly looking for candidates — college graduates included — with intangibles often harder to teach than technical skills. These traits, often called soft skills, include organization, adaptability, personality and punctuality. They can make the difference between a good hire and a bad one.

Syracuse University is currently in the midst of Career Week, with several career fairs being held throughout the week.

In a recent Wall Street Journal survey of nearly 900 executives, 92 percent said soft skills were equally important or more important than technical skills. Eighty-nine percent said they have a very or somewhat difficult time finding people with such traits.

“I care less about the resumes,” said Noah Garden, executive vice president of business, for Major League Baseball. “I like to understand the person across from me … You could be the smartest person in the world, but if you don’t fit (in), you probably won’t be successful.”

Soft skills have become a flash point in recent years. One reason for the gravitation, experts said, is the steep move from the classroom to the workforce. Susan Call, the associate director of employer relations at SU, said the reliance on course rubrics, which outline expectations and criteria for exams, could narrow students’ ability to think on their feet, a notable soft skill.

The more students are forced to problem solve on their own in class, Call added, the smoother their flow into the job field will be.

But recent college graduates may be at a disadvantage, said Christopher Perrello, director of career services at the School of Information Studies. While the iSchool runs career fairs, mock interviews and networking seminars on its own, there’s a stigma around that recent graduates have shorter attention spans and less professionalism than prior generations.

“Millennials get a bad rap,” Perrello said. “Going to the workforce — it’s a tough transition for us.”

Colleges at SU have revved up efforts to address lapses in soft skills and ease the transition.

Two years ago, the Martin J. Whitman School of Management launched the Goodman IMPRESS program, which challenges students outside of the classroom. The year-round team competition encourages students to participate in emotional intelligence workshops and LinkedIn seminars, interact with guest speakers and take certification exams in topics such as Microsoft Office.

“IMPRESS incentivizes students so that when you graduate, you have a full resume that shows what a rounded individual you are, rather than your GPA being 3.8,” said Will Geoghegan, an assistant professor of management.

The School of Engineering and Computer Science runs career workshops, job shadow opportunities and mock interviews like most other colleges on campus.

“Some students say, ‘Oh, I just need to do well in school,’” said Karen Davis, director of the school’s career services. “But employers are not interested in someone who just knows how to do something in school.”

Emma Thomson is a bit of an outlier. A senior chemical engineering major, she has already accepted a full-time position with PepsiCo. She’s held two summer internships, one of which was with her new employer.

As a freshman, she walked into career services to recreate her resume. She joined several clubs on campus and attended her first career fair as a sophomore. In interviews, Thomson was originally nervous. Making eye contact, carrying a conversation and being personable — qualities that she said helped her stick out — came to her only when she taught herself to relax.

The night before an interview in front of six managers, she gave herself a pep talk. She wrote down all of the accomplishments from her past: all she’s done in and out of the classroom.

“It made me realize, ‘You are so qualified for this,’” Thomson said. “It really helps you get over that nervousness, makes you feel more comfortable with yourself, and once you feel comfortable, you’re able to translate that with your actions.”

Technical, tangible skills with quantifiable measures is a good start for any candidate, said Alex McKelvie, chair of the department of entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises.

Without competency, a job prospect is usually out of luck altogether, no matter how well he or she dresses or behaves on a golf course. A key difference-maker among a field of equal job candidates, then, are the intangibles he or she possesses to complement the tangibles. Soft skills can give firms a greater reason — all other things equal — to accept one candidate over another.

“Develop soft skills and grades, and you’ve got a lethal combination,” Call said.

Annie Zheng, a senior supply chain management major at SU, speaks five languages and has attended career fairs on campus throughout her college years. At networking opportunities, she has strayed away from the standard 30-second elevator pitch, instead making casual conversation. She’s held two internships and already has several full-time job offers.

“I think the biggest thing is having a personality,” she said.

Perrello advises students to find mentors, attend etiquette dinners and practice looking others in the eye. Experts say a diverse friend group helps, too, as it exposes one to multiple perspectives. This can make a more rounded individual and attractive job candidate.

In interviews, Fredrik Ruben, chief executive and president of Tobii Dynavox, asks more nonbusiness-related questions than those about skills related to the job. He looks for passion, teamwork, personality and courteousness.

“The qualifications, I can read in a resume,” Ruben said. “But is this a person who can be a team player?”

“You botch it, you’re done,” McKelvie added, referencing soft skills. “You don’t get a second chance.”

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