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A young professional shakes the hand of a hiring manager.

HR professionals who hire college graduates say that, in general, early career professionals are ready for work at their company.

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Despite graduates’ skepticism on their preparation for life after college, recent survey data finds HR professionals are mostly confident in early career professionals’ ability to succeed in their organization.

The survey, conducted by SHRM and Handshake, found that 67 percent of recent graduates believe they have the skills they need to succeed in the workforce from the start. A slightly greater percentage of those in HR, 70 percent, believe emerging professionals are prepared to succeed in their first year.

To best prepare current students to achieve their career goals and feel confident in their abilities in the workforce, higher education practitioners can learn from what HR professionals believe is important for a young worker.

Methodology: The report defines emerging professionals as early career individuals with less than three years in their chosen field, including soon-to-be college graduates and recent graduates.

The survey included responses from over 1,100 HR professionals at organizations that hire emerging professionals, surveyed through SHRM’s membership, as well as 2,122 current college students and recent graduates. The survey was conducted during summer 2023.

Employers say: The most important skill a graduate can hold is adaptability and a willingness to learn (89 percent), according to HR respondents. Other top-rated skills are strong work ethic and reliability (87 percent), communication (81 percent) and teamwork (78 percent).

Human skills, also called soft skills, outranked more technical skills a professional could hold, including project management, multilingual abilities and leadership.

Among in-demand technical skills, employers are most likely to look for data analysis (57 percent) in new professionals, followed by business analytics (42 percent), information technology (35 percent) and product management (33 percent). Less popular were user experience/user interface design (5 percent) and artificial intelligence (8 percent).

Development disconnect: Despite work ethic and reliability ranking among the most important factors a new employee could hold, only 25 percent of HR professionals say emerging professionals commonly hold this ability, compared to 62 percent of students and grads who say they have extensive experience in this skill.

A similar gap was seen in responses related to time management, with 51 percent of emerging professionals who say they are experienced but only 20 percent of HR professionals seeing this skill among applicants.

Therefore, emerging professionals should spotlight their soft skills in application materials and find opportunities to demonstrate them in the hiring process to set themselves apart, according to the report.

By the numbers: Other trends among HR professionals highlighted in the report include:

  • 79 percent say interview performance is very important in hiring decisions for entry-level roles.
  • 75 percent see relevant work experience as “very important” in hiring.
  • 90 percent say their organization looks for adaptability and a willingness to learn in their early-career hires.
  • 49 percent say an applicant’s experience and attitude are considered equally in their organization’s approach to hiring, compared to 35 percent who favor attitude and 16 percent who value experience.
  • Less than 10 percent rank the institution a graduate attended (7 percent), the candidate’s GPA (5 percent), extracurricular activities (4 percent) or academic honors (2) as very important in hiring decisions.

Put into practice: For candidates looking to improve their applications and interview performance (or those helping them prep for life after college), HR professionals’ top advice was:

  • Highlight experience, qualifications and skills on résumés and in interviews more effectively.
  • Customize materials submitted in applications for each job and organization.
  • Prepare thoroughly for interviews by researching the organization and the role.
  • Create thoughtful questions to ask during the interview.

How does your institution help students prepare for their professional interviews? Tell us about it.

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