The main objective of this scoping study was to identify how graduate skills requirements might be changing in response to sustainability policies and carbon-neutral targets. For this aim, it was also necessary to identify what the important skills for sustainability were, and whether or not they were already being seen in graduate skills portfolios.
The results of this research displayed some areas of strong agreement between stakeholders, and also some areas of disagreement. There is clear consensus that greater communication and collaboration between universities and businesses would benefit all parties. It would allow businesses to be more explicit about what skills they require from graduates, and would enable businesses to support universities in delivering these skills, for instance through guest lectures, module design, and lending expertise. It would also facilitate the organisation of work placements and internships for students across a wider range of degree subjects, which would equip more students with the workplace skills so desired by businesses.
Another area of clear agreement across all stakeholders is that, while technical skills are important for certain specific roles, soft skills are valuable in all areas of business. All groups of stakeholders mentioned skills such as communication, presentation, influencing behaviour change, analytical and critical thinking, and team working, as valuable for both sustainability and in the workplace in general. In particular, all stakeholders mentioned that new ways of thinking, such as critical thinking, analytical thinking, lateral thinking, systems thinking, creative thinking, forward thinking, and innovative thinking, are important for being able to address new, complex, and wicked problems. Therefore, while certain degree disciplines may include training in technical skills, soft skills such as these should be taught in all course curricula to ensure that all graduates are adequately equipped to address new challenges.
Finally, the last main area of consensus between all stakeholders was that the most effective way to impart new sustainability knowledge and skills would be to embed them within university course curricula. It is thought that this would allow students to understand how sustainability relates to their sector rather than seeing it as a separate issue. However, stakeholders also mentioned that this would require a significant programme of training for university staff, to make sure they understand sustainability theory and how it relates to their subject.
As this report collected opinions from a range of different groups of stakeholders, there were also inevitably some areas of disagreement. Primarily, the main skills gap in students and graduates mentioned by both business leaders and recent graduates was in general skills such as negotiation, telephone skills, confidence working with superiors, and professionalism. These were not mentioned by university interviewees, probably because they are not skills traditionally required by students in university settings. Universities do tend to include some general skills training such as presentation and team working skills within degree courses. However, it appears as though businesses expect graduates to have a wider range of general workplace skills than universities are currently providing.
In terms of important sustainability skills and areas of skills gaps, graduates mentioned technical competencies much more frequently than the other groups of stakeholders, who more frequently mentioned soft skills. This may be because in their experience in the workplace, it is much easier to identify a gap in ones own technical understanding or ability than to notice a shortcoming in soft skills like critical thinking. Graduates were also much less likely than business interviewees to mention the importance of extra-curricular activities such as volunteering, placements, internships, and additional qualifications. Business interviewees often mentioned these activities as some of the best ways to improve employability for graduates and demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. It may be that students and graduates are not aware of the value of extra-curricular activities and demonstrating their commitment to sustainability for their employment prospects. Greater communication between businesses and universities, as mentioned above, may provide a way for businesses to better inform students of the ways that they can improve their employability.
Although all stakeholders did state that soft skills were generally more valuable for sustainability than hard skills, the perception of what these soft skills are differed between university and business interviewees. For instance, university leaders focussed on skills relating to new ways of thinking and processing information, such as critical and systems thinking. In contrast, the soft skills mentioned most often by businesses were those relating to the practical application of sustainable systems and policies within a business context. Therefore, while both universities and businesses may value soft skills for sustainability, what exactly they mean by ‘soft skills’ and the level of practical versus theoretical knowledge that they expect from students needs to be clarified in order for sustainability education to be useful and effective.
Finally, there was a vast range of opinions on graduate skills requirements in relation to sustainability, including that they have already changed, that they are changing, that they will change in the future, that they have not and will not change. One university interviewee even stated that businesses have always complained of a graduate skills gap, and that while the skills they want may change, the situation remains the same. This highlights the lack of agreement on this issue and the different situations in different sectors. Future research may be more effective if it focuses on the changing requirements of certain specific sectors or job roles, or the emergence of new job roles and titles in certain industries.
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Future Graduate Skills: A Scoping Study