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Is there too much focus on grades?

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When writing their CV, candidates have always recognised the importance of highlighting educational qualifications and personal traits. But when it comes to picking the best talent out of countless applications, are employers still giving grades too much preference over other skills?

Developing key skills for work

According to a study of the graduate labour market carried out by the University of Warwick and the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU), individuals with first-class degrees are almost half as likely to suffer unemployment than those with lower classifications. This suggests businesses are assuming that candidates with the highest qualifications will be better suited to the position. But this isn’t always the case. It may be that a graduate who has spent much of their university life studying in order to achieve a first, hasn’t had the time to undertake extra-curricular activities and develop key skills needed in the workplace.

As academics have recently highlighted, a single degree classification reveals very little about a candidate’s suitability for a particular role. It cannot do justice to the range of skills, knowledge and experience gained, which is why there were calls for the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) to be introduced towards the end of last year. The idea was that a report card would be given to each student after they graduate, providing much more detail of their overall achievements, including a breakdown of marks for each unit, information of volunteering work, and a summary of any positions held in a sports team.

Grades vs. skills

It’s activities that are undertaken outside of studying that can really distinguish a great candidate from a good one. This is because they develop important employability skills – such as teamwork, effective communication and people skills – which help in any job, whether it’s directly related to their degree subject or not.

Worryingly though, it seems that young people are lacking in such skills. A recent report published by the Federation of Small Businesses, for example,found that a huge 81% of business owners said they were ‘not very confident’ or ‘not at all confident’ that students leaving school at 16 have the right level of employability skills.

This may have to do with the fact that grades are wrongly perceived as being more valuable when it comes to landing a job. A report published by the CBI found that so much importance is attached to GCSE results by the Government, that teenagers are pressurised into giving up clubs or sports that develop their character and skills. Clearly this could have a detrimental effect on the future of our organisations unless mindsets are altered.

How to assess for the best candidates

When it comes to hiring the best talent, as an HR professional you have a responsibility to ensure that employers look at more than just a degree grade or how many A*s an individual gained at school. Using the right methods of assessment is key. At interview stage, for example, competency-based questions should be used to give candidates the opportunity to really highlight their abilities in relation to the required competencies. Only then will there be a clear indication of whether they will be able to do the job, and more importantly, fit in with your team.

A first class degree does not necessarily equal a first class candidate, and the same message can be applied across all stages of education. This needs to be recognised across the board so that businesses have employees with the right skills needed for the future. And, furthermore, your HR teams and management need to ensure that all employees are offered new and stretching opportunities so that their skills can continually be developed.

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