Employers are staging a 'Darwinian war for talent' in which only the business savvy player makes the first rung on the ladder, writes John Clare, Education Editor.
A glut of young graduates entering the job market is driving employers to engage in a 'Darwinian war for talent', forcing applicants to demonstrate personal qualities that 'in a previous life may have resulted in canonisation', according to study published this week.
With nearly half of young people going to university and most emerging with an upper second class degree, employers are resorting to 'elitist' selection procedures that effectively sabotage the Government's efforts to improve opportunities for those from less privileged backgrounds.
The study, by two academics, finds that it is not knowledge or technical competence that secures a good job but 'personal capital', which includes such 'soft' skills as the ability to communicate, persuade, adapt, solve problems, show good judgment, initiate change, work in teams, be creative, demonstrate business acumen and network with customers and clients.
Such socially confident and 'charismatic' personalities also need to 'look good and sound right', and have almost invariably been to an elite university, the authors say. 'The 'best' companies want to recruit the 'best' people, who are most likely to have attended the 'best' universities, because they are the hardest to enter.'
Similarly, it is not enough to have travelled. Now, you need to have 'canoed up the Amazon backwards' and be able to demonstrate the relevance of the experience to a potential employer.
The study - by Phillip Brown, professor of social sciences at Cardiff, and Anthony Hesketh, a lecturer in management at Lancaster - divides candidates into two broad categories: 'purists' and 'players'.
The purists 'have not woken up to the realities of labour market competition'. Holding on to the traditional meritocratic creed, they believe that if they are good enough, they will get a good job, and that it is simply a question of finding one that matches their knowledge, personality and aspirations. 'Take me as I am,' they say. 'I've got to be me. If you don't want me then I don't want to work for you.'
The players, on the other hand, are the candidates who, increasingly, get the jobs. They understand the rules of the game and make sure they are properly prepared.
They deliberately build up their curriculum vitae by undertaking voluntary work and extra-curricular activities - becoming club captain, society treasurer or debating society chairman - as a way of 'sending appropriate messages' to employers.
They practise taking psychometric tests, take part in simulated group exercises and read books on how to answer difficult interview questions and 'reinvent oneself for success'. To 'decode the winning formula', they study employers' websites and corporate literature. 'You find out what they want to hear and then you tell them what they want to hear,' one player explained to the authors.
You don't deliberately lie, but you're economical with the truth. You don't be yourself - you glorify things a bit.' Purists see players as cheats - industrial saboteurs who are undermining the integrity of the meritocratic process.
More purists, though, are becoming players, and the ability of the recruiters to identify those who are faking it is 'far from foolproof', the study says.
The recruiters, who receive an average of 20 applicants for every post, measure the candidates on two scales: their educational qualifications and formal achievements, known as 'hard currencies'; and their interpersonal skills, known as 'soft currencies'.
They are looking for those who can 'hit the ground running' - who are 'oven-ready'.
The sort of questions they ask are: 'Give an example of when you've been in a team situation; tell me about a time when you faced a major challenge; give an example of where you found an innovative solution to a problem; what would you do if you weren't getting on with someone at work?'
They divide those they have interviewed and assessed into eight categories, half employable, half not. 'The expansion of higher education has not led to an increase in the demand for 'knowledge workers' ', the authors conclude.
'That is why up to 40 per cent of graduates are in non-graduate work, a proportion that is likely to increase.'Consequently, despite the rhetoric of 'competence', issues of appearance, social fit and personal chemistry have, if anything, become more important. There is an increasing mismatch between what is required to get a good job and what is required to do a good job.'
Source: 02/08/2004 Telegraph