Monday, April 18, 2011

Three Ways to Grab the #1 Employability Skill (Hint: Communication!) BEFORE You Leave College!

(Updated, April 19:  See bottom for added recommendation regarding communication portfolios, asked by a  Twitter follower!)

Let's cut right to the chase: You are almost ready to graduate.

You'll have your piece of paper in hand, but do you have what employers really want? 

What employers want is something to think about because unemployment is... Well, you know what it is. This CNN Money prediction can tell you more.
So while we're on the subject of what employers want, a National Association of Colleges and Employers 2011 report ranks verbal communication as the #1 most desirable employability skill.

The bottom line: 
-Job-hungry you will have a degree
-A bunch of other job-hungry people will have that same degree
-One hungry person could chomp their competition:  Let's say that's you!

How? By highlighting your communication skills!

You nervously think, "But I'm about to graduate! How do I show that I have good communication skills other than by just talking?"

There is still time to grab some communication know-how before you leave college. Let your profs help boost your communication capital in three ways: 

1.  Talk to a professor or two who teaches in your field of study (an off-campus tip is to contact someone in the profession via e-mail). Find out what communication skills will be the most relevant to your career that you should highlight in an interview or on your resume.

Your professors taught you a ton about the "hard skills" required for your intended career. Your degree-in-hand will tell an employer that you have credentials. Now it's time to hone in on the soft skills that may not have been discussed regularly in class.

Say, "Professor, what communication skills would you recommend I talk about when I'm interviewing to become a ____________? What communication skills should I strengthen before I actually get my job?" Then...

2.  ...Contact three to five professors that you already took classes from--in any discipline. Ask them to help you "spin" your communication-related assignments/activities for an interview or your resume. 

Surely, at some point in your college career, you worked in groups (for better or for worse!), or you gave group presentations. Maybe you did some service learning (Like the students in this article on the American Association of Community College website on 4/20!). Maybe you engaged in regular dialogue on a discussion forum. You might have passed documents back and forth via e-mail with your classmates for peer review. I'm certain that you did at least a few speeches, either in or out of class.

BOOM! Check out all of your communication training! 

So how do you speak about this work you've already done in an interview or cover letter?

First, reference the communication skill required by the employer, "I see in your job post that your ideal candidate will have a high level of interpersonal skills to work with upper management and exceptional ability to work in teams." (Taken from an actual job ad!).

You could say, "I worked in groups in many of my courses. One particular group in my Environmental Science class went really well:  We met weekly, kept thorough meeting notes, and everyone followed through on their tasks to produce a high-quality final paper and presentation. I was proud that our group got along so well. We had regular contact through e-mail and maintained status reports on how everyone was doing. Our group scored in the high 'A' range. I am so glad I had this practice for other teams that I'll work on."

If you had a group experience that didn't go so well, be honest. Employers will find your truth refreshing, and you will appear as someone who can reflect on a problem and swiftly move to solve it:  "Two people in our group just didn't finish their tasks on time. I learned a lot from this experience. Next time, I would have group members partner up on large parts of the project. That way, there is a back-up to ensure that the group meets its deadline."

Another example:  "In my Business Ethics class, we answered weekly discussion forum questions and responded to others' posts. This was worth about 30% of my overall grade. My professor commented that my posts were insightful, my responses validated the comments in the original post, and they appropriately advanced the conversation. This experience helped me practice communicating with people of diverse backgrounds through e-mail."

See? You probably have loads of communication experiences to speak about from the classes you've taken. Go find out how to make those occurrences interview or resume-ready. 

3.  Go visit any communication professor and ask for either a) recommendations on a basic interpersonal or small group communication book (think trade book that you'd get at Amazon or Barnes and Noble; or b) an older textbook on same--most profs have desk copies lying around. 

Phrases related to interpersonal communication and/or small group communication are present in nearly every single job advertisement out there. More real-job examples:
-Continually mine existing accounts for opportunities to expand existing relationships (interpersonal)
-Strong communication skills both written and verbal with the ability to gain consensus for project deliverables (interpersonal, group)
-Demonstrates proficiency by exhibiting the following skills, competencies, and behaviors:  Patient Care Experience, Team Commitment (interpersonal, group)

Learn some catch-phrases, even if you didn't take a class in either of these subjects.

Now of course, just because you read a book on interpersonal or small group communication, you can't say you're an expert. But, at the least, reading up on the basics will shore you up on some concepts:  Using "I" versus "you," the difference between non-assertion and passive aggression as conflict management styles, and how to define "brainstorming," "groupthink" and "group consensus."

After you learn about some of these communication standards, try them out with your family and friends. Improved interpersonal communication skills can only stand to benefit all of your relationships!

Then, you can tell your potential employer that you did some "extracurricular" study in communication so you could communicate that much more effectively in the workplace.

After all, how many job candidates are going to proudly exclaim, "I just finished reading 'Working in Groups' by Engleberg and Wynn in my spare time because I know I'll be on committees and on teams. I wanted to learn more so I have the best chance at working well in other groups"?

You know how many job candidates will say that?


See? There's still time! Don't walk down that graduation aisle without upping your "communication capital"!

In your next interview, chat up your Yanomamo tribe presentation that you slammed in your  Anthropology class. In your next cover letter, toot your horn over the group project in your Econ class where two out of five group members bailed, but you led the remaining three to an aced project.

You didn't have to get paid in college to gain documentable communication experience.

Let the other folks with the same degree fear big, bad you--rocking the #1 sought-after employability skill.

You are going to show your future employer that in addition to your degree, you have what they want.

Updated: One of my new Twitter followers asked if developing a communication portfolio would be helpful. Absolutely! This is something that you could easily develop online (See Megan Semmelman's impressive personal blog post about developing an online presence -- ran across this based on a USA Today College article that she authored). If you want the portfolio in-hand for interviews, use a standard clear cover folder. For both approaches, add any of the following: 

-Sample group project (or synopsis)
-Sample presentations (ones that went well, obviously!)
-Writing samples
-Listing of communication-related titles that you've read
-Brief listing of communication-related activities and skills you developed
-Recommendation letters that speak to both your ability to do the job and communication skills

Obviously, you don't want to make this package unmanageable, but any documents that highlight your ability to both do the job and communicate on the job will help you stand out. I have been on the job market four times since I started teaching (all by choice, fortunately!). As a new or seasoned educator, I always sent a teaching portfolio ahead of my on-campus interviews so the search committees could get to know me early. I was told later that this was a successful strategy!


(Quick end-note: In 1998, I graduated with my B.S. degree in Post-Secondary Education from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (Yeah! Vegas, baby!). Before my own walk down the aisle, I had the good fortune of co-presenting a research paper with one of my profs, Dr. Clifford McClain, at the Nevada Vocational Association conference. One highlight of our research, the SCANS (The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills) Report, ranked communication in the top three most sought-after employability skills in 1990. 

The big difference then? The unemployment rate was between 4-6% range.

Interesting that one decade-plus later, some things did change, but one remained the same:  the strong communicators are STILL the job candidates to beat).


  1. Another great article! I found myself saying "Absolutely!" and "Great point!" to almost every single tip you offered.

    I am not a recent graduate, but I am always looking to hire recent grads. If your students are having a hard time finding jobs, tell them to visit their alma mater's admissions office! Admissions offices love to hire alums, but we also love to hire communications majors. They are perfect for the job.

    Thanks again for a great post!

  2. Hi, Jennielle,

    Thank you enough for this really important advice! I appreciate your words very much and I am going to post this as an update to my next blog post (which is coming out any minute :-).

    Once again, many thanks!