Insights: What do employers look for in the youth of today? – Gulf Business

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Marking the importance of World Youth Skills Day, Rajinder Kumar Sharma, head of Global College for the Degree Entry Programme at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, tells us how universities can enhance students’ access to job opportunities
What are some of the critical opportunities and challenges when it comes to developing skills among youth?
There is no doubt that skills development among the youth has become challenging due to the rapid pace of market changes in the past couple of years. However, it is important to remember that the changes in today’s market provide some unique opportunities for the youth to become leaders in new fields, especially with the advantage of this generation’s tech fluency. Despite the need for training and upskilling the youth to enhance their digital readiness, not only are they likely to be fast learners, but they can become innovators in their fields. Fortunately, online learning platforms that the youth can make use of have become more accessible and affordable than ever before.
Some of the main challenges facing the youth today include the ability to identify necessary skills for future employment opportunities. With the workplace being dynamic and disrupted by technology, the youth are required to consistently be up to date with the latest changes in their fields. In addition, the gap caused by remote learning causing a lack of social engagement and changes in the learning environment has further exacerbated these challenges, especially with personal skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, leadership and resiliency being more in-demand. However, with the increased awareness of educational institutions, many universities are incorporating means to enhance their students’ personal skills.
What are some of the ways in which universities can enhance students’ access to job opportunities?
Universities are uniquely placed to enhance the dialogue with Industry to ensure that students have relevant skills for the job market.  Fortunately, with the industry links that a university has, students could potentially get out of the classroom, gain genuine business and industry insights, develop their awareness of workplace culture, and also enhance critical workplace skills. In addition, career offices at universities never been more important. This includes virtual tutorials, online chats, live streams, blogs and other types of content that could be used to help the youth gear up for the workplace.
At Heriot-Watt University, our Degree Entry Programmes (DEP) provide students with a pathway into an undergraduate degree programme. It is specifically designed as a foundation programme that will help students to bridge the gap between their school qualifications and the demands of a university degree. They help students develop their subject knowledge while providing a firm foundation in IT, research and writing skills, academic English, and assessment and examination techniques, all of which are important for the youth to succeed both in university as well as later in life.
What do employers look for in the youth of today?
The most obvious are the tech skills needed to keep up with digital transformation. There will be a continuous drive towards highly skilled occupations and jobs in science, research, engineering, and technology fields have been predicted to grow twice as fast as other careers.
Next are personal skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving that have always been much sought after and will continue to be so. However, some other personal skills such as resilience, stress tolerance, good communication skills and flexibility will grow in importance in the future and will play a large role in determining worker success.
Finally, we will see an increase in awareness around reskilling and lifelong learning, with professionals seeking training and opportunities internally through online learning platforms and through external workshops. Recent research by the World Economic Forum suggests that every five years, our skills are about half as valuable as they were before.
How do universities currently focus on technical and hands-on skills? How is your university focused on doing that?
Over the past decade, more colleges have embraced experiential learning, which refers to activities that let students apply the skills they learned in the classroom in a real-world setting. These opportunities can typically take place in internal University programmes and activities as well as internships. At DEP, hands-on experiences are a core part of our programme and approach that we follow with our students. For example, DEP design students have collaborated last year with Altearah, a Middle Eastern perfume brand in competition to create UAE National day inspired packaging design.
The purpose of the project was to allow students to practice their technical skills and bring their creative ideas into reality. A series of inspiring designs have been showcased by the students. These types of projects greatly boost the students’ confidence and fosters an in-depth interest in their fields as they get to apply what they are learning and witness the results for themselves.
How can universities build links with business leaders to enhance the employability outcomes for students?
Universities can build those links through hosting or being part of forums and conferences that can foster knowledge exchange with industry leaders. For example, we recently hosted the Global Executive Learning (GEL) 25th Global Forum at our Dubai Campus. The forum brought together business executives and practitioners, thought leaders, academics and subject-matter specialists.
In addition, we hold career fairs at least three times a year. This not only gives us as a university an opportunity to link with business leaders, but most importantly they enable students to form these links directly. During our last career fair this year organised in Q1 this year, 500 students showed up at the career fair and networked with more than 60 companies. Some of the leading companies included L’Oreal, Chalhoub Group, JLL, Dubai Islamic Bank, Dubai Pharmacy College, Deloitte & Touche, Apparel Group, Legoland Dubai Resort, Institution of Civil Engineers, The Chartered Institute of Building, Energy Institute, Gates Engineering & Services, Engie Solutions, Michael Page International, Alpin and Windsor Bux.
Can you shed some light on the importance of transferable skills, and your university’s focus on the same?
Transferable skills are a proof of adaptability and well-roundedness. Employers are seeking candidates who can complete multiple things and fill different roles if and when needed. This is very important for students to learn and are key skills for every role. Through programmes that enable students to develop an end-to-end project, we aim to harness these skills in our students. For example, one of the projects that students worked on included developing a model that showcased a comfortable and safe work environment, inspired by Bauhaus furniture – a school of design and architecture that focuses on using materials in their most natural, honest form. Students worked on a series of images, sketches, final drawings and models of their design idea.
Another example is a project in which students drew inspiration from two contemporary designers, Takashi Murakami and Kasama, and drew their abstract design on shoes. The students then set up an exhibition to showcase their designs. This project enabled students to understand the overall process of commercial designing from conceptualisation to prototyping and presentation. These types of projects engage different parts of students’ skills including teamwork, problem solving, communication and more.
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