If you’re seeking a career in the social sector, an advanced university degree may not be the best ticket. While many prospective staff have abundant analytical and research skills, the employers rank leadership, problem solving, and communication as more important. They also think such attributes may be better gained on the job, or by working abroad, than in a classroom.
That’s the message of a new report from the Amani Institute, a think tank. The report, which surveys social sector executives, found that there is a gap between what graduates are offering and what leading organizations need.
One leader at a major international children’s group, told Amani: "Employees need relevant field experience that builds hard skills such as technical work or project management. Work experience in general is very helpful. Too many students go straight from undergrad to [their] master’s never having a real job."
Amani, which is based in Nairobi, Kenya, spoke to 43 leaders in 34 organizations, as well as 39 "future leaders" with less than three years of work experience. Several leaders said field experience and evidence of leadership were more important than a degree, wherever it might be from. "Skills are best learned in an immersive environment—i.e. in the country or context that is being studied," said one, from an AIDS charity.
Another added: "I am no longer impressed by academic backgrounds or credentials, and I pay little attention to them. What ultimately stands out are the humility and respect towards realities and circumstances they are not familiar with."
Employers are particularly keen on hires with initiative, enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn. Several said their worst recruits exhibited over-confidence, and a "sense of entitlement."
"My most disappointing hires were those who were always coming up with reasons for why something won’t work, waiting to be told what needs to be achieved, and performing the role as a task that needs completion as opposed to achieving the goal," another respondent said.
The report is chastening for universities, as it indicates that what they are best at—"hard skills"—aren’t valued by social employers as most important. Colleges excel at providing a "high-quality academic grounding" and "analytical skills," it says. But these featured ninth and eighth on a list of 11 most relevant attributes.
"The education of 21st-century problem solvers needs itself to move into the future," says Roshan Paul, president of the Amani Institute. "Aspiring leaders must equip themselves with apprenticeships, practical skills, and personal leadership qualities so they’re employable and so they can create social impact. They should train for their careers the way a doctor or athlete or soldier would train."