Teaching and Learning Forum 2011 Home Page

Category: Research

Teaching and Learning Forum 2011 [ Refereed papers ]
Employer satisfaction of university graduates: Key capabilities in early career graduates

Mahsood Shah
University of Canberra
Chenicheri Sid. Nair
Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, The University of Western Australia

While employers are one of the most important stakeholders of universities, there is limited research in Australia on employer satisfaction with the quality of university graduates and on the key capabilities of early career graduates for employers in various professions. Such research is critical as governments in many countries are enhancing quality assurance of higher education with a focus on academic standards and the extent to which student have achieved learning outcomes. This paper outlines the findings of a survey undertaken in 2004 and 2008 in a large Australian university with 400 graduate employers and professional associations on their satisfaction with university graduates with respect to the key capabilities of early career graduates. The paper also looks at the employer's views about the key skills and attributes needed in early career graduates to meet changing industry trends in various professions.


Governments in many developed countries like Australia and the United Kingdom are strengthening the role of higher education institutions to contribute to the national economy. The focus of such development is to ensure that universities are fulfilling the moral purpose of higher education to meet the changing needs of employers and the industry. Performance based funding of universities is one of the means used by governments to ensure that the outcomes of higher education contributes to long term sustainability that is economically beneficial to the national economy and that higher education provides socially responsible education.

While not all of the problems in society can be expected to be resolved by higher education, the sector can be seen to have some responsibility for employer dissatisfaction with the attributes of university graduates they recruit from universities. In general terms, graduate attributes are understood as the general skills, knowledge and abilities, beyond the discipline content knowledge, that university graduates have gained during their tertiary studies (Bowden, Hart, King, Trigwell, & Watts 2002; HEC, 1992). Graduate attributes are also commonly referred to as generic skills, graduate qualities, generic attributes, or graduate capabilities. Further, the lists of graduate attributes among Australian universities tend to vary, not only in terms of which attributes are included, but also regarding the nature and level of attainment of the attributes. The range of attributes tend to vary from simple technical skills to complex intellectual abilities and ethical values (Barrie, 2006).

There are concerns worldwide that existing undergraduate programs are not producing graduates with the kinds of lifelong learning skills and professional skills which they need in order to be successful in their professions (AAGE, 1993; AGR, 995; BHERT, 1992; Candy & Crebert, 1991; Candy, Crebert & O'Leary, 1994; Harvey, 1993; Harvey & Green, 1994; ICAA, 1994; NBETT, 1992). Articles in the media (for example, The Australian) have also highlighted the views of various professional accrediting bodies in relation to the gap between employability skills attained by graduates and what employers want in professions including accounting, finance and economics. Also, the most recent study undertaken in Australia by the Business Industry Group (Australian Industry Group, 2009) with employers suggest that employers recognise employability skills, a positive attitude and work experience as the most important factors when recruiting graduates. The same study also showed employer dissatisfaction in some specific areas including teamwork skills, business and customer awareness and lack of relevant work experience.

Harvey and Green (1994) suggest that in relation to the skills they most prize, the majority of employers are moderately satisfied with the quality graduates they recruit. Studies in the United Kingdom (UK) by Hesketh (2000) with 372 employers suggest the following five skills as most important: verbal communication, learning, written communication, problem solving and teamwork. His study also shows clear evidence that employers are well aware of the quality of graduates from various universities based on previous recruitment experience and some employers use the success of previous graduates to target recruitment from universities with a reputation of producing high quality graduates. According to Murray and Robinson (2001), there is strong evidence that large scale graduate recruiters in UK target a limited number of universities primarily because of the quality of graduates. A study in the UK by Morely & Aynsley (2007) with employer groups suggests that employers cite a range of sources of information on quality and standards in higher education including: personal experience (of past graduates), professional perceptions and networks, league tables and regional links.

A study by Harvey (1993) in the UK found that the top five important qualities sought by employers in recruiting graduates include interpersonal skills, communications skills, intelligence and personality. Similar studies undertaken in Australia by Graduate Careers Australia (GCA) (2007) show that interpersonal and communication skills (written/oral); critical reasoning and analytical skills; problem solving; lateral thinking; technical skills; passion and knowledge of industry; drive; commitment; attitude; cultural alignment; values fit and academic qualification(s) are the top criteria used in graduate recruitment.

A review of recent literature suggests rapidly growing interest amongst Australian universities in becoming engaged with employers and industry bodies (Etzkowitz 2002; Garlick 2000; Gunasekara, 2004; Holland , 2001; Nair & Mertova, 2009). This engagement is very important for universities in order to review and address graduate skills needed in professional practice (e.g, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry [ACCI], 2007; Australian Council for Educational Research [ACER], 2002; Australian Industry Group (2006); Department of Education Science and Training [DEST], 2007; Graduate Careers Australia [GCA], 2007).

In 2007 nationwide studies by DEST and GCA on capabilities and skills, articulated clearly what employers see as the most important in university graduates (DEST, 2007; GCA, 2007). These studies show that recruiters are generally satisfied with job-specific skills of graduates, but place greater importance on their interpersonal skills, industry-related experience and ability to promptly apply the knowledge gained at university in the real work settings.

The purpose of this paper is to report on the views of employers on their satisfaction of the quality of university graduates and key capabilities they see as most important in early career graduates. The paper also looks at the employer's views on key skills and attributes needed in early career graduates to meet the changing industry trends in various professions.

The study was undertaken in a large Australian university. The university offers wide range of courses to more than 40,000 students. The survey was part of the university's quality management framework for learning and teaching.


The graduate employer survey which was first initiated in 2004 is part of a suite of surveys available at the university and regarded an important tool primarily for The survey invited respondents to identify, from their perspective as an employer, the most important attributes, abilities, skills and knowledge needed by graduates for effective performance in their particular profession in coming years. Respondents were asked to rate the relative importance (1-low to 5-high) of 44 specific aspects of professional capability identified in a set of national and international studies of early career graduates in nine professions (Vescio, 2005). Respondents were then asked to rate the extent to which the graduates possess each of these capabilities

In most cases the contact in the database was the human resources manager or staff member responsible for graduate recruitment. After an initial phone call, an email invitation which included the link to the online survey was forwarded to the employers. A total of 880 employers were approached and 760 agreed to participate in the survey. Of these 400 valid responses were received. The response sample was representative to most of the field of education offered by the university and it was also representative to public, private and non profit organisations.

A courtesy call was made to non respondents three weeks after the first invitation. Following the courtesy call, a subsequent reminder was sent via email with the link to the online survey.

Results and discussion

The findings of the 2004 and 2008 survey are consistent with employers ranking almost the same top 10 items as most important capabilities with early career graduates. Figure 1 reports the top ten items rated by employers as most important and their performance (measured in terms of the mean satisfaction rating). Performance ranking describes the employers view of the graduates' competency in the attributes measured in the questionnaire. The full results of the survey including the abilities measured, the mean scores on importance and performance on all 44 items are presented in Table 1, Appendix 1.

Overall the results indicate a significant gap between many attributes developed at the University compared to the expectations of industry. The findings of the two separate studies (2004 and 2008) indicate that employers consistently rate the following 10 areas as most important:

Figure 1
1Being able to communicate effectively6Wanting to produce as good a job as possible
2Being flexible and adaptable7The ability to empathise with and work productively with people from a wide range of backgrounds
3A commitment to ethical practice8A willingness to listen to different points of view before coming to a decision
4Being willing to face and learn from errors and listen openly to feedback9Being able to develop and contribute positively to team-based projects
5Being able to organise work and manage time effectively10Being able to set and justify priorities

Figure 1: Importance and performance of the top ten items rated by employers

Of the 10 high importance capabilities, six were ranked relatively low by employers in terms of performance (gap analysis between mean ratings on importance and extent to which graduate possess those capabilities > 1.0). These items were:

Studies undertaken by Vescio, (2005) with successful graduates in nine professions in Australia also found similar results with two additional capabilities seen as important: being able to remain calm under pressure or when things go wrong and a willingness to persevere when things are not working out as anticipated. The finding of this survey also aligns with the study undertaken in the UK by Andrews and Higson, (2008) in the business profession. Their study found that work-experience gained during work-based learning programmes such as formal placements and internships represented a significant aspect of graduate experience.

There are significant advantages in reviewing such survey findings especially in the development and review of curriculum and student assessment. According to James et al, (2002), student assessments play a key role in the attainment of learning outcomes and generic or employability skills. Further, Bowden and Marton (1998) argue that the curriculum for any university needs to be developed around the idea that students are being prepared for a future based on the needs of the industry. The study reported in this paper is consistent with these studies and generally point to areas that universities need to concentrate to improve their curriculum.

Employer surveys generally provide a picture of the needs of the industry and the possible shortfall in the curriculum. It is however, important to acknowledge that to get an overall picture other stakeholder information would need to be sought. One example of such information includes student perception of their courses covered particularly by the generic skills scale used in the national Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ). An analysis of the national CEQ results by the authors on this scale suggests that graduates have rated two areas (items) with low satisfaction. Satisfaction in the CEQ is measured as the percentage of respondents responding to 4 (Agree) and 5 (Strongly Agree) on a five-point likert scale. The two areas with low satisfaction are 'the course helped graduates to develop their ability to work as a team member' (57%) and 'as a result of my course, I am confident about tackling unfamiliar problems' (62%). Generally, items in the Generic Skills Scale had satisfaction ratings of less than 80% (see Table 2).

Table 2: Satisfaction ratings for the CEQ Generic Skills Scale

NoCEQ ItemSatisfaction (%)
1The course helped graduates to develop their ability to work as a team member57
2As a result of my course, I am confident about tackling unfamiliar problems62
3The course sharpened my analytic skills71
4The course developed my problem solving skills 67
5The course improved my skills in written communication71
6The course helped me to develop the ability to plan my own work69

In comparison, results from the National Student Survey (NSS) which is used in UK universities show a much more positive view of stakeholders to generic skills. The two items which measure generic skills in NSS comparable to the CEQ items show percentage satisfaction ratings well above 80% (see Table 3).

Table 3: Comparison of Satisfaction ratings, NSS vs CEQ

NoNSS ItemSatisfaction (%)
1My communication skills have improved8771
2As a result of my course, I am confident about tackling unfamiliar problems8462

Analysis of the data (by the authors) on the outcome of generic skills perceptions by stakeholders, revealed a variation existed between private providers in Australia compared to Australian universities.. Graduates from private higher education providers show a much more negative view (by as much as 10%) to this dimension compared to Australian university graduates.

The data generally suggests that both students and employers are on the same page in that generic skills are important contributors to employment and education. The data also suggest that the pedagogical environment is an area that needs further fine tuning so as to narrow the gap between the needs of the industry and that delivered by institutions of higher education. This argument is supported by the more positive view of students in the UK.

The quantitative findings reported in this paper also align with qualitative data provided by the employers. Respondents wrote extensive comments not only on the key trends and changes taking place in various professions but as well outlined key attributes, skills and knowledge needed by early career graduates. The recurring themes on key trends and changes in the industry included: use of technology in business; dealing with a diverse client base; the need for multilingual graduates; addressing the ageing workforce; wages and working conditions of graduates in some professions with high turnovers; shortage of talented graduates; impact of the global economy on business and the need for graduates to be strategic thinkers; recruitment and retention of graduates in regional areas and the need for a national curriculum in some professions to allow graduate mobility (for example, engineering - see Nair, Patil & Mertova, 2009). Respondents also wrote extensively on key attributes, abilities, skills and knowledge needed by graduates. The comments were in close alignment to the quantitative findings presented in Table 1.


The results of the employer survey shows a gap between what employers see as most important in terms of the skills, knowledge and attributes of recent graduates and their satisfaction. Some of the key areas identified in the survey where such gaps exist include communication, the organisation of work and managing time effectively, the willingness to face and learn from errors and listening openly to feedback, the ability to set and justify priorities, being flexible and their adaptability and willingness to listen to different points of view before coming to a decision.

The findings of this research with employers and professional bodies aligns with the current Australian government priorities related to improving the quality, standard, equity and meeting the needs of the industry and professions. The research findings could be used in curriculum reviews to ensure that course design, student assessments and teaching methods enable students to attain generic skills rated by employers as most important in early career graduates.

Thus, as with all survey data, the collection of data is just the first stage in developing a good quality system. What is done with the data is the most critical aspect. A key element of any quality assurance process is the union of evaluation and improvement (Grebennikov & Shah, 2008). A possible approach to address the issues highlighted in the employer survey is to adopt a comprehensive quality monitoring mechanism in the educational process cycle, which would assure a proper alignment of graduate attributes with feedback from employers and further research to enhance the design of course curricula. This may be approached, for example, by

Clearly, the employer's survey falls within this scope where institutions of higher education must act on the results to ensure that their graduates are at the forefront in the recruitment process. The results of the employer survey highlighted three key areas relevant to universities more broadly in relation to graduate attributes, that:
  1. there is a need to have a clearer understanding of essential generic and professional attributes needed in the workplace;
  2. universities, in general, need to work more closely with industry so that graduates were better equipped for employment; and,
  3. competencies required by the industry need to be aligned in educational programmes.
This paper also highlights that though data is easily collectable, there is a need to use the data for effective change. However, there is little in research literature of the use of data to effectively change or design curricula. Further, an area that will be important to investigate is the designing of curricula to include assessment of core attributes highlighted in employer surveys. The findings of this survey and other research conducted with employers in Australia could be used by the government to design a generic skills survey or assessment to measure the extent to which final year student have achieved the generic skills rated as most important by employers.

Limitations of study

  1. The study is based on the general view of employers. Discipline specific areas were not investigated
  2. Employers participating in this survey come from a limited database maintained by the university. There is a critical need for university faculties, research centres, careers office to maintain a database of employers so as to achieve a reasonable response sample.


Australian Association of Graduate Employers (AAGE) (1993). National Survey of Graduate Employers. Sydney, Australia: AAGE.

Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) (1995). Skills for Graduates in the 21st Century. Cambridge: AGR.

ACCI (2007). Skills for a nation: A blueprint for improving education and training 2007-2017. Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Canberra.

ACER (2002). Employability skills for Australian industry: Literature review and framework development. A report to the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Department of Education, Science and Training, Canberra.

Andrews, J., & Higson, H. (2008). Graduate Employability, 'Soft Skills' Versus 'Hard' Knowledge: A European Study. Higher Education in Europe, 33, 411-422.

Australian Industry Group (2006). World class skills for world class industries: Employers' perspectives on skilling in Australia. Australian Industry Group, Sydney. Retrieved from http://www.aigroup.com.au/policy/reports/archive06

Australian Industry Group (2009). Skilling Business in Tough Times. Australian Industry Group Sydney. Retrieved from http://www.aigroup.com.au/policy/reports

Barrie, S.C. (2006), Understanding what we mean by the generic attributes of graduates. Higher Education, 51, 215-41.

Bowden, J., and Marton, F. (1998). The University of Learning: Beyond Quality and Competence. London: Kogan Page.

Bowden, J., Hart, G., King, B., Trigwell, K. and Watts (2002). Generic capabilities of ATN university graduates. Retrieved from http://www.clt.uts.edu.au/ATN.grad.cap.project.index.html

Business/Higher Education Round Table (BHERT) (1992). Educating for Excellence. Commissioned Report No. 2 Camberwell: BHERT.

Candy, P. & Crebert, G. (1991). Ivory tower to concrete jungle. Journal of Higher Education, 62, 572-592.

Candy, P., Crebert, G. & O'Leary, J. (1994). Developing Lifelong Learners through Undergraduate Education. Report to the NBEET. Canberra, Australia: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Crosthwaite, C., Cameron, I., Lant, P., & Litster, J. (2006). Balancing curriculum processes and content in a project centred curriculum: In pursuit of graduate attributes. Education for Chemical Engineers, 1, 39-48.

DEST (2007). Graduate employability skills. Retrieved from http://www.dest.gov.au/NR/rdonlyres/E58EFDBE-BA83-430E-A541-2E91BCB59DF1/20214/GraduateEmployabilitySkillsFINALREPORT1.pdf

Etzkowitz, H. (2002). Incubation of incubators: Innovation as a triple helix of university-industry-government networks.Science and Public Policy, 29, 115-128.

Garlick, S. (2000). Engaging universities and regions: Knowledge contribution to regional economic development in Australia. Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Canberra.

Graduate Career Australia (GCA) (2007). Snapshot: Graduate outlook 2007. A summary of the graduate outlook survey. Melbourne, Victoria: Graduate Careers Australia.

Grebennikov, L., & Shah, M. (2008). Engaging Employers with the University: Skills Needed and Changes Expected by Industries. Proceedings of the Australian Universities Community Engagement Alliance Conference.

Gunasekara, C. S. (2004). The third role of Australian universities in human capital formation. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 26, 329-343.

Harvey, L. (1993). Employer views of higher education. Proceedings of the Second QHE 24-Hour Seminar, (Birmingham, University of Central England, CRQ).

Harvey, L. (1993). Quality Assessment in Higher Education: Collection Papers. Quality in Higher Education Project, Innovation in Higher Education Unit, University of Central England/University of Lancaster.

Harvey, L. & Green, D. (1994). Employer Satisfaction. Birmingham, QHE.

Hesketh, J, A. (2000). Recruiting an Elite? Employers' perceptions of graduate education and training. Journal of Education and Work, 13, 245-271.

Higher Education Council of Australia (HEC) (1992). Achieving Quality. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing.

Holland, B. (2001). Toward a definition and characterization of the engaged university. Metropolitan Universities: An International Forum, 2, 20-29.

Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia (ICAA), (1994). Chartered Accountants in the 21st Century. Sydney, Australia: ICAA.

James, R., McInnis, C. & Devlin, M. (2002). Assessing student learning in Australian Universities. Australian Universities Teaching Committee.

Morley, L., & Aynsley, S. (2007). Employers, Quality and Standards in Higher Education: Shared Values and Vocabularies or Elitism and Inequalities. Higher Education Quarterly, 61, 229-249.

Murray, S., & Robinson, H. (2001). Graduate into Sales - Employer, Student and University Perspectives. Emerald Education and Training, 43, 139-144.

Nair, C. S. & Mertova, P. (2009). Conducting a graduate employer survey: a Monash University experience. Quality Assurance in Education, 17, 191-203.

Nair, C.S., Patil, A. & Mertova, M. (2009). Re-engineering Graduate Skills - A Case Study. European Journal of Engineering Education, 34, 131-139.

National Board of Employment, Education and Training (NBEET), (1992). Skills Required for Graduates: One test of quality in Australian higher education. Higher Education Council Commissioned Report No. 20. Canberra, Australia: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Vescio, J. (2005). An investigation of successful graduates in the early stages of their career across a wide range of professions. Retrieved from http://www.uws.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/7363/UTS_Succ_Grads_project_report_J.Vescio_2005.pdf

Appendix 1

Table 1: Importance: Performance rating for areas of graduate capability

Appendix, part 1
Appendix, part 2

Items ranked high on importance and performance are marked in grey. These should continue to be emphasised in the curriculum. Areas attracting the lowest performance ratings are marked in black.

Please cite as: Shah, M. & Chenicheri, S. N. (2011). Employer satisfaction of university graduates: Key capabilities in early career graduates. In Developing student skills for the next decade. Proceedings of the 20th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2011. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2011/refereed/shah.html

Copyright 2011 Mahsood Shah and Chenicheri Sid. Nair. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format, provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

[PDF version] [Refereed papers] [Contents - All Presentations] [Home Page]
This URL: http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2011/refereed/shah.html
Created 24 Jan 2011. Last revision: 24 Jan 2011.