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Job offers go to those with classic skills


Job seekers have found a significant upswing in the employment market over the past 12 months. Recruiting traffic at university career centers and postings on Internet job boards have increased markedly. Through this growth, it’s been interesting to speak to hiring managers and corporate recruiters who visit the Iowa State University College of Business about what traits define the “best” candidate.

Over the past decade – while technology and business practices have changed dramatically, while entire industries have risen and fallen, while many small businesses have grown to become global powerhouses and respected industry giants have disappeared — the critical candidate traits identified by hiring managers as being most important have not changed much at all. It’s also worth noting that there tends to be little difference in desired traits across industries and business functions.

So what basic traits define the best candidate in a search? Are the skills you seek from job candidates in sync with the skills demanded by other employers? Hiring managers consistently identify a general set of desired characteristics that are fairly universal across industries, organizations and position levels. They are:

Communication skills – Nearly every listing of desired traits published in surveys, as well as virtually every conversation with hiring managers, places communication skills as the first criterion for candidate evaluation. Solid communication skills are fundamentally critical for every aspect of business, and employers note the strong direct connection between excellent communication and performance in the workplace. Job candidates must demonstrate their written and verbal communication at several points in the job-search process, from offering up an error-free and effectively written resume and cover letter, to handling the interview process with sophistication.

Leadership – The ability to lead people and teams is important even in entry-level jobs, and becomes increasingly critical as one’s career advances. In the interview process, recruiters and hiring managers seek specific examples that demonstrate candidates’ leadership experience and capabilities. They usually do this by asking “behavioral interview” questions designed to explore specific situations in which a candidate has interacted with people and groups, in order to identify the candidate’s leadership experience and potential.

Teamwork – Again using behavioral interview techniques, hiring managers seek candidates who can demonstrate that they have experience collaborating in organizations to achieve successful results.

Computer literacy – This one is pretty straightforward. What do we do in the business world today without a computer? Not much. Knowledge of the Microsoft Office suite is the bare minimum expectation today. Of course, many positions require some sort of additional specific computer knowledge and experience.

Analytical skills – Nearly all hiring managers want candidates who can demonstrate the ability to analyze and solve problems. Again, the emphasis is on demonstrate. It’s not enough for candidates to state that they have analytical ability; they must be prepared to offer specific results-driven examples to illustrate.

Of course all jobs have additional specific skill or knowledge requirements. These may include technical expertise, quantitative knowledge or particular experience. Hiring managers will also closely evaluate a candidate’s perceived fit with the organization’s culture, evidence of adaptability and whether the candidate has a proven ability to perform.

An M.B.A. degree can boost a candidate’s abilities in these latter areas. But hiring managers also make clear that among the key reasons they seek M.B.A. graduates for many positions is that they demonstrate superior abilities in effective communication, leadership, team skills and analytical prowess, in addition to specific function content.

Overall, no matter the position level, the above five items are perennially identified as the top factors that differentiate successful and unsuccessful job candidates.

Mark Peterson is director of graduate career services at the Iowa State University College of Business.

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