Entering a labour market in turmoil: How can interpersonal skills help?

Three young colleagues discussing work at a desk in front of a computer

By Gabriele Marconi

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

This year, like every year, millions of graduates in OECD countries will make the transition from higher education to the labour market. Starting a career today presents particular challenges. The disruption that coronavirus (COVID-19) has brought to the labour market looks even more severe than the one brought forward by the 2008/09 financial crisis. Entire sectors are facing an existential threat, while others are unexpectedly thriving. Temporary contracts are more likely than ever not to be renewed, increasing the probability that young graduates will have to hop from job to job and organisation to organisation to build their career. Well-developed interpersonal skills could help young people navigate the turbulent job market ahead.

What does it take to change jobs?

What makes people more likely to look for and find opportunities in other sectors and industries, to adapt to new work environments? Data on labour market outcomes in the COVID-19 crisis may not be available yet, but we already have some answers to this question. Changes of job and industry sector during graduates’ transition to the labour market were already common before the COVID-19 crisis. Young tertiary graduates reported having worked for 2.4 different firms or organisations in the past five years, on average across OECD countries and economies.

The job changes that require the greatest degree of adaptability and flexibility for workers are usually those involving a change of economic sector (e.g. from the catering industry to online sales). Since the COVID-19 crisis has reduced opportunities in some sectors much more than in others, many graduates may need to move to jobs in different economic sectors.

New research conducted by the OECD in partnership with LinkedIn shows that recent graduates who changed industry in the first five years after graduation are more likely to report interpersonal skills (e.g. leadership, communication, teamwork) on their LinkedIn profile than graduates who worked in the same industry throughout the five years. 64% of graduates who changed industry reported at least one interpersonal skill on their profile, compared to 57% of graduates who remained in the same job. These self-reported data could mean that graduates with more interpersonal skills find more opportunities in other industries, or it could mean that people looking for jobs in other industries think that it will help them to post their skills on their CV. In any case, graduates moving across industries feel that they need well-developed interpersonal skills.

What does this imply for policy and for higher education institutions?

Interpersonal skills, like all other skills, can be taught. Active teaching methods like problem- and project-based learning, also in combination with other teaching methods, have been shown to foster a range of skills, including social and behavioural skills as well as critical thinking and creativity. Governments and higher education institutions should look to better equip students with these skills so that they are prepared for the world after graduation.

Interpersonal skills, like all other skills, can be taught… Governments and higher education institutions should look to better equip students with these skills so that they are prepared for the world after graduation.

A successful transition for graduates into the labour market is good not only for them, but also for the society. Our economies rely on young talent and new skills to bring fresh perspectives to address the challenges of the 21st century. Using and improving technology, preserving the environment and creating opportunities for all are important examples of the challenges ahead. Strong interpersonal skills will help graduates navigating their transition to the labour market, and in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, they may be more needed than ever.

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