What do employers look for in graduates today?

– by Hanlie van der Vyver from Navy Blue Suits

As a Talent Acquisition Specialist in the technology space for the past 20 years, I have been asked this question numerous times by anxious graduates prepping for their first job interviews.

Reflecting on what exactly the “x-factors” are that make companies offer graduates jobs, I realized that not even the Covid-19 pandemic and its lasting effects on the workplace could change some fundamental qualities that most companies look for when employing graduates. Because reflecting is often more effective when done with good company, and because we are now again free to do so I also discussed this question with some of the business leaders with whom I have had the privilege of working for many years.

Derek Gardiner, Co-Founder, and CTO at www.comotion.us, a fintech company, highlighted the top two qualities that stand out for him when interviewing and potentially employing graduates:  


According to Derek, understanding the unwritten “social rules” and expectations amongst professionals in the workplace is key. Remote working makes learning these “social rules” trickier because you are further removed from the obvious. Graduates who grasp these softer rules generally do well faster than their less mature piers. Of course gauging this kind of professional maturity in an interview is difficult, but if you listen closely to what a potential candidate is saying and how they talk about their peers and colleagues, you can often get a sense of how they will measure up on this metric.


The work environment encompasses many pockets of information and working systems. The academic world allows students to learn within a structured information environment, while the workplace is often much more unstructured. Curiosity is one of the leading forces that push people to find, get into and make sense of these pockets of condensed systems. Curiosity drives a natural discovery of potential solutions, which is always a bonus in the workplace. Curiosity is something that intrigues most interviewers and can count strongly in a graduate’s favour. Just as most people like talking about themselves, most employers like talking about their businesses. So dare to be curious and ask questions. But do your homework! If you ask questions that do not relate to the employer’s business, you are almost guaranteed to lose their attention.

Naturally, the ability to perform and talk authoritatively about the skill you are hoping to be employed for, for example programming, is an obvious requirement. Together with the ability to perform a skill, it must be performed within an expected velocity and framework to add value. Derek so aptly remarked that graduates who can link skill to productivity, meaningful to the business, are invaluable. 

Nicho Bouma, CIO at the payment aggregator www.payat.co.za in Stellenbosch, again emphasized two different traits that he sees as necessary for a graduate to integrate successfully into their workspace:


According to Nicho well-rounded, well-adjusted graduates with strong academic careers and an interest in other areas of life, outside of work, will typically perform well in a work environment. “We spend many hours with our colleagues, and shared interests outside of the workplace enriches and adds value to our lives.” Therefore, don’t be scared to talk about your hobbies and interests outside of academics and work. Contrary to the popular saying, it’s NOT just business.


It might not be the most disruptively new trait known to man, but honesty, integrity, and respect still carries much weight in 2022. Nicho emphasised that a graduate displaying these values, that has excellent problem-solving ability and strong communication skills, would struggle not to find a job, even in today’s competitive job market.

Everyone seems to agree that a graduate who can take constructive criticism, work with it, and convert it into positive performance would do well in any work environment. The ability to ask for help and accept guidance does not always come naturally to all young people. Grit and resilience in today’s fast-paced, ever-changing work environment is also definitely a skill that is highly regarded.

Ultimately the key to prepping for any interview is to… well… prepare. Make sure you know the company and position you are interviewing for so that you can talk authoritatively about both. Be curious about your new potential employer and the position they are recruiting for and ask well-prepared, well thought through questions (just a couple will do). But above all be yourself and don’t try to say or be things that you are not. All companies have their own, unique cultures and idiosyncrasies and as much as they need to employ the right person for the job they are also (hopefully) employing a person – you – that will fit in and that they will enjoy working with. The more you allow them to meet the real, mature, professional, job-seeking, authentic you (assuming of course you are all these things), the better your chances of making a good impression and landing a job at a company where you will fit in, be happy and have the best chance of building a long and successful career.

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