6 Skills and Traits Employers Are Looking For and How to Demonstrate Them

Reading through job descriptions can start to feel like playing buzzword bingo.

It can seem like every employer is looking for the same ideal employee, and often their requirements don’t seem all that realistic. They might want you to be motivated, passionate or enthusiastic, which is great if you’re a talent show contestant, but it might seem a bit much to be asked to stack shelves in a motivated manner, make sandwiches passionately, or do accounts with obvious enthusiasm. It may be that you think of yourself more as reliable and methodical than passionate, and perhaps that these traits – which are less likely to appear in buzzword bingo – are the kind of thing that employers should be looking for instead.
It’s often the case that employers don’t know exactly how to phrase what they’re looking for in a job applicant either. For instance, a social media role might require not only the obvious set of skills, but also the ability to justify the role to people in the organisation who think an organisational Twitter presence is a waste of time, assorted technical skills for the moments when you will be expected to become impromptu IT support to the entire department, and a thick enough skin to tolerate how grumpy Beth in Accounts gets before she’s had her second cup of coffee. But they can’t put all of that in the job description. Instead, they write ‘enthusiastic’ and hope they get some applicants who will fit the bill.

In this article, we take a look at a range of typical skills and attributes that employers require, what it is that they’re looking for, and how you can demonstrate it in your application and at interview.

1. Time management

The first steps to demonstrating good time management is to submit your application in good time, and to show up to the interview five minutes early. Most employers won’t bother tracking when you got your application in, but just in case, submitting it two minutes before the deadline is never a good look (let alone handing it in late).

Your interview will be the first experience an employer has of your timekeeping.

As for the interview, you would be amazed to learn how many people fail to turn up to interview at the right time. There aren’t just the people who are late, but also the people who arrive ludicrously early and wonder why the people who are there to interview them aren’t ready. You don’t want to be the reason that your possible future boss had to abandon half of their breakfast cereal because you showed up to a 9.30 interview at 9.05. Yes, it’s sensible to leave a lot of leeway in your travel plans, but if that means that you’re there for the interview ridiculously early, find a nearby cafe to wait in, or read a book in the car park.
But these are the basics of time management, not the be-all and end-all. Your prospective employer will want to know that if they give you a difficult project with lots of stages, you’ll be able to figure out what to prioritise and make sure that it’s all done on time. Even if you don’t have any prior work experience, this is something that we’re all called on to do in our everyday lives. A group coursework project requires these skills, for instance – working out who needs to do what, when, in order to meet deadlines. This is especially the case if the deadlines changed unexpectedly, as then you can demonstrate that your planning was good enough to hope with these pressures.

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2. Motivation

It’s easy to see how time management is necessary for nearly all jobs. It’s harder to see, if you’re applying for something part-time while you’re at school or university, how being motivated might matter if you’re proofreading, waiting tables or doing a couple of shifts a week in your local corner shop. How motivated can you really be about any of these things?

“Do I enjoy making sandwiches all day? Why, it’s my one true calling!”

What you need to realise is that ‘motivated’ from an employer’s perspective actually translates to ‘likely to stick around’. This is one of the reasons why being overqualified is a problem; you might be the most skilled person who’s applied, but that’s not much use to an employer if it means they’re going to train you up and then you’ll move on to something better in a matter of months. The less talented person with more staying power would seem like a smarter investment for the employer’s time and energy.
You can prove that you’re motivated, then, by giving them evidence that you’re likely to stick with them. If they ask you where you see yourself in five years’ time, they don’t expect the answer to be, “still here, stacking shelves and loving it!” but they’ll be reassured if it’s something retail-based, rather than something completely unrelated. Showing that you’ve thought about this and made a decision is also helpful. The true answer might be, “argh, not a clue, five years is a really long way away!” but saying “I don’t know” isn’t an answer that will fill them with confidence, as it sounds quite a lot like “I don’t know, but it definitely won’t be this!”

3. Communication skills

When you’re at school, and your teacher sets a homework task that’s completely incomprehensible so that everyone comes back with something a) different and b) wrong, that’s your teacher’s fault for not being clear enough. When you’re in the workplace, and your boss gives you a task that’s completely incomprehensible so that you come back with something utterly unlike what they were expecting, that’s at least partly your fault. Are you someone who would be able to ensure at the point of receiving the task that what you’re thinking of doing is genuinely what your boss is expecting? If so, congratulations – that’s what having good communication skills in the workplace is all about.

Communication skills are vital, and not as easy as you might think.

Imagine a chain of small sandwich shops. Customers expect that if they order a particular type of sandwich, they’ll get the same thing in every single one of the chain’s shops. That requires communication between head office and the store managers, between the managers and their staff, between the staff and any new trainees. Don’t imagine, then, that communication skills are irrelevant because you’re just making sandwiches.
And this example helps you understand the kind of skills that you’ll need to demonstrate. ‘Communication skills’ doesn’t mean you need to show how good your French is; it means you’re good at navigating the ordinary web of misunderstanding and miscommunication that’s the norm when people try to organise something as a group. If you’ve ever been in charge of coordinating something – whether that’s drama group rehearsals or your band’s regional tour – then you’ve probably got a few good examples of where your communication skills have come in handy.

4. Flexibility

‘Flexibility’ in a person specification can be something of a red flag. Specifically, it can mean “we’ll change your shifts at extremely short notice, and will get grumpy if you complain.” If you want to demonstrate that you’re this sort of flexible, then you’ll just need to find an excuse in your covering letter to include an instance when you worked or volunteered somewhere where working hours or deadlines changed at short notice, and how you put up with it (preferably with a smile). But in general, this is included in job descriptions not because you’ll need to demonstrate how flexible you are, but simply as a warning that your hours might be anti-social or unpredictable at times.

How would you feel if your shifts were changed at the last minute?

The alternative meaning of flexible is less to do with working hours, and more to do with sudden and possibly unexpected changes to your job (look for it alongside its friend ‘adaptable’ to see if this is the case). For instance, if you try temping, you’ll need to be flexible to work in different companies that can have very different environments and attitudes, and you’ll be moving around a lot too. It’s unlikely that you’ll have experience of this if you’re relatively new to the workplace, so instead you will need to demonstrate that this is an aspect of your job that you treat as an advantage, not a disadvantage. For instance, you might note how much you enjoy variety in your working life, or that you love meeting new people, or that you prefer to avoid getting into a routine. This might seem quite obvious (why would you bother applying for such a job otherwise?) but if your application specifically notes it as perk, while the other people applying don’t, it could be the factor that makes a difference in getting you an interview.

5. Innovation

For employers, one of the best things about hiring new staff is that they come to the job with a fresh perspective. There’s a story that’s popular at training courses about a young woman who’s newly married. Every time she roasts a turkey at Christmas, she carefully cuts a slice off the top of it before putting it in the oven. It loses a chunk of turkey and the bird dries out, but her new husband doesn’t want to criticise. But then one year, the couple go to her mother’s house for Christmas. Her mother has a very small oven, and has to cut a slice off the top of her turkey so that it will fit – and her daughter kept imitating her way of cooking a turkey long after it was necessary. Mystery solved.

Consider where your prospective employers may be looking for innovation.

It’s a slightly daft story, but it does explain what employers can be looking for when they say they’re looking for innovation; they’re not after you to come up with the idea that will revolutionise their company, but they do want your fresh perspective to help them spot where they are – metaphorically – cutting the top off the turkey. Companies build up bad institutional practices all the time, doing things a certain way because they’ve always been done that way, and it can take a new pair of eyes to see what’s going wrong. Being innovative is not just spotting the problems, but having the gumption to point them out.
The examples that you’re looking for to demonstrate how innovative you can be don’t need to be ground-breaking. It might be that you read about a quicker way to do school registration, and you persuaded your school council to adopt it. Perhaps you helped with the adoption of a new stock-taking database in your part-time job? The new idea or approach that you introduced doesn’t need to be of your own invention; you just need to show that you were able to find a novel solution to a problem.

6. Passion

You might think it’s hard to feel passionate about any part-time or entry-level job. Let’s say you’re applying to wait tables in a cafe. You probably don’t feel all that much passion about providing people with their decaf cappuccinos and toasted teacakes. What you probably do feel passionate about is being able to afford to go to the cinema even when you don’t have a two-for-one discount – but you can’t write that on an application form. (And don’t think that you’ll stand out and be entertaining if you do; chances are, three other people have already made the same joke).

If you can do your job with a smile then that’s a great place to start.

But think about it from the perspective of your employer. They either want you to genuinely feel passionate about your work, or at the very least to be able to drop off a toasted teacake on table 11 without glaring at the people who ordered it. They’re most likely the owner of the cafe; it may be a means of earning rent or cinema money to you, but it could be a labour of love for them, and they’d like to have employees who feel the same. So why are you applying for this, in particular, rather than sausage-packing or baby-sitting or any of the innumerable other ways that people earn a crust? Do you like a job that involves food, or interaction with people, or have you always liked that particular cafe more than its competitors? Whatever it is that might make the difference between you coming into work happily rather than begrudgingly – draw attention to it, and they’ll know that you mean it.   

Image credits: working at laptop; interview; standing with newspaper; sandwich; telephones; checking watch; turkey; dog.


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