A Young Person's Guide To What Employers Want

It won't come as a galloping shock to anyone who knows me, to learn that I was a bit of a feisty handful for my parents when I was 17 years-old. In fact, in the depths of her exasperation, my mum would flippantly and sarcastically urge me to move out, “...whilst you still know everything!

Ahh, the arrogance of youth...I barely remember it at all, now I'm in the twilight of my decrepitude. So, as a self-confessed old foogue, may I offer you young-un's some advice on what employers are really looking for in raw recruits like you?

For your reference, I have had a wide selection of jobs in my 147 year career, all of which required me to recruit warm bodies at some stage. Even my first ever job saw me rise through the ranks to become a departmental head at the age of 22, and needing to recruit and replace myself. I have worked in the HR department at Weetabix, worked in motorsport and events management; I have even co-founded and run a hugely successful family business for a generation of years. So on many levels, I do know my onions. Whether you read and implement the following is entirely up to you, but I'm going to start imparting now, so brace yourself.


To begin with, I'd like you to imagine your favourite meal, down to the finest detail. I'd like you to close your eyes and imagine how your meal looks on the plate, how does it smell, can you imagine the flavours and textures? I'm not going to stereotype you by assuming your favourite meal is served in a cardboard box and eaten at a cheap Formica table. I'm going to assume you appreciate your favourite meal being presented to you on a clean plate, with lovely cutlery and in a clean environment, that smells nice. After all, how many of us could eat a meal standing next to a sewage treatment tank?

Now, steering seamlessly into your next visualisation; I want you to imagine eating the very same delicious, favourite meal, but this time it's served to you on a filthy and contaminated dustbin lid. It's the same food, cooked just the way you like it, but you're less likely to want it now, because it's tainted and presented to you badly. My broader points are these...

You are about to embark on a new and exciting phase of your life. You have goals, dreams and aspirations. You want to set the world alight with your brilliance, and I am sure you will. However, there are some points which may serve you well if you adopt and implement them. Ask yourself these questions:

Are you presenting yourself in the best possible light? Is your hair, and are your clothes, clean? Are you punctual? Are you polite and respectful? Are you well-prepared? Is this the best possible version of you to present to the world? If you're not presenting yourself in the best possible light, someone else will be - and guess which one of you will get the job.

Please notice I haven't urged you all to dash out and buy suits and get “proper” haircuts etc, because you must always be true to yourself, and never lose sight of your individuality. If you're applying for a job at, or working for i.e.: MTV, having multiple piercings and saggy-arsed jeans may well be appropriate, but what if you're working at a school, or a bank or a hospital? All I'm suggesting you do is consider the expectations of your (future) employer and work environment, and then decide whether or not you are prepared to accept and adopt those workplace norms.

If you're working in the private sector, it is a good idea to remember that the business employing you is likely to be (or have been) someone else's pride and joy; their baby in many respects. Why should they entrust any task, within that precious environment they've created, to you? Business owners are crazy-protective of their businesses, just as parents are crazy-protective of their children. This may help explain to you why your boss will be so serious about you doing a good job; you are representing them, their dream and their self-sacrificing achievements.


If you show up late, unhygienic, rude and lacking in self-respect, it would be fair for your employer to be concerned about the levels of respect you are likely to extend to your colleagues and their clients. What you say, how you say it, how you behave and conduct yourself screams volumes to employers. It takes just three seconds for someone to create a first impression about you. First impressions are notoriously hard to break once they're set, because people generally look for reasons to support their existing opinions; not for reasons to prove themselves wrong.

Employers are looking for someone who presents themselves well, because this is an indication of how well you will perform in your role, and how well you will represent their department/company.


Why you? What makes you different? Pretend I am a prospective employer interviewing you right now; give me an example of what sets you apart from the 57 other candidates I will meet for the job you are passionate about. Can you show me how you live your life+? What extra effort do you put into yourself; into investing in your own growth, development and value to future employers?

Are you the type of person who has come home from school or college, grudgingly done your homework/assignments for fear of the consequences, and i.e.: played computer games habitually, or socialised excessively? Or, have you pushed yourself hard through school, partaken in extra-curricular activities, had a Saturday job since the age of thirteen, whilst volunteering for charity, representing your county in sport, or playing drums in a band? Can you see how your answers will inform me about your attitude, aptitude and character? I, for one, would be looking for a sociable and well-rounded individual with an abundance of life-learning experiences to bring with them, rather than someone who is motivated by their dependence on all things entertainment based. Do you lurch or lunge at life, because it's going to matter to your employers.

Please remember there will be a gazillion young people leaving school at the same time as you. You may go on to University, or gain an apprenticeship, but these courses are finite, and then you will be one of the gazillion again, leaving further education or training; and all seeking employment at the same time, with the rest of the working population. How are you going to stand out and make yourself the most awe-inspiring candidate available? Well, to begin with, it's always helpful if you can blow the bloody doors off of your exam results, but a great many employers operate a policy of hiring character and training skill. You must therefore endeavour to be the fullest and most rounded candidate, because great grades alone do not guarantee you success or an “access all areas” pass in life.

If you're baulking at the thought of all the extra effort required to differentiate yourself, then I will ask you to remember this key point about success. To be successful, you must be willing to do the things today that others will not do, to have the things tomorrow, that others will not have. This is your life, it's not a rehearsal. Only you can knuckle down and achieve the things you want to achieve. You will get nothing and nowhere simply by wishing for things to be better. Do you want the great things in life? Are you prepared to work for them? There are no Fairy Godmothers, you have to do it yourself.


Now then, when I (as your pretend interviewer) am presented with an endless heap of identical CV's, from candidates who have all blown the doors off of their exam results, there is one sure fire way of separating yourself from others – with your demonstrable attitude. Like I said a moment ago, many companies are prepared to hire attitude and train skill. Few companies are eager to recruit a conveyor belt of Identikit “Normans”, so let a genuinely positive, high energy “can do” attitude kick in the door of opportunity for you. I really don't have anything against doors by the way, I just enjoy blowing them off or kicking them in; it makes for fantastic exercise. Oh, and girls...you can smash any glass ceiling if you're good enough; just ask Marissa Mayer, Carolyn McCall, or Mary Barra to name but three - and don't get me started on Hilary Rodham Clinton, Michelle Obama, or our own Theresa May!

HR Managers are more inclined to hire attitude and train skill, because it is so much more efficient to train a candidate with an impressive school career and the right attitude to life and work, because they have a proven ability to learn and integrate successfully. It is enormously difficult, time consuming – almost impossible – to adjust a person's attitude.

Nowadays, when everything is fast paced, instant and on demand, who has the time to devote to adjusting the essence of who someone else is? In business time is money, so your recruitment officer is going to want you to hit the ground running and be all-singing-all-dancing as soon as humanly possible. You're in the big league now, so make sure you demonstrate a strong, open and posi