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Employability skills

‘Employability skills’ is a term you will hear a lot at university. These are the skills that many employers look for when recruiting so you will often find them in job descriptions. You might hear people refer to these as ‘transferable skills’ or ‘soft skills’.

University is the perfect time to work on them. In fact, you might have already built up many without realising.

But what do these skills actually mean? And how can you develop a skill or prove that you have it? This list covers some of the skills you’ll come across most often, with tips on how to work on each one.

There’s no comprehensive list of employability skills. You’ll find other lists which include different skills and use different terminology.

Basic IT and digital skills

Digital skills are essential in most graduate jobs. At its most basic that might mean knowing how to use Microsoft Office but, with the increase in remote and hybrid working, employers are increasingly looking for graduates who know how to use a range of digital tools to communicate effectively. That could be specific knowledge of Microsoft Teams or the Google Suite but more generally speaking it means knowing which tools to use in certain situations.

You might also be expected to use software and systems you have never used before, so being able to demonstrate that you can pick up new tools quickly is important. 

Someone with good IT and digital skills will:

  • Know how to use a range of common digital tools effectively
  • Be able to show that they can pick up new software and digital tools quickly
  • Know which digital tools to use in certain situations

Some jobs might also expect a basic understanding of data analysis and even coding, but this would usually be specifically mentioned in a job description.

Develop this skill by:

Have you completed York Strengths? If you’re an Agile Learner you might demonstrate this skill in how you adapt quickly to unfamiliar IT platforms and software.

Commercial awareness

Commercial awareness is an understanding of the key drivers behind a successful business or organisation. Employers really value this skill in graduates because it shows they understand what makes a business a success.

Someone with commercial awareness will:

  • Understand how an organisation operates and the internal and external pressures it faces 
  • Understand how an organisation drives value, whether that is profit, services provided efficiently or another method
  • Know which businesses operate in a particular sector and be aware of an organisation's products, successes, values, aims and ambitions
  • Be able to demonstrate this knowledge in job applications and interviews
  • Be able to understand the practical implications of this information in their day to day work.

Develop this skill by:

  • Exploring our Enterprise programme or joining the York Entrepreneurs Society to learn about the realities of running a business and generating business ideas
  • Attending employer events to find out about the issues currently affecting them
  • Doing work experience to learn about the realities of a particular industry
  • Keeping up to date with industry news so you understand what’s going on - you'll find relevant industry news websites on our job sector pages.


Everyone thinks they have good communication skills but employers can be looking for something quite specific when they put ‘good communication’ on a job description. There are two main areas:

  • Written communication: structuring your thoughts/information in a clear and logical manner with correct spelling and grammar.
  • Verbal communication: presenting information verbally and tailoring your presentation style to an audience. Active listening is also important as communication is a two-way process.

Someone with good communication skills will:

  • Communicate clearly verbally and in writing
  • Be able to adapt their communication style depending on their audience
  • Demonstrate active listening and question others where appropriate

Develop this skill by:

  • Using the Writing Centre to help you improve your written skills and exploring taking one of their credit-bearing modules to enhance your communication skills
  • Attending our events to learn the art of approaching and communicating with employers in a supportive setting
  • Taking part in a YSIS placement, where you will be communicating with different age ranges (school children and teachers) 
  • Becoming an academic rep for YUSU to develop your communication skills with academics and fellow students
  • Becoming a Student Ambassador
  • Seeking opportunities to present to an audience. For example, putting yourself forward to lead a presentation as part of a group project in your degree or a talk in a student society.

Have you completed York Strengths? If you’re a Relationship Builder you might demonstrate this skill in how you make other people feel heard and understood.


Creativity isn’t just a skill for people in the creative industries. Being creative is about thinking of new ideas and considering new ways of doing things. It is often linked to being entrepreneurial and good at problem solving, but it is an important skill on its own. The World Economic Forum identifies it as one of the top 10 skills needed by 2025.

Someone who is creative will:

  • Generate new, original ideas often and feel confident explaining them
  • Identify and take opportunities 
  • Maintain a curious and open mind and use their imagination

Develop this skill by:

  • Getting involved in projects that challenge you to think in new ways or put you in new situations. Start with our community projects.
  • Reading up on digital creativity to learn how to combine different skills
  • Getting involved in societies; many student societies have a creative focus, where you can use your imagination to produce creative work. Being involved in the organisation of any society will allow you to exercise your creativity by generating new ideas, solving problems and approaching tasks in your own unique way.

Have you completed York Strengths? If you’re a Pioneering Thinker you might demonstrate this skill in how you continually approach challenges in new and innovative ways.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence means understanding and controlling your emotions, and understanding what other people are feeling. Employers value emotional intelligence because it affects your ability to do other things well like build good working relationships and manage stressful situations.

Employers usually assess your emotional intelligence by your ability to do other skills well, like communicate, work in teams and demonstrate resilience.

Develop this skill by:

  • Recognising your own emotions and stress factors and developing strategies to help you when you are faced with change or pressure
  • Exploring the wellbeing workshops offered by Student Support to help with managing your feelings
  • Being aware of how to look after yourself, especially during times of stress. Read the University's tips for wellbeing
  • Getting involved with people from different backgrounds and with different viewpoints to your own - on your course, by joining societies, or by working or volunteering in the local community

Have you completed York Strengths? If you’re a Self Improver you might demonstrate this skill in how you seek out honest feedback from your peers and colleagues.


Being able to manage simple mathematical calculations and the ability to budget are not only key requirements for many employers, they are valuable life skills.

Someone with good numeracy will:

  • Feel comfortable with arithmetic operations and understand data
  • Create and interpret graphs and tables
  • Be able to apply their numeracy skills to managing a budget

Develop this skill by:

Organisation and time management

Organisation and time management appear in a lot of job descriptions because they are essential for most jobs. If you’ve ever worked on a group project with someone with poor time management, you’ll know how frustrating it can be. 

Someone organised and with good time management will:

  • Identify and set objectives
  • Prioritise work by assessing what is the most important
  • Meet deadlines and understand when deadlines are unrealistic

Some employers might want project management skills. This is linked to organisation and time management but is something a bit different; it’s a set of processes, methods and knowledge applied to project work. Read more about this at the Association for Project Management.

Develop this skill by:

  • Working through the time management module on the Library skills page
  • Balancing a part-time job with student life

Have you completed York Strengths? If you’re a Digital Connector you might demonstrate this skill in how you use digital tools to stay organised and support your time management.

Problem solving

Problem solving involves analysing facts and situations and coming up with appropriate solutions. 

Someone good at problem solving will:

  • Identify that a problem exists and define it
  • Use logic and creativity to break down a problem and suggest solutions

Develop this skill by:

  • Engaging fully with problem solving in your degree course, for example group projects, dissertation research, practical challenges and problem-based learning
  • Identifying and working to overcome obstacles in your personal, academic or work life
  • Joining the University Maths Society for problem solving and numeracy skills
  • Taking on your own challenge to help your studies. For example, learning a computer programming language
  • Helping to run a student society or volunteering project where you will get to use your problem solving skills


Resilience is about having a positive approach, being good at dealing with setbacks, learning from problems and bouncing back if things go wrong. It includes being flexible and willing to rethink and adjust plans if you need to.

Someone with resilience will:

  • Deal positively with unexpected setbacks
  • Seek out challenges
  • Manage risks
  • Cope with constructive criticism and rejection and see this as a part of a broader learning process

Develop this skill by:

  • Exploring the wellbeing workshops offered by Student Support - many of these can contribute towards developing a resilient approach to life
  • Being aware of how to look after yourself, especially during times of stress. Read the University's tips for wellbeing
  • Exploring the Open University's free course Developing career resilience which covers both personal and career resilience
  • Taking on a challenging volunteering role in the community
  • Getting involved with a student society or college committee and working to enhance the lives of fellow students

Self-motivation and initiative

Self-motivation is about using your drive and determination to improve yourself. Using initiative is about spotting opportunities and taking action without necessarily being asked. The two overlap and are highly sought by employers.

Someone with self-motivation and initiative will:

  • Be proactive and take advantage of opportunities when they arise
  • Have the motivation to improve themselves
  • Have the drive to complete tasks, even when they face unexpected obstacles

Develop this skill by:

  • Taking part in York Strengths to learn more about what motivates you and to help you find your drive
  • Pushing yourself to take the initiative in your part-time work and extra-curricular activities to get in the habit of using this skill

Have you completed York Strengths? If you’re a Resilient Achiever you might demonstrate this skill in how you identify opportunities in challenges and use them as a springboard to improve.


Working in a team involves cooperation and negotiation with others while working towards a common aim. Being flexible is useful in a team when deciding team roles, and respecting other opinions and ideas is important.

Someone good at teamworking will:

  • Cooperate with others on a shared task
  • Demonstrate their good communication skills to help the group work together
  • Be able to lead and motivate others when necessary
  • Be comfortable working with people remotely and in interdisciplinary teams
  • Support others if problems arise

Develop this skill by:

  • Being a member of a sports team to appreciate team dynamics
  • Participating fully in any group work elements in your course
  • Being involved with a student society or committee and working together to achieve your aims
  • Getting involved in a community project with other York students
  • Becoming a Student Ambassador

Have you completed York Strengths? If you’re an Authentic Communicator you might demonstrate this skill in how you engage with people of all cultures and at all levels in an honest and respectful manner.

What next?

  • Employability skills reflective practice: this skills guide will help you learn how to capture, reflect on and evidence your experiences and skills to help you prepare for your next steps after university.
  • York Strengths: find out more about yourself, and how to make the most of what you have to offer.
  • Job hunting toolkit: learn more about the process of applying for a job, including how to understand the language used in job descriptions. 
  • CVs, applications and interviews: advice on putting together a good job application, where you can apply your understanding of these employability skills.