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I've been involved in a couple of conversations recently about how to attract good quality candidates into entry-level SEO and online marketing roles and how to ensure that applicants have the right skills and the right attitude to succeed.
On the one side, employers from SEO companies debate the idea of certification and whether it's possible to teach something that is as constantly evolving as SEO and whether as an industry we could even oversee such certification when we can't control the quality of those claiming to offer SEO services. As employers, our needs are simply not being met by the graduate applicants we see because they are not being provided with the necessary practical skillsets or knowledge.
On the other, academic institutions at least locally in Manchester, have been asking for feedback and help from those of us in industry for years, with limited avail, but are also hamstrung by their own funding issues and internal politics. They deliver a range of practical training for students, but the students are, nonetheless, coming out with few skills and unrealistic expectations.
At the moment we tend to see three types of graduate applications:
- the technical SEO grad
- the marketing graduate
- the English/Journalism graduate
Our problem as employers
In this mix there's a lot of ambition, very little practical skill and few of these graduates have received any advice about how to sell themselves to businesses.
The grads that have a more technical background tend to only have very basic front-end development skills, applicable only in a perfect environment. They aren't equipped to take a bad website and improve it. If we don't have a resource available to train them, their skills aren't useful. They may understand the theory behind how a website works, but they don't understand the needs of the businesses whose websites we market - so they don't understand how to choose keywords, they tend to overoptimise pages, they can't tell a good link from a bad one (most have the misunderstanding that links are good, not the knowledge that SOME links are good). None of these applicants can write. They have never been taught how to take an idea and apply it to a real world situation, or to think critically. Their problem-solving skills are minimal.
The marketing graduates have a lot of theoretical understanding of marketing but have never seen it applied to a real business. They expect big budgets, loads of time and the ability to work on wild viral campaigns. They know the difference between SEO, PPC and social media, but beyond having their own Facebook accounts, Twitter accounts or a blog, they have no idea how businesses use these tools to market themselves. They have never used even basic HTML and they cannot write. While many of them are bright, fast learners, if we don't have someone with time to train them, again, we can't hire them. They have never been taught how to take an idea and apply it to a real world situation, or to think critically. Their problem-solving skills are minimal.
The English/journalism graduates know nothing about business or marketing but they have developed analytical skills, they can absorb complex concepts and apply them to real world situations, and although they can't code, they can write. We can hire them, get them copywriting from day one and train them quickly. We hire a lot of English and journalism graduates. We could do with similar graduates with technical web development skills.
The problem with a university education
There's a massive disconnect between universities and business which is a fault on both sides. Our friends in academia are building courses to guide students into online marketing but don't necessarily have the practical experience to know what skills to teach. But whereas arts courses teach students to think critically and apply that knowledge, these online marketing courses are failing to help students learn how to apply what they've learned in any situation.
The SEO that is being taught is explaining what we do, but not why - and the why is the most important thing for students to learn. The graduates we see can only work off a list of things that they call "SEO", without understanding how to analyse a website or build a campaign or even that the way in which we apply various SEO tasks will vary from site to site - they can't adjust their work to the situation at hand without a lot of help each time they are given even a basic task. Because they are not taught problem solving and critical thinking they fail to understand how to analyse various situations. Because they generally do not do placements, they never learn how SEO operates in real world situations.
Now, I'm not saying that the students aren't encouraged to apply for placements; most of them simply don't listen.
Furthermore, the nature of how British students are educated means that graduates are able to drop subjects from their education from early on which means they aren't very well-rounded. They do not learn to write even simple business letters, have no grasp of grammar or syntax, have poor maths skills (hint: if you're doing marketing, statistics is probably a useful pursuit) and will, as a result, take longer to understand the businesses of our clients because they have neither a broad-based education nor real world experience. They also expect to be spoon fed.
We have had issues time and time again with graduates not understanding the nature of hard work and how to succeed. Most of them wait to be taught, will not seek out answers on their own (perhaps because they do not know how) leave work unfinished because the clock strikes 5pm, and then get upset when at 6 months or a year do not get an expected promotion. We've heard the line "Well I get all my work done, of course I should be advancing by now" far too many times. They also have unreasonable salary expectations - we regularly have graduates ask for remuneration packages higher than what senior members of the team are on, because "my tutor told me that's what I am worth."
Most recently, the esteemed David Edmundson-Bird, from MMU, advised that we should advertise "graduate" jobs, not "junior" roles because it puts students off applying.
Except the jobs we advertise aren't strictly "graduate" jobs - they're entry level positions and if you can show me you can do the job, I'll hire you with or without a degree. We also wouldn't want to exclude anyone older, looking to change career.
The job title should not matter; the right job description in the right company and the right attitude towards that job should matter very much. If universities are telling students anything different to that then they need to rethink their advice immediately. It's a tough job market out there for graduates so a sense of entitlement is not doing graduates any favours.
What businesses are getting wrong
Now I'm not trying to place the blame entirely on universities. Most of them have the right goals in mind, are doing their best to educate students who may not want to learn and are encouraging those students to build relationships with potential employers. They do ask for our feedback as businesses - we just don't pay very much attention to them, although we probably should. I'm also not entirely convinced that when we're asked for our feedback by universities it's the right feedback to ask for - or that the input we're asked to provide is always the right input. If you ask the wrong questions, for whatever reason, you don't get the answers you need. I doubt anyone in industry has ever pointed this out, either.
Surely if we're getting graduate applicants with the wrong skillsets it is as much our fault for not offering placements, apprenticeships, internships and shouting louder about what we need to the universities? We want a lot of things from graduates - namely because we have little time to train people who may offer us little return for weeks or months - but we aren't doing a lot to ensure that we get what we need.
How we can help
Perhaps rather than the online marketing industry talking about 'certification' in a vaccuum away from universities and the universities building courses without the right type of input from industry we should be building courses together that require a placement? Businesses should be willing to offer time and resources to help train the students as we need them to be taught and universities need to be more flexible in the types of courses they build. I don't think it's an easy solution - most agencies are already overworked and have little time to offer mentoring - but I think it will vastly help our pool of talent. I think it will also help graduates develop realistic expectations about the industry and their careers.
Finally, our advice to graduates, as employers
The onus here shouldn't be entirely on the teachers or the employers however. I've said it before and I'll say it again - graduates need to demonstrate usefulness and willingness from day one.
However, that in and of itself isn't all it takes. SEO is a job that requires analytical skills, the ability to understand complicated technical ideas and communicate them in a simple way, good problem solving and constant pursuit of knowledge and new ideas. It also requires hard work and often long hours. Graduates who want a good job title, a big salary and 9-5 hours have no place with us. Graduates who are willing to work hard, actively pursue knowledge and growth will advance very quickly.
Mainly, though, to get your foot in the door, you need to start by learning as much as you can while still in education and follow this up by writing a CV that's tailored for the job you want - I don't care what instruments you play, what sports you like and what you did in your gap year. I care about your transferable skills. If you can show me that you can apply what you've learned to what I need you to do then you're the right candidate for me.