The State of Talent Development for the Social Sector


Despite high unemployment rates around the world, employers constantly complain that they find it difficult to hire suitable talent. This problem spans all sectors of the economy, but our concern here is with organizations that seek to solve social problems around the world. They too face the prospect of hiring recent graduates whose educations rarely afford them the skills needed to meet the demands of the current global economy. But, what does this job market want? What are the skills and experiences students can acquire to make an employer feel they could be a successful change maker? And what type of training would get us there?

Through this study, the Amani Institute set out to understand the role of universities in fostering future leaders of social change. The study includes representative organizations across all the major sub-sectors: humanitarian agencies, social enterprises, local and international nonprofits, for-profit development firms, and government and multi-lateral aid agencies. We surveyed people in leadership positions as well as recent employees not long after their master's degrees.

Executive Summary

  • Numerous reports show that employers find it difficult to recruit because of the skills gap between what employers expect and what recent graduates can provide. The Amani Institute surveyed both employers and employees at leading organizations in the social sector to determine the nature of the skills gap
  • The core finding of this study was that the attributes employers most value in prospective employees are largely things not received from a typical university degree.
  • For instance, academic and theoretical grounding—the one topic that almost all employees agree that universities are most equipped to teach—is not in the top five skills that employers (of all sizes and types) are looking for
  • Employers consistently rank leadership and problem-solving initiative, project management skills (including program evaluation), and communication skills as more important than academic and analytical/quantitative skills
  • In providing these types of skills, they believe that universities generally fare poorly.
  • Employers and employees believe that the attributes needed for a successful employee are often best acquired through non-traditional means such as specialized workshops or living in a different country for 6 or more months.
  • Regarding the preparation that employers are looking for in prospective employees, the type of education received is not as important to employers as extracurricular experience in the field. In other words, whether at a start-up or at the United Nations or anywhere in between, field experience and evidence of leadership matter more than what type of degree was received and from where.
  • When asked about the attributes of a good and bad employee, nearly all answers dealt with personality-based traits over specific skill-sets. For employers in the social sector then, who a person is matters a great deal, at least as much as what they know and what they can do.
  • Graduates might believe themselves to be more prepared for their jobs than they really are, or at least more prepared than they are in their employers’ eyes. This leaves open the possibility of overconfidence—a trait that employers especially dislike.
  • Since the person matters as much as their skills, the education of change makers must needs to focus on that aspect too. Opportunities for leadership development, problem-solving skill, empathy, cross-cultural fluency, and self-mastery need to be systematically baked in to higher education training programs.
  • Given that universities as currently structured cannot bridge the skills gap between employers and employees, graduates should look to supplement their studies with other types of training opportunities (long-term international experience, diverse travels, field internships, and so on) to fully prepare themselves for the rigors and challenges of the field, and to fill the gap between universities and employers.