The Possible Impossibility of Employability…

Let me guess. If you’re a uni student reading this, am I right in thinking you’d like to be employable once you graduate?

It’s probably fair to say the vast majority of students want better job and career choices as a result of their study, even when it’s not their main reason for attending uni.

At a recent Guardian seminar on employability, one question raised was that of responsibility. Who should be ultimately responsible for ensuring people graduate with better chances of employability?

The university? The student? Schools? Employers?

Should it be necessary for anyone to tick a box saying they ensure employability standards of a particular level? Or is the link between students and employability a false trail?

A delicate balance or a false trail? (photo by Kalexanderson)

A delicate balance or a false trail? (photo by Kalexanderson)

There’s no fixed definition of ‘employability’. The term isn’t rigid. Either that, or it ends up sounding vague:

“The skills, attributes and knowledge of an individual which affect the likelihood of finding, obtaining and being retained in suitable employment.” [Source]

That definition was a response to a piece by David Winter. Winter followed up with a tough question. How can this likelihood be measured and how can you increase that likelihood?

There is no clear answer. But since employment itself can be measured statistically, we’re not about to see the end of analysing numbers of graduates in work and their various career destinations. Whether the detail can truly indicate individual likelihood of one thing or another is a different matter.

The increased marketisation of higher education means that universities will want to appear successful in having its graduates finding paid work. It means that students will want to attend an institution that can deliver the best rates of employment. And it means that government will want to see figures that demonstrate how amazing certain universities are in educating people where it is necessary.

False trail or not, the situation is geared up to be viewed in terms of life after graduation, even before a place at uni has been secured.

Mario Creatura said in June:

“[Potential students] will undoubtedly start to look for courses that have a proven track record in employability and prestige. HEFCE/UUK/GuildHE’s work on the KIS [Key Information Sets] is testament to this.”

However, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, Janet Beer recently said, “I am worried about an over-emphasis by students on employability…[students want] employability, but we offer a much richer experience…We must not get sucked into thinking that we are providing some kind of production-line product”.

MIT’s Samuel Jay Keyser shares Janet Beer’s concern:

“During a recent random faculty dinner that I hosted, faculty members from the schools of science and engineering complained about the attitude of present-day students. In their view, all they want to do is just what’s necessary to get through a class. There’s no fire in the belly to get to the bottom of the subject.” [Source]

The sad thing about this is that a fire in the belly would probably be more helpful in the long run.

None of this is really the fault of students though. Neither can you blame universities for not pushing their weight. Instead, it points toward a certain lack of correlation between a degree and employability. Some things can be measured, but that doesn’t mean you can make great sense of it under these conditions.

Unistats now publishes employability statements for universities and explores the employment prospects for graduates.

The statistics are one way for potential students to choose an institution that suits them. However:

  1. It is only a guideline;
  2. There are many other factors to assess when choosing a university.

If employability is a key driver to your choices, it must also be clear that you can do a lot to become more employable without relying on a degree result. In other words, nobody is two-dimensional.

Other matters are also important, including (among approximately a zillion other things…):

  • Relationships and key interactions with others;
  • Extra-curricular activities;
  • Prior experience in your chosen field(s);
  • Examples of going ‘above and beyond’ what’s necessary;
  • Critical assessment/evaluation;
  • Examples of managing projects;
  • Publically visible achievements and/or a portfolio of professional work.

No single attribute will swing open the doors to an all-encompassing employability. Roles are different, personalities are different, everything is different. So how can employability be the same thing to all people and all companies?

A recent Edge Foundation report states:

“While there are variations in the classification of employability, there is a broad understanding of what qualities, characteristics, skills and knowledge constitute employability both in general, and specifically for graduates. Employers expect graduates to have technical and discipline competences from their degrees but require graduates also to demonstrate a range of broader skills and attributes that include team-working, communication, leadership, critical thinking, problem solving and managerial abilities.

“It is arguable that specific definitions are less important than an agreed focus on approaches to promote such transferable skills and fostering attributes that will enable graduates to find appropriate employment, progress in their work and thus facilitate the success of their organisations and contribute to society and the economy.”

It seems that individual roles and careers will carry specific requirements and expectations, while a more general overview appreciates a rounded character.

Much frustration arises because there’s no magic answer for you to explain why you’ve got what a potential employer wants. If there was, we’d all be giving the magic answer. And what would employers do then?

The big take home point here is to understand that your focus on what’s important out of university shouldn’t rely solely on the certificate you get after three or more years. You owe yourself to go beyond that. Your degree isn’t the source of awesome. You are.

Find your brand. Work your brand. Love your brand.

If the degree said it all, your CV would state where you studied, what you studied, and how you were graded. You wouldn’t need anything else.

Hopefully you agree that isn’t the case. :)

No matter how vague the term ‘employability’ is, you’re not stuck for options. You can still make moves toward improving your lot. Big moves. As big as you want them to be.

You ready? Then take a look through these posts from TheUniversityBlog’s archive. Best of luck to you!

4 comments

  1. Great post. It horrifies me that universities see themselves as needing to focus on employability, because that is such a meagre goal. Having said that, as I work on our Digital Literacies project, which has a focus on employability, I find myself being sucked in to this view (whilst simultaneously railing against it!). HE is not (or should not be) about training people to fulfill roles in industry. it is bigger, and better, than that. but focusing on employability takes focus away from providing the wider, rounder, and altogether much more important aspects of education.

    One thing I have noticed over the years is that while employers say they expect a certain set of skills and attributes, they are often quite far removed from those needed for the job, and even further removed from those preferred by individual managers. ‘Producing’ critical thinking, questioning and imaginative graduates may actually reduce their employability when it comes to them being interviewed by the people who will be managing them…

    1. When a process becomes less natural, it somewhat jars. I’m sure you’re not alone in getting sucked in and railing against this at the same time!

      You make an interesting point about reducing employability with certain personal attributes. I think you’re on to something here. Requirements are different for jobs and careers. Even supposed general skills cannot be agreed en masse. And the picture is further complicated when personalities clash in interviews and training. No amount of ‘employability’ can patch up this type of situation.

      Thanks for your comment, Pat. Whatever way you get pushed and pulled around, I hope the Digital Literacies project is a success. :)

  2. I am finding a lot of opinions I agree with in this blog… doesn’t happen very often I must say. The irrelevance of having a title when one lacks the skills to do a good job is a key point in today’s academic system. Employers want the job done, employees wish to do the job and the only piece missing in the puzzle is the university ensuring that both get what they want: success. Congratulations on the blog and regards.

    1. Many thanks, Ricardo. It’s difficult for universities to to ensure success in a generic way. There’s a lot of debate over HE’s place in vocational training, but whatever a person’s views on the matter, it may be necessary for some institutions to specialise in order to bridge the gap you mention. It’s not the only purpose of HE, but you rightly say that many employers and potential employees somewhat rely upon HE to bring this ‘success’.

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