Graduates and the language of jobs

Is getting a job more important than being employable?

Martin Edmondson, CEO of Gradcore and Graduates Yorkshire, has found that graduates and employers may be looking at careers from different perspectives.

photo by Zach Klein

photo by Zach Klein

In preparation for the Graduate Employment Conference 2012 (#GEC12), I’ve asked Martin whether students and graduates viewed ’employability’ differently to employers and, if so, how parties could move closer to a shared understanding:

“The whole of the Gradcore business concept is built on improving the understanding and interactions between organisations, universities and graduate. Therefore we take this issue pretty seriously.

“We have recently finished our second running of the ‘Big Graduate Survey’ in Yorkshire, and have doubled our responses this year, with 3800 graduates responding. One of the free-text response questions asked what they wanted from their careers services. Whilst we haven’t yet had time to process the 1400 comments, our clever survey software can produce a wordcloud from the responses, with the biggest word being most commonly mentioned. The word that emerged was ‘Jobs’ and not ‘Employability’. This does not mean that employability is not important, it just means that the head down graduate view of employability can be encapsulated in ‘help me get a job’.”

When I speak with graduates, language does turn to matters of ‘looking for a job’, ‘applying for jobs’. ‘Employability’ isn’t a term frequently mentioned. And with a lot of advice suggesting that graduates tailor each application to the particular job, perhaps the focus moves to being employable for every individual job, rather than growing an understanding of what makes a person employable in an overall sense. There is no single answer, but there are certainly common themes.

Even common themes can prove difficult, as Martin explains:

“From the employer perspective there is as much disagreement about what constitutes employability as there is in Universities. One of the most commonly cited components of employability cited by employers is ‘commercial awareness’. Unfortunately when you ask 5 different employers what commercial awareness is, you will get five different answers. In our employability development courses we have taken this on board and now coach graduates in what we have categorised as the 5 key elements of commercial awareness. Maybe even that is too complex, as I recently met a chamber of commerce president  who insisted that her members knew graduates had skills but simply wanted them to get better at being ‘nice people to work with’.

“As with all things, ascribing a single view to an imaginary homogenous group of graduates, universities and employers is dangerous, but these are real life examples that illustrate the gaps that need bridging. I have found fairly consistently is that in the interconnection of businesses of graduates, common and key factors are culture and values.”

Culture and values suggest an ongoing desire to extend understanding of a wide range of issues. These are not so much skills, but a sense of empathy, engagement, and a forward-facing attitude that’s ready for change.

As Harold Jarche recently said, “Given that 65% of todays’ students will end up in jobs that don’t exist today, we know work will change significantly in the next decade. The network economy is changing everyone’s business, and will significantly affect education and training as well.”

Martin explains that as HE continues to move toward marketisation, students will increasingly consider the link between fees and graduate employment outcomes. He says, “more than ever before, universities need to produce employable graduates (whatever they think that means)”.

The ‘whatever they think that means’ part is important too. Without linking up the views of students, universities, and companies, there is a danger that thoughts will be a confusion of irrelevant assumptions. Without listening to each other, how would students be best placed for the jobs they desire and how would employers be able to find the right fit?

As for universities, how would they keep on board a large number of their students ongoing? While the purpose of university is not solely to train people up for employment, many people attend university in order to help their future prospects. If the links between study and future employability are not forthcoming, what then?

CIHE’s David Docherty suggests, “[Universities] need internships, placements, short-work bursts, and embedded doctorates to help them develop ‘fused graduates'”. Think of it, perhaps, as university beyond university.

Martin Edmondson left me with a number of questions that he sees as important for each group to consider their position:

  • Is one of the issues in student engagement around employability the word itself?
  • How can business adapt to and embrace the qualities brought by generation Y graduates?
  • How can graduates accelerate their understanding of different workplaces so they make themselves attractive to employers?
  • How can culture and values be harnessed to build understanding and connectivity between employers and graduates?
  • How can Universities act as a bridge between the two groups, and develop ones understanding of the other?

These are important questions. It is up to all parties to ensure graduates can shine after they have been at university.

Change is ongoing, which gives much room for innovation. As a recent Harvard Business Review piece asks, “Isn’t real innovation supposed to blow through thresholds to create something of new value?”

So, who’s up for blowing through some thresholds?