Reforming employability measures

It is widely understood that graduates with higher level skills are critical to the ability of the UK economy to innovate and thus be competitive internationally so it is vitally important that the way we measure how the supply of graduates meets the demand of employers is useful to both universities and businesses. Our recent analysis at NCUB has made it clear that the current measure of employability both in terms of graduate activity six-months after graduation and the number of graduates of certain subjects going into often arbitrarily related jobs needs to be augmented with something more holistic.

The ‘supply’ of higher level skills is usually measured as numbers of graduates in a particular subject discipline, with STEM subjects taken as the indicator for innovation capacity. If we were to make use of this measure alone, the picture would look very positive. The supply of graduates and postgraduates of all disciplines increased 5 per cent year-on-year between 2007/8 and 2012/11 in the UK with growth fastest for Business and Administrative Studies (10 per cent yearly) and Engineering and Technology, Mathematical Sciences and Mass Communication and Documentation, all with yearly growth rates of 8 per cent in the last four academic years. This clearly does not give the whole picture though as employers continue to complain about shortages of suitable graduates.

‘Demand’ for graduates and postgraduates is usually measured by employment levels, which move with the economic cycle rather than with education policy and can swing greatly within a year. For example, employment in the year to June 2013 increased by 16 per cent in real estate related roles and fell by 1.5 per cent in the water industries sector. However, over the five years to June 2013 employment grew the equivalent of 4 per cent year-on-year in both sectors. These short-term fluctuations within longer-term trends make it almost impossible to plan to ensure that graduates with the right qualifications are entering the jobs market when they are needed.

Instead, research conducted with employers suggest that generic practical skills, flexibility and the ability to adapt to change are the attributes now sought by employers who are trying to distinguish between the increasing number of candidates with relevant subject specific knowledge. Those employers are not looking for a fundamental change to reduce subject specific knowledge but they are telling us that they would welcome a way forward, based on joint responsibility between universities and business, that helps them to identify the graduates with the best ‘generic’ skills and to support best practice in developing them.

While at entry level subject specific knowledge increases employability, for positions higher up the ladder, skills that go beyond specific subject knowledge, including people and project management, leadership skills and sector or firm specific knowledge, become more important. In order to progress employees need to grow these skills either by moving across jobs and occupations within the same organisation or by moving to another.

The ability of graduates to move between employment sectors can be used to link the subject of degree on graduation with their likely progression early in their careers, creating a more holistic view of graduate employability than the more restrictive ‘supply and demand’ one. By taking a longer term view of graduate destinations than the traditional six-months, say three and a half years, and combining it with data about the job sector graduates are working in we can build a better picture of graduate mobility.

There is no evidence that one type of career progression is superior to another, but holding a degree does not necessitate identical careers for all those who hold the same qualifications. What is clear is that degree subjects are not uniquely identified with certain occupations or sectors. Hopefully an acknowledgement of this can help move the debate on graduate and post-graduate skills away from the simple counting of degrees and jobs towards a more holistic approach to graduate skills, and towards a more fluid view of the labour market for higher skills, based on the opportunities and rewards in career progression within and across sectors.

This article is based on a chapter in the National Centre for University and Business’ ‘The State of the Relationship’ report available here.

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