Now that employability has become such a touchstone issue, it is time to tackle, head on, the lack of confidence that prevents so many students from using university careers support services.
It is only by supporting students to articulate who they really are, their vision of where they want to be, and the uniqueness of what they can bring to the workplace, that universities can boost take-up of this cornerstone of their employability offer.
With renewed government emphasis on good graduate outcomes (measured by degree award, a graduate job, the salary to match), universities are busy with a whole range of placements, internships, work experience, service learning, and projects to embed employability skills in the curriculum.
Yet 98 per cent of careers professionals in universities feel students do not engage with career development activities and 27 per cent of students believe that the biggest obstacle to future career success is not knowing what field to go into.
The UPP Student Futures Commission report describes the post-pandemic lack of confidence in students about finding a job after graduation, despite a much stronger than predicted graduate jobs market.
In many ways there is not a lot to feel confident about. For non-traditional graduates, there are the well-known structural inequalities: lack of access to social capital; digital inequalities; geographic disparities; barriers and challenges around race and gender.
Then there are the new challenges for Generation Z. Students looking at the job market in 2022 are thinking beyond linear careers and into parallel careers (a series of simultaneous, often fixed-term or zero hours roles). Job hunting is no longer a period between employers but is likely, at some level, to be a continuous process with some form of unemployment permanently on the horizon.
In addition, remote working has become a reality never considered pre-pandemic but this can be difficult for young people.
The Careers 2032 research from Handshake suggests that it may be this very lack of confidence that is getting in the way: the common assumption that careers services are only for students who know what they want to do. As one student said, “Building confidence is important because the fact is, the students who don’t know what they want, what they want to do or where they want to go are too scared to engage with careers advice because they don’t know where to start.”
And yet, at the same time, these are students who are already confidently navigating complex conversations around who they want to be: their ownership of the climate change agenda; the debates around gender and racial identities; the acknowledgement and ownership of mental health and wellbeing issues.
Covid has seen them demonstrate an adaptability and resilience greater than previous generations. They bring a rich range of different experiences outside formal education (social capital, consumer skills, digital literacies from a whole range of cultures and subcultures), attributes that have enabled them to get to university in the first place.
So, students have the sought-after transferable skills: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, creativity, and collaboration. They have the adaptability, responsiveness, and resilience. But, as a careers service manager recently told us, “many of (the students) really struggle to talk about themselves positively, to recognise their achievements.”
This confidence comes with a real understanding of who they are and who they want to be. It comes with clarity about what they really want to achieve in their lives, and that sense of self-efficacy and self-belief that they can achieve it.
It comes with being able to articulate how they can apply their knowledge, experiences, attributes, and skills in a work context. As a student on a Grit programme recently put it, “By understanding what has made me, the experiences that have formed me, the resilience that has got me through, I realised my value. I’ve got new ways of thinking about myself.”
Owning their options
Our employability programmes challenge students to break through their self-imposed and self-limiting attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions about themselves. Our programmes are not about skills, CVs, or the mechanics of the workplace experience. They are about offering students a rigorously supportive and challenging space to reflect on who they are and the unique contribution they have to offer.
We’ve seen this translate into employability: new graduates describe how it helps them to have the confidence to present themselves powerfully and effectively at interviews, present who, “I really am, what I can bring …” It is the route map to “think through a decision to start my own business.” It creates expectation and possibility: “Before I was just another new (rather lost) graduate – now I can now see lots of options.”
It generates the confidence to break through the old barriers: two-thirds of participants on a programme for Black and Asian students said it had increased the likelihood of them applying for jobs in the finance sector (that traditional preserve of the white middle class).
And we’ve seen the number of graduates in work, full-time study, or running their own business increase threefold.
If we are to drive up engagement with career development activities, it seems clear that universities need to give thought to supporting students develop the confidence to make full use of their employability offers. As a starting point, this might include:
- Creating experiences that raise young people’s self-awareness so they can articulate their unique combination of knowledge, experience, and attributes, and the contribution they can make.
- Coaching students to arrive at their own goals and support them in building the resources to achieve them, rather than simply imparting information, guidance, and advice.
- Reframing support so it is not all about finding a lifeline in a crisis but instead is about gathering what you need to be a success.
With this confidence – that fundamental building block – in place, students can really begin to explore the full richness and range of the options, make the choices, and seize the opportunities available to them. They can find the career path that works for them, one that leads them on to a thriving and successful working life.