Employability is boosted when we focus on psychological capital

Students’ understanding of employability goes beyond simple listing of “transferable” skills. Vicki Harvey explains the role of psychological capital

Vicki Harvey is a Senior Lecturer in People Management at The University of Salford

There is an expectation that students will exit education having developed employability skills to be successful in their chosen occupation.

But how do students understand the meaning of employability and in particular what ideas are embedded in the meaning?

If we understand employability to be a set of skills to do and get a job, do we just therefore refer to “transferable skills”?

From research and in contrast to some of the literature, students’ understanding of employability goes beyond simple listing of “transferable” skills.


At Salford Business School all undergraduate students undertake a professional development employability module in their second year. This guides students through a typical recruitment process via constructively aligned learning, teaching and assessment experience.

Findings from a study of the student voice for business and management undergraduates taking this module suggest that confidence – a form of “psychological capital” – underpins the meaning of employability for students.

“Capitals” can be understood as key resources accumulated through graduates’ education, social and initial employment experiences, and which equip them favourably when transitioning to the job market.

They can be rooted in graduates’ formal education, but also varied socio-cultural experiences of daily life. A significant task for individuals is being aware of and finding further ways of enriching forms of capital – and in particular psychological capital.

Psychological capital is the idea of a positively-orientated focus on our human resource strengths and capacities. With roots in positive psychology, the idea is to focus upon positive behaviours rather than weaknesses.

To be effective, perform and flourish in today’s workplace psychological capital includes states of confidence, hope, resilience, positive self-evaluation, and personality traits such as conscientiousness.

Doing and getting

If we apply the idea to employability, it involves developing strategies that expand the scope of employment opportunity and respond to a changing job context. It also entails being proactive and even re-orientating goals based on changes in the labour market.

“Psychological capital” is also associated with self-efficacy, both of which have been associated with models of employability in higher education.

Our research into students’ understanding of the meaning of employability suggests that psychological capital is a key enabler – explaining why building confidence is important for students.

For most students in our research, knowledge has been gained and developed on their course on the basis that employability requires skills to do and skills to get a job.

We also found that shifting the focus of students to who they are becoming, rather than who they are, is useful in developing graduate identity.

What is possible?

The building of confidence and motivation in higher education was found to emanate from several situations identified by the students. One aspect is the knowledge and understanding of employability as processes (skills to do and to get a job) and their current abilities.

For example, a student stated, “you need to have a certain level of confidence to get a job”, and that the learning from the professional development module gave a sense of confidence and preparedness for tackling the job market.

Engaging in skills self-assessments was valued by students helping them to recognise current skills and achievements, or personal attributes allowing the consideration of organisational fit.

However, some students found the interaction with the concepts of employability as emotionally challenging – especially when faced with the competitive nature of the graduate labour market.

One student described it as “overwhelming” – and others spoke about the need for “emotional intelligence” in the application of employability skills.

Psychological capital could therefore play a role in influencing the students to consider what is possible for them beyond their studies. Developing psychological capital is important for overcoming employability challenges of being a graduate but also for building confidence as an undergraduate.

Being prepared and developing an understanding of the self builds upon strengths to proactively take opportunities that can develop the locus of self-control, thereby embracing the advantages of employability.

What is significant is that psychological capital focuses upon “who you are becoming” rather than “who you are”.

Becoming a gradate

This positive construct of psychological capital encapsulates hope, resilience, self-efficacy and optimism. This is an important factor in differentiating between undergraduate and graduate employability frameworks.

Including psychological capital in employability frameworks places the focus on how sources of confidence and capital can be identified and developed whilst in higher education, before exiting into professional work and a life beyond work.

The focus on this alternative form of capital may also address the concerns of students in relation to the negative aspects of stress and pressure. The development of psychological capital could support the development or transmission of other forms of capital for sustainable employability development as students move toward the graduate labour market.

This combination of findings provides support for the conceptual premise that psychological capital is an important resource for developing employability in students.

3 responses to “Employability is boosted when we focus on psychological capital

  1. The focus on “who you are becoming” rather than “who you are” is a welcome one. It is often reinforced by bringing recent alumni back to contribute to employability modules. The alumni help the students make the connection between where they are and where they aspire to be. This can be especially useful for first-generation HE students.

  2. As you rightly say, ‘capitals’ are accumulated through a range of life experiences and can support and equip individuals in their transitions into different life experiences and practices. While I do accept psychological capital is important and can be built at university, we can’t separate it out from the various capitals built before then – particularly social and cultural. In short, some students arrive at university with a different backpack of skills, experiences and confidence and it can be hard (sometimes impossible) to make up the shortfall in 3 short years of study. I used to drive through Eton every day on my way to work at NFER in Slough for a number of years. While I accept this is a unique school (perhaps even an anachronism) the confidence I saw in those boys as they surged through the town stopping any traffic on the one way system that was in their way was a stark daily reminder of the fact that our class and privilege system is still very much alive and thriving.

  3. A fantastic article, thank you very much for sharing. In my experience with students is how to make them aware of such possibilities at the university. There is so many fantastic resources but we can`t force them to use them. But without them they might have a much harder time on the market. There is so many fantastic ideas on the table, the challenge is how to introduce and entice students to use them.

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