Most students are turned off by it and many academics roll their eyes at the mere mention of the term. Let me be clear from the outset – employability skills have been embedded into courses since the dawn of time.
What is employability?
The critical thinking and communication skills still so coveted by employers are not a new requirement, it is just that they are now expected to be explicitly referenced in learning outcomes to little tangible effect. For many years the employability brand has been on shaky ground:
“For some, employability is little more than a ‘buzzword’ that is more often used than properly understood” (Philpott, 1999);
or, “a fuzzy notion, often ill-defined and sometimes not defined at all” (Gazier, 1998).
Without wishing to enter the rabbit hole of debating what employability is, or should be defined as, this definition best fits with my own view:
“Doing value-creating work, getting paid for it and learning at the same time, enhancing the ability to get work in the future” (Ghoshal 1997)
What’s in a name?
It was a priority for me in my time at Coventry University to drop this millstone ‘employability’ moniker. We swiftly went from the hugely catchy and inspiring ‘Engineering and Computing Employability and Placement Unit’ (EC EPU) to EC Futures. This is a growing trend – many of the leading Careers Services in the UK no longer have ‘employability’ in their service title. Examples include:
- The Careers Network: Birmingham University and Loughborough University
- KU Talent: Kingston University
- The Career Development Service: University of Leicester
I have always argued that the best way to develop employability is through experience. Taking Ghoshal’s definition, you can make a compelling case that a placement year genuinely develops employability, but I would suggest that many activities delivered by careers services would be better defined as ‘recruitability’.
I would define recruitability as:
“The ability to understand the job market, your options and successfully articulate your skills and experiences to achieve success in recruitment processes”
This recruitability represents just one aspect of employability.
But why does branding matter?
I believe that having a central service branded as being responsible for employability is both misleading and potentially damaging.
A recent conversation with a senior academic neatly demonstrated how this problem can manifest itself within an institution. He was hugely frustrated with the careers service for not delivering positive graduate employment outcomes for the hundreds of Psychology graduates his department was sending into the labour market each year. It was clear that he felt this was both their core and sole responsibility.
We discussed the fact that, although Psychology is, in theory, a vocational course, the significant majority of graduates would not pursue or achieve a career in the direct professional disciplines associated with the course. My suggestion to him was that if the non-linear nature of graduate careers was not embedded and normalised throughout the course delivery, it was a bit much to expect a small central team to challenge those perceptions, win the hearts and minds of his students via occasional appointments, and ultimately deliver the outstanding outcomes he was demanding – all without any changes to the curriculum.
Beyond Psychology, Law is another pertinent example. By reviewing LinkedIn Career Insights through their alumni app, you will see that, at a typical university, between 20%-30% of graduates from that discipline currently work within the legal sector.
Jobs for all
However, there is a massive saving grace. A huge strength, and relatively unique feature, of the UK graduate job market, is that most graduate roles are open to those from any degree discipline. In fact, 82% of graduate schemes advertised by members of the Institute of Student Employers in 2016 were open to any discipline.
The graduate market statistician magician himself, Dr Charlie Ball, studied the wider graduate job market (c.144,000 roles) and found that 71% were open to any discipline. I strongly believe that this is critical information which is not broadcast enough to students, academics and policymakers.
There are of course a host of skills that can make someone more employable. Honing students’ ability to articulate skills (such as ‘commercial awareness’) within a recruitment process should be the role of the careers service. However, the vast majority of the skill development must take place within courses.
Commercial awareness, an understanding of how businesses and industries work, is a recognised skills gap, as identified by graduate employers:
“71% of employers tailor their recruitment process to find candidates with commercial awareness, but only 15% hire graduate intakes which have this skill” (Institute of Student Employers, Annual Survey 2016)
If students are not trained on this skill, not exposed to employers as part of the curriculum, and are not well versed in the latest developments, innovations and challenges facing both their own and other relevant sectors – can we really expect them to perform well on this measure within hiring processes?
It is critical that course leaders have a realistic view of where the accountability lies for the outcomes of their graduates. In my view, demonstrating how they are working within their course areas to help improve graduate outcomes should be a key performance objective for academic staff but, crucially, one that should also be given due recognition in academics’ own career development.
It is an unfortunate and seemingly entrenched cultural flaw that, often, even within institutions that heavily sell ‘employability’ as their raison d’etre to prospective students, research outcomes are perceived to carry significantly more weight within university recruitment panels. This is in spite of the fact that research income often accounts for a small fraction of the annual fee revenue in the majority of universities.
The evolving role of careers services
In line with Nalayini Thambar’s vital work around the importance of careers advisers positioning themselves as experts, it is crucial that careers services position themselves as expert service providers that can advise, consult and work in partnership with academic departments, empowering them to deliver positive graduate outcomes for their cohorts, while promoting shared accountability.
This extract, taken from a strategy I worked on with the University of Liverpool, highlights the redefined role of the careers service there in supporting academic faculties to work effectively with employers.
The role of the Careers and Employability Service can be broadly defined as providers of:
- Consultancy: We can provide consultancy based on our extensive experience of delivering employer-led activities to assist in the effective design, delivery and scheduling of employer-led activities.
- Best practice: We have a broad oversight of existing initiatives and best practice across the institution and are keen to promote interdisciplinary learning. At a national level, members of the Careers and Employability team hold senior positions on professional bodies relating to employability and we have intensive exposure to and knowledge of best practice initiatives across the UK plus access to thought leaders in the field. We can provide case studies and make introductions, internally and externally, to help inform employability delivery.
- Data: We can provide a host of Labour Market Information and data relating to graduate employability across the UK and insights on graduate mobility and globalised recruitment. At an institutional level, the introduction of Career Registration will provide a rich data source to inform the needs of course cohorts based on their ‘career decidedness’ and levels of work experience. The data from Career Registration will be made available to academic staff and will be utilised to target employer activities in a timely and evidence-based fashion in partnership with the Careers and Employability Service.
- Employer contacts: We have access to a vast range of employer contacts and have significant goodwill built up with employer partners. Employers are typically extremely keen to engage with target cohorts within the curriculum and we can facilitate these relationships.
Outcomes, outcomes, outcomes
The Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education Survey (DLHE), which is now in its last ever cycle, measures career outcomes six months after graduation and is at best a proxy measure of employability. I would argue it actually measures recruitability – the ability for graduates to navigate recruitment processes and secure that first role. The new Graduate Outcomes survey, which will survey graduates at 15 months, and the introduction of Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data into the TEF, will go some way to redressing the balance. I believe that institutions who lean towards creative disciplines are most likely to benefit from this shift, as careers in these sectors typically take longer to come to fruition.
The increased focus on graduate outcome metrics has the potential to have a positive impact on the sector and open up the debate about how careers professionals, academics and employers can work in partnership to positively impact students’ career success. It would be a huge shame if the toxicity of the ‘employability brand’ held back this important work.
While we are on the subject of branding, ditching the term soft skills and replacing it with vital skills might go some way to making it clear to students the value that employers place on these competencies. And nobody outside of the university bubble calls them graduate attributes!