Has employability become a toxic brand?

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.

Skills show

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?

Taking ownership

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!

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20 responses to “Has employability become a toxic brand?

  1. Lots of food for thought there Mike. Excellent article. Out of interest which parts of the University of Liverpool were involved in formulating that careers service role definition? Solely the careers service?

  2. Hi David,

    It was their Employer Engagement Strategy and although led by the careers service, it was developed in consultation with faculty staff and professional service managers.

    I believe a Careers Service will typically need to proactively reposition their role and offer.

    All the best

    Mike

  3. Hi Mike, you summarise the most important points of my mantra the last years: “Employability is not employment rates”; and “Employability is more than employability rates”.

    Thanks!
    I argue that Employability is made up of various aspects, and recruitability is just one of them (as are employability skills).

  4. Hi Mike,

    Careers Network (UoB) were one of the first to drop the word employability for our student-facing marketing based on extensive market research with our stakeholders. Most words such as ‘internships’, ‘careers’, ‘placements’ etc were often seen in a neutral or positive light but not employability. It wasn’t just misunderstood but students but actively disliked. In some cases it was seen as a scale that they were measured on and it made them feel inadequate but in the majority of cases, they felt that it was a made up word and it lacked authenticity. Students identify with the word careers because they find it tangible and real, employability just seemed like an empty buzzword.

    The name change was very successful and I try to limit use of the word employability in our student communications, however it is still used internally with academics and university staff as they have developed an understanding of it.

    Jess

  5. An interesting article Mike. However what about the increasing number of students and graduates, like many of mine on Venture Creation Programmes, who are creating their own jobs by starting businesses as undergraduates and continuing to develop the businesses when they graduate?

  6. At upReach, a charity that works with disadvantaged undergraduates to help them secure top graduate jobs, we’ve found we can engage students in their “employability” if done in a way they understand. In partnership with top employers, we designed a Graduate Employability Framework outlining ten essential attributes (teamwork, communication, grit, commercial awareness etc), and built an online survey (getEmployable.org) to allow students to self-assess. Each attribute has a level from 1 to 5, which are combined to create a total employability score out of 100. Telling students that the “average employability score was 71” and inviting them to find out theirs turned out to be a great way to engage them in identifying their own development needs.

  7. Great article Mike – how far we have come in the last 10 years! With the sector, metrics and expectations evolving all the time, it will be interesting to see where we end up 10 years from now!

  8. With over 30% of our graduates declaring they are running their own business in our DLHE, this is a very pertinent question for us (Regent’s University London), too. We’re answering by integrating our startup support and (soon to be opened) space into the careers service – we’ll be literally sharing space with our startup hive. I remember speaking to someone who was advising us recently about this and they were puzzled about the approach due to the perceptions of ‘classic’ (aka ‘old school’) approaches to careers advice and an entrepreneurial mindset which is often seen as more disruptive. But to me, it fits well: Our existing startups not only create jobs for those running them, but are a stable offer of internship and placement opportunities, which plays very well if our alumni operations – which is focused on bringing mentors back to engage with current students. So, being a slow adopter of the entrepreneurship agenda my yield an advantage of being able to build a much more community focused approach (I look at City’s awesome City Launch Lab), to which our learners seem to react very well. I don’t know how this will work, but as this was very much a partnership with our student union, buy-in does not seem to be a problem.

  9. Indeed Nigel, this only seems set to grow in the future world of work where self-employment, portfolio careers and flexible working become even more commonplace.

    The entrepreneurship offer is starting to develop significantly at many universities, having often been very thinly resourced. The Hive at NTU, City Starters at City University London and the provision at Newcastle University are just three great examples that I have come across.

    Successfully embedding this provision alongside the traditional placements and careers offer is obviously hugely important to empower students to achieve their potential.

    All the best

    Mike

  10. Have to agree with Mike there, even though I am not a huge fan of the words I run the QAA Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Group… with new guidance out for the sector tomorrow. Suggestions from WEF and EU suggest these things are important, so UN and EU Joint Research team are in on it too. I do hope we help the sector!!

  11. Good article. Recruitability is a good term to add to the employability debate.

    “Career management skills” is perhaps a better term, as employability/recruitability is not just about getting employment, but also about what you do once you have that job, how you remain in that job and also how you move on from that job/career to the next one. More akin to lifelong skills.

  12. The university I previously worked at explicitly dropped the term ‘careers’ from their service name and marketing based on some market research which showed students had negative perceptions of the term ‘careers’ – this was when ’employability’ was a new and more exciting word. Anyone who previously worked for the Connexions service will also recognise the near-extinction of the term ‘careers’ in describing the work of the service. It’s interesting that ‘careers’ seems now to be coming back into vogue and ’employability’ going out of fashion. However, much as I think words are important, there is a danger in thinking that problems of negative perception and disengagement can be addressed by changing the branding rather than by addressing the underlying issues i.e. what students and academics think is the purpose of the university experience and general and the careers service in particular in helping prepare them for and shape their future lives and careers.

    Whatever terms are used, if there is not an institutional understanding and buy in of the importance of career development skills (in their broadest sense and not just ‘recruitability’) and how professional services and academic colleagues can work in partnership to help develop these skills in students, it is likely that the term of the day will inevitably fall out of fashion because it will not be attached to an activity that is valued or seen as positive.

  13. Both ‘employability’ and ‘recruitabilty’ can be problematic for those working/studying in HE creative and performing arts sectors, with their clear implication of being employed and/or recruited by an employer, when those sectors are dominated by ‘create your own’ freelancing, micro-businesses, etc. We perhaps need a different terminology.

  14. Agreed Chris, the branding is a minor side issue compared to the need for academic staff and professional services to work in partnership and share accountability for delivering positive career outcomes for their student cohorts!

    I hope you are well.

    All the best

    Mike

  15. Hi Paul,

    I fully agree that certain disciplines need a bespoke offer and appropriate terminology to reflect their sector and the career aspirations of their students. At the other end of the spectrum, in highly vocational health and education courses concepts such as recruitability and commercial awareness are perhaps less of a core requirement for students to achieve success beyond university.

    However, I would argue that recruitability is still hugely important in the creative arts where many roles are highly competitive. Although freelancing can be a positive option for graduates, many successful freelancers will have been employed, built their experience and networks before taking the plunge.

    It is also often micro-businesses that have the highest expectations of graduates, all recruits are a significant investment. They will expect a Graduate to be able to articulate their skills and demonstrate how they can add value to the business; commercial awareness is often an even more important skill due to the variety of roles you may be expected to adopt in a micro-business.

    In the future world of work, freelancing and portfolio careers are likely to become even more common across all disciplines and preparing students for these changing career contexts will require different approaches. There are no easy answers or catch all solutions.

    Im my view, you need the flexibility to provide localised solutions to localised problems bury with a strong central function to manage employer partnerships and provide expert input and delivery support.

  16. Great article. ‘The best way to develop employability is through experience’ reminds so much of the foundation of apprenticeship and community. And yes, ‘soft skills’ should be replaced with ‘vital skills’ and Uni bubble speak such as ‘graduate attributes’ should really be translated to industry speak.

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