Putting the employ into employability

For years we've focused on graduate attributes and generic skills when thinking about employability. Alexander Bradley argues that we also need to teach students how to be successfully recruited.

Alexander Bradley is a Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Portsmouth, and currently employability officer within the School of Education and Sociology.

With the graduate job market as uncertain as it currently is, our focus has to be on strengthening our employability provision.

We know that the pandemic hit the economy leading to increasing unemployment rates with the young particularly impacted. We know the harms that early unemployment can have on future earnings and we also know – thanks to the Social Market Foundation and AGCAS – how those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are the least likely to find graduate employment, and also have lower earning potential. These findings are not new and are not solely due to the pandemic but maybe, just maybe, we can take this opportunity to rethink how we teach employability at university so they become a relic of a bygone time.

Recruitability

Universities and university employability services do excellent work and provide very good resources that help students to explore their options and to navigate the complex graduate selection programs deployed by many graduate recruiters. However, our research highlights that many undergraduate students do not engage deeply with the career service and less than 10 per cent, even of final year undergraduates, have ever attended our workshops on application writing, psychometric tests, or performing at interviews or assessment centres. Our research has also indicated that the average company in the Times Top 100 graduate recruiters uses between four and seven selection tasks, with 100 per cent also using application forms and final interviews. How are our graduates going to succeed if they have not even practiced or heard of the selection tasks they will face?

Although this research was done at one of my previous universities, it seems likely that this trend is relatively common across universities. So, unless practical employability is embedded within students’ courses many students simply will not develop these essential skills. Our audit of psychology department websites suggests that around 56 per cent (65 out of 119) offered no form of employability training within the curriculum – implying that many simply left it up to their students to connect with a careers service. Which we know many of our students at the time did not.

Why don’t we monitor career planning?

It is a curious and revealing point that at universities we collect so much data on student satisfaction for each module and course, yet we know nothing about how students’ career planning is progressing. Student satisfaction clearly matters for those three to four years, but their ability to identify a suitable career for themselves – and to be able to collect the experiences and skills necessary to attain it – will impact their life for decades to come.

Much of the literature around employability contests the idea that employability is about getting a job and instead prefers to focus on the idea that students have the potential to be employable. While I am an advocate that university should be about developing our students to expand their horizons, develop a love of knowledge and be active engaged citizens within our democratic society, I also firmly believe that we can do more to help our students to get into a career and profession that they will find rewarding, and which will allow them to move out of their parents’ home (if they wish), pay rent, manage bills, and save up for a place of their own one day.

Beyond attributes

If the only employability we have developed in them are generic graduate attributes and perhaps some digital skills then we have done them a disservice. It is within our power to do so much more. Incidentally, these “graduate attributes” are rarely measured before, during, or after teaching so we do not really know if we are improving them – and even if they are improved through teaching there is little good quality evidence, to the authors knowledge, of whether it actually helps students with their career planning or attaining their career. As a sector we owe it to our students to move beyond this “performative” style of employability.

We should showcase a range of careers that a degree could lead on to – or at least where similar graduates tend to find employment. How can students find a suitable career if they are not even aware of many of the possibilities that are out there? This can easily be embedded by choosing one or two core modules, preferably in second year where students get exposed in lectures to a range of potential careers through 10-minute “career corners” which outline lots of really useful information around a particular career path. A recent study (currently under review) evaluating this technique found that it led to students self-reporting that they were more certain about what they wanted to do after their degree, had spent more time researching and planning their career options and were more likely to have applied for relevant work experience/internship compared to those not given these “career corners”.

We also need to give students the skills to be able to navigate common selection tasks like application forms, interviews, CVs, psychometric tests and many others as core parts of their course. Research we have done shows that students given training in selection tests feel more confident and knowledgeable about them afterwards – and, crucially, they are more likely to perform better. The studies that have been conducted evaluating the impact of these practical employability skills show that they do increase performance, and thus the likelihood of students landing graduate jobs. Many of the skills and knowledge on how to teach these skills already exist within university.

The challenge for universities is to use that expertise to ensure that all students automatically get it as part of their degrees. We need practical employability for the masses, not just for the few who through happenstance, pushy parents, or good mentors happen to wander into our careers and employability services.

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