Supporting student careers in challenging times

The graduate job market is going to be tougher than ever. For Kate Daubney, helping students understand the skills they already have is key.

University careers services across the UK have embraced the challenges of the current crisis, being very much open for business by fully and swiftly switching to complex suites of online delivery.

We are all actively engaging and supporting students who, instead of starting their transition out of university this summer, are probably feeling the floor fall out from beneath them. The Covid-19 survey by the Institute of Student Employers revealed more uncertainty than certainty in graduate and non-graduate recruitment, and all we can really be sure of is that the situation is very fluid.

Careers services are offering a huge suite of online and virtual activity in response, from individual appointments and workshops; live events, webinars and virtual careers fairs; to virtual internships and e-learning. Content has both a traditional focus on career decision-making and employability development, as well as new responsive material reflecting students’ current concerns and up to date labour market information from employer partners; it will probably transform provision and delivery permanently in the long term too. In my own careers service, at King’s College London, we have launched a new programme, #MyNextSteps, with weekly themes to keep students moving forward. Typical of delivery across the sector, it engages expertise from my own staff as well as employer and alumni partners to ensure our students are still engaged with their career futures and can continue to make progress during this difficult time.

Have learners lost control?

But there is another key element of our approach to employability development at King’s that will become more important now than we ever envisaged. Because with all the changes to assessment at universities, schools and colleges this summer, it would be incredibly easy for learners to feel that they had lost control of the one thing they feel they have worked for: their qualifications.

For some time, employers across many sectors have been attributing less and less weight to qualifications. We also know that employers widely recruit students from diverse subject areas for roles that, from the student’s point of view, are not aligned to their subject of study: for example, humanities graduates entering finance and consultancy. We also know that school and college leavers and graduates do get good, professional-level jobs, even if they haven’t had a lot of work experience.

But learners and students are actually very inexperienced at capturing the transferable attributes and skills they develop through subject study and curriculum learning, even though that is the main area of overlap with what employers are looking for. Universities naturally prioritise knowledge gain when they talk about the value of an academic experience. But in a crisis like this one, knowledge may not feel that useful to students for keeping their career options open in an uncertain market. So what can we do to support learners and students now to maximise the benefit of their academic experiences, even if they can’t access their expected work experience or internships this summer to support their transition into the workplace?

Back to the benchmark

Academics will be aware of the QAA Subject Benchmark Statements that define what a graduate can be expected to “know, do and understand at the end of their studies”. But how many employers have followed the QAA’s invitation just a few paragraphs later in every Statement introduction “to find out about the…skills generally expected of a graduate in this subject”? So if academics return to these Statements to look not for curriculum specialist knowledge, but transferable attributes and skills innate to the subject, they will find a rich language they can share with students that helps capture exactly why employers recruit graduates. And if students then share this with employers when they talk about their degree, even in the absence of any other experience, they can begin to close a gap that is often perceived to exist between qualifications as knowledge assets and the workplace.

This is what I call the extracted employability of the curriculum: the attributes and skills that are innate to the subject and the same as those valued by employers. It is the forensic attention to detail of the study of history; seeing arguments from different points of view in philosophy; analysing causes and consequences in sociology; modelling change in geography; observing patterns and phenomena that is fundamental to physics; or the ability to reconcile theory and evidence in psychology. Despite perceptions to the contrary (see Tristram Hooley’s Wonkhe blog), it is not actually difficult for students to develop these skills; rather students just simply aren’t aware that they already are developing them, because academic curriculum is not described in these ways. But the Subject Benchmark Statements are full of these very skills, and universities can do so much more to surface these to students through the way curriculum is articulated, as we have been piloting at King’s for over two years through our innovative approach to embedding employability in the curriculum.

So as students get ready to graduate, academics can work with careers services right now to give students better, richer language to demonstrate these valuable attributes and skills, alongside the wealth of knowledge students have gained in their degree. As programmes come to an end in these extraordinary times, students can articulate to employers not only the common skills of analysing, writing and presenting that are part of the way they are taught and are assessed, but also the employability value of what is actually learned in subject curriculum. Historians make great tax auditors (and many other professional roles) because of that forensic attention to detail; Psychologists shape the world by interpreting big data. So let’s give our soon-to-be graduates more confidence to show the diverse, enduring value of their qualifications that will outlast this crisis and form the basis of their future career success.

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