We’re doing engagement on careers and employability all wrong

Mark Saunders says that just because students go into HE for a career doesn’t mean they'll engage with whatever we throw at them on employment and employability

Mark Saunders is a Careers Adviser at Liverpool John Moores University.

As the narrative hardens around Graduate Outcomes (GO) and the Office for Students (OfS) pursuit of employment baselines, do universities and careers and employability services know their students well enough to meet their aims?

At the start of my training (2011), a period I consider the birth of careers provision on a mass scale (i.e. response to Browne and DLHE) universities introduced concepts like embedded curriculum, enterprise, work experience, students as consumers and employability.

I recall my mentor advising me to “be comfortable with the term employability” and “expect DLHE to become integral” in the future higher education landscape.

It was certainly a prophecy fulfilled. But I’m reserving judgement on comfort.

Why this, why now and why me

Research points to employment outcomes being a primary reason to embark on university study. Moreover, government agenda since the introduction of top-up fees through to OfS proposals places employment outcomes at the top of the agenda.

But that doesn’t mean that students will just engage with whatever we throw at them on employment.

If you were instructed to attend planning for retirement workshops during work, how would you feel about it? How willingly would you contribute? I imagine most staff accepting the value in principle, but:

  1. see as time taken away from work
  2. put off by the negative connotations of retirement
  3. inappropriate timing in one’s career

Similarly, “why this, why now and why me” is what students think when they happen upon careers and employability service interventions in the curriculum, or are mandated to engage with them elsewhere in an unexpected, inconvenient or untimely manner.

Key is engaging with students when they feel comfortable and open. I believe careers guidance appointments readily create environments for this congruence as a condition of good practice.

My findings from those conversations are that strategic operations are a common cause of personal career development incongruence – particularly when forced upon students. Research says that students find guidance more effective when they are ready.

Although employment outcomes are critical for most students, they’re not imminent concerns, unlike academic commitments. Alongside this, students grow physically and emotionally, cultivate relationships, manage budgets, living arrangements, try to maintain good mental health, plus circumstances related class, sex, ethnicity, identity and disability, whilst behind the backdrop of academic assessment.

From the student perspective, why this, why now and why you? means: “this might be useful but doesn’t affect me or my grades right now, so I don’t have the headspace for it”.

A preference for the habitual voyeur

Confidence is another common theme within employability strategies, skills and attribute lists. If confidence is intrinsically linked to outcomes, what is it and where is the validity to defend its presence within career development and employability characteristics?

First, confidence is an abstract concept, experienced uniquely without indication how to acquire, retain, harness or quantify it. Is it then sensible to place purchase on a reified concept underpinned by feeling, faith or belief? Ultimately, confidence concerns willingness in taking action or risks rather than a measured link to a positive outcome.

When “confidence” is then embedded into programmes as a desirable attribute it creates a danger of unequal distribution. I suspect the most frequent beneficiaries are students who experience less challenge, uncertainty and stress – disparities in class and social capital, ethnicity, sex and gender, academic success, social networks, language (formal or dialectical), age, mental health, ableness, inter alia. Tomlinson (2017) refers to confidence as “accumulation of graduate capital”.

The introduction of internships and placements, although designed to enable leverage of employment prospects risk the opposite owing to requirements, competition and techniques to secure them. If confidence is a central feature of graduateness, rewarded externally, what happens to those lacking work experience, recruitment processes or adequate networks; worse still, previous negative experiences and failures? In effect this compounds inequality.

But even if you do accept the premise that confidence is valid and measurable, is the university environment a conducive place to accumulate confidence, at least during the process? Students perpetually learn, process unfamiliar information and perform rigorous analysis as part of critical assessment in stratum. Consequently, should we expect students to be willing participants in more uncertainty from careers and employability services?

Resistance and counter-cultures

Another recurring theme from students is that entering HE is an extension of youth and anything contrary is a threat to self and stability. Casaru (2017) called this “deferral of decision-making”. From this perspective, students are career planning – just not in the way HE hopes.

Over recent years I’ve observed an emerging push-back to the employability agenda. Below is a list of resistance and counter-cultural behaviours encountered by myself and colleagues:

  • Compliance – passive and completing absolute minimum
  • Disengagement – present but not taking part
  • Sabotage – disrupting process aims
  • Disenfranchised – non-attendance, avoidance or withdrawal
  • Post-dated engagement – engaging after decision or action taken

Again as professionals, we experience performance meetings, peer reviews and threats of restructures. These exercises affect our outlook and confidence to perform our jobs. As such we probably have also displayed similar resistance tactics to those I’ve listed above – especially in the face of pressure, uncertainty and outcomes.

Overall, the Graduate Outcomes agenda is placing greater emphasis on outcomes for all, meaning that an institution’s outcomes will be defined by the most challenged and disengaged in career planning and employment preparedness.

Current practice in achieving institutional targets relies on mobilising service provision and readily engaging students. My concern is that there aren’t enough students engaging in the process for this strategy to be effective.

To fully address GO, practical decisions need to be made about the terms we use, effortful rebalancing of priorities facing students, and radical change to leverage opportunities.

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