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What does being employable mean?

In this week’s narrative on higher education, Phil Pilkington wonders what on earth we mean when we say that a graduate is ‘highly employable’.
This article is more than 5 years old

Phil Pilkington is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at Coventry and Deputy Chair at Middlesex University SU

Employability appears to be a simple idea that carries a considerable burden. It should be found in universities because they should meet the needs of employers and the nation’s economy, and the happy corollary is the debt-burdened student will need to seek employment to pay that debt, and have a worthwhile and rewarding career. Everyone wins.

Or do they? How have employers so consistently (and for so long) complained that they can’t recruit graduates with the skills they need, or those they have recruited have not got the skills they require? Do employers have realistic ideas about what they need and want? Do the complaints from employers have a robust rigour and justification given the self-selecting evidence?

And given that an employer is driven to maximise its labour surplus for optimised profit, how would it not be the case that an employer would not expend its own resources in training and inducting staff? The imperative of minimising costs and maximising efficiencies dictates that the employer should always complain that the graduates it obtains need to be improved. If others can be persuaded to carry the costs of improving materials, production methods and human resources, then that is a benefit to the company.

Entering the purpose

There have been some continuities in the reports and reviews of higher education since the Eccles report in the mid 1950, to Robbins and Crosland in the 1960s – all made note of the importance of higher education in the sustaining and growing of the economy. Here the focus was deliberate and specific about meeting the needs of a technical and scientific skills base: the colleges of technology, the conversion to the new technical universities (e.g. Aston, Salford, Bradford) and the creation of the polytechnic sector. But there was no mention of employability.

Since 1997 the Dearing review, the Browne report and Sir Michael Barber’s comments on the formation of the Office for Students have continued the tradition of confirming the contribution to the economy, but there has been a change of tone and emphasis which reflected rather than initiated economic change. Having the expertise of a knowledge discipline was now not sufficient – for the concept of ’employability’, now central to the purpose, universities were to somehow inculcate something else.

That something else was bound up with a notion of personal survival and upward mobility. The model had some basis in hard reality as businesses changed, were acquired, diversified, asset stripped, and moved away from established communities. It is personal survival that accompanies national economic decline and a change in corporate management from production to financial and share management. As David Edgerton has pointed out, the management priorities have been to handle the turbulence of markets at the cost of quality of service and production. This means there are changes to the qualities and values required to survive the turbulence of the internationalisation of employing, control, management and capitalisation. And since Dearing, universities are now to be at the forefront of the needed changes to values and qualities that ought to be instilled in graduates for this new mode of survival.

In other words, exhortations to employability are based on the changing nature of employment itself: the ability to negotiate a portfolio career rather than a recognised career ladder, the ability to transfer across conventional boundaries, to learn to learn and to think critically. The anachronism underpinning this view is that a motive for requiring ’employability’ is the need for the economy to grow, when the needs of many employers are no longer confined within national boundaries. The end of the traditional career ladder was bound up with the end of national borders for capital. It is not just the call centre jobs in Newcastle that matter, but the graduates in India seeking jobs in call centres in Kolkata too.

Definition is futile

What is ’employability’, anyway? There has been talk for decades now about ‘transferable skills’, ‘soft skills’, ‘key transferable skills’ and latterly ‘graduate attributes’, and a long debate about either embedding them in the curriculum or somehow being around in the ethos (or ether) of the campus. The economic conditions have given employability a mythic status – it exists in scare quotes as an empty concept in much the same way that ‘character’ or ‘spirit’ were considered immanent qualities in a person a hundred years ago

Yet it is a concept pursued by universities and used for marketing purposes, where the tenuous outcomes of ’employability’ are evidenced in ‘outcomes’ like the rate of employment. Unsurprisingly, the top of this league table is populated by Russell Group universities. But does this mean that students from these universities are more highly employable than those less fortunate in modern universities? It seems a priori analytic that it does: they have the highest rates of hiring, so they are at the top of the table.

The ‘in employment or further study’ question in league table metrics makes a big contribution to a league position for a university. But the employment destination after 6 months is not the same as ’employability’, and there is a tenuous link between employment and ’employability’. An observation by Mantz Yorke and Peter Knight made clear that employment may be a necessary condition for ’employability’ – but it is not sufficient. In simple terms, half the recent graduates are not in ‘graduate-type’ employment and do not think their university education, or their level of debt, was worthwhile.

Do the results at the top of the table mean that engendering employability is difficult (if not entirely futile) given the positional advantages the top Russell Group universities have, and that being at the top is not causally connected to later acquisition of capabilities or skills? And if there is little connection between these concepts and the actual practice of employment, then what is happening?

Class acts

We might assume that the profile of courses would make a difference in employment outcomes – those with vocational courses will have higher rates of employment, like nursing, civil engineering, medicine, and accountancy. Modern universities tend to have a preponderance of such courses which specialise in knowledge that is applied – vocational competences in the ‘knowing that’ and in the application of ‘knowing how’.

There is a logical complexity to the links between knowing, understanding and the internal abilities of doing – what Wittgenstein called a ‘form of mastery’. Yet modern universities with such vocational courses are low down in the tables. Perhaps the Yorke-Knight view of there being no strong connection between the concept and practice was implicitly a critique of employers not knowing either what they need or recognising it when they have it.

Unlike vocational and academic competences, employability is difficult to measure – the relation to employment is vague or unconnected in that it is always a potentiality of social position and not strongly tied to an actual knowledge condition; and as it cannot be measured, then it must in some way be within a person as a character trait or disposition. And in terms of measurement, employability then just equals being employed.

It comes down to what we mean when we say that someone is ‘highly employable’. The concept hides cultural and normative conditions of the higher education sector and wider social stratifications. Bourdieu considered universities as providing cultural capital (knowledge, skills, abilities) but introducing employability exhortations suggests that cultural capital is itself deeply hierarchical; what counts as cultural capital within the area of ’employability’ is determined by who is doing the counting.

The downgrading of vocational courses as worthy only of polytechnics (which should be brought back instead of being turned into universities, etc) is an example of the value-laden approach to the socio-political attitudes to learning in general and the higher education sector in particular. Without an accessible sense of the competencies and abilities of ’employability’, it may merely be down to a matter of taste. Or class.

Higher learning

The debate over other purposes for the curriculum or the campus has not only been about employability. Over the years, there have been initiatives to include in the curricula ideas about being responsible citizens, global citizens, understanding there are ethical decisions to be made, and that historically rooted and creative new principles can be applied to existing and emerging conditions in the world and in employment. These initiatives won’t contribute to league table positions or ’employability’. Understanding the complexity of ethics and the application of ethical principles – that an individual’s actions will have consequences – may contradict some of the immediate and obvious demands for the inculcation of ’employability’. But they may help to save the planet.

4 responses to “What does being employable mean?

  1. Thanx very much for this.

    ‘Employability’ is the transfer of responsibility for unemployment from government and employers to the unemployed, those least able to bear it.

  2. I think of employability as the ability to create and sustain meaningful work across the career lifespan. That requires students to know how to learn and how to predict what to learn. Employability is a metacognitive challenge. If students learn how to think, they will be better prepared to think a living.

  3. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece. As you may be aware, I wrote a paper for HEPI a couple of years ago (Employability: Degrees of Value in which I addressed some similar questions and reached some of the same – and some different – conclusions.
    In that, I also made the point that you cite from Knight-Yorke that employability is not employment. I described employment as that which “helps you get a job, keep a job and get on in a job”. I stand by that description, but it’s not a definition.
    I made an attempt at definition in that paper, but have developed it further since. Employability comprises the following attributes:
    (1) Knowledge, which it is indisputably the preserve of higher education to develop.
    (2) Skills, which are broken down into:
    (2a) Hard skills (aka job-specific skills), which are often within the remit of higher education, particularly in course with a vocational component.
    (2b) Soft skills (aka transferable skills), which are an accidental component of all courses and a key element of what gives graduates the ‘graduateness’ which ensures them a premium in the labour market. With some important exceptions, few courses explicitly try to develop students’ soft skills (although there has been significant improvement since I wrote my HEPI paper – the link is not necessarily causal). Even those that do, often fail to optimise the process by developing metacognition about the skills that the students are intended to develop.
    (3) Character attributes, which are divided into (a) Personality, (b) Behaviours, and (c) Attitudes. These are rarely considered anything in which a university should involve itself, but they are attributes that the student experience (particularly the co-curricular experience) can do a lot to influence. There is good evidence from school-age education that developing character (growth mindset, resilience, a professional attitude etc) supports positive education and employment outcomes – as well as improved mental health.
    (4) Social capital. You’ve referred to the importance of ‘cultural capital’ and I find it hard to get over-exercised by the exact terminology here. The fact is that this kind of judgement by society of a person’s intrinsic worth (owing to their gender, ethnicity, class, accent, connectedness, or other superficial and usually inappropriate signifiers) counts for a lot in employability as I described it earlier. While Russell Group universities no doubt also inculcate many of the other attributes of employability, they might have their greatest impact on a graduate through transforming or, more usually, confirming their social capital. The effect I’m describing is that, yes, you need to be impressive to get into Oxbridge, say, but that, having done so, you are become marked with an approval stamp that has huge social capital as a heuristic – a proxy for impressiveness.
    It is not unreasonable to question whether universities could or should do more to develop their students’ employability in a deliberate way – or are some elements of employability (3 and 4 above and possibly 2b) simply not their job?
    Personally, I think that in a world where students invest in their higher education on an understanding that there will be an employability premium (allowing them perhaps to earn more or to enter a career that delivers other, non-financial rewards), then universities could and should do as much as possible to deliver on that expectation.
    However, that absolutely does not mean that we need to throw out notions of learning for learning’s sake. On the contrary, if you look again at the elements of employability above, you’ll see that all I am describing is a well-rounded individual, a motivated learner. For decades, if not centuries, universities have accidentally produced exactly the type of individual who is valuable in the labour market. If they approach that goal more consciously, they can perhaps do so even better and even the most ivory-towered of academics will not need to feel that their work is diminished to a workplace production line.

  4. Dawn and Johnny make interesting points. I would add that giving our students an awareness of themselves as lifelong learners- and being aware of how and where they learn- is perhaps what we should aim for. We cannot nor should not try to inculcate skills that are better developed in context- what we can do is equip students to identify as lifelong learners.

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