Leader: No creative buzz from the drones

Employability is about more than skills: it is about cultivating the independence, imagination and rigour to take on any task

September 2, 2010

It's often not until we give a phenomenon a name that we find new ways to think about it. In the same way that the word "teenager" was invented to describe the lengthening of the pre-adult years after child labour was outlawed and universal school education was extended beyond the age of 13, perhaps we need a new term to describe the burgeoning numbers of young adults for whom employment and a career are postponed until their early to mid-twenties.

Mass participation in higher education is a good in itself, but it's not without downsides: among other things, the challenges of catering for individuals with a much wider spectrum of abilities and of students deferring responsibility and delaying maturity and entry to the world of permanent work.

At one time the onus was on schools to groom young people for employment; now, with increasing numbers worldwide entering higher education (according to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development figures, graduates of tertiary-level education in its member states doubled from an average of 18 per cent in 1995 to 36 per cent in 2007), it is universities that are expected to do the job.

But what does the world of work want? What qualities do students need to be employable? Employability and Work Experience - A quick guide for employers and students, a publication from the CBI, Britain's business lobby, defines employability as "a set of attributes, skills and knowledge that all labour market participants should possess to ensure they have the capability of being effective in the workplace - to the benefit of themselves, their employer and the wider economy". It presents a diagram in which self-management, application of IT, application of numeracy, business and customer awareness, communication and literacy, problem-solving and team-working all emanate from a "positive attitude".

Students' lackadaisical attitude is just one of the things that troubles Bernard Lamb, emeritus reader in genetics at Imperial College London, who campaigns to improve the use of English. He worries that students are leaving university without a grasp of the basics and paying the price in the jobs market. He says employers often reject applicants purely on the basis of spelling or grammatical mistakes in their CVs: "Their errors showed poor attention to detail, ignorance and a bad attitude."

At one time, newspapers delighted in pointing out school-leavers' poor achievement in literacy and numeracy; now they've moved on to graduates. Passing the problem up isn't helping anyone, least of all universities and students. Isn't it time to bat some of these things back to the government and schools?

At university, students should be broadening their minds and learning how to think and work independently. This is the rigour that produces what James Reed, chairman of the recruitment company Reed, describes in our cover story as "the desired mindset". Employers, he says, will choose someone with the right mindset but no job-specific skills over the person with the skills but not the mindset.

Politicians' preoccupation with skills is leading everyone up the garden path. Much of what is on offer in the education system is "facing the wrong way", Mr Reed fears. "If we get the mindset right, it is more likely to lead to skills being developed as a consequence." Anyone for a little critical thinking?

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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