We need to talk about employability, not employment

To measure this key graduate outcome, we must better understand what it is, what it is not and what it could be, argues Johnny Rich

December 10, 2015
Eleanor Shakespeare illustration (10 December 2015)
Source: Eleanor Shakespeare

In the very first paragraph of last month’s Green Paper on English higher education, the government declares an intention to “provide greater focus on graduate employability”. Yet this rhetoric is not matched with any proposals to assess, let alone enhance, employability.

Take, for example, the issue of metrics. Having failed to introduce differential tuition fees in 2012, the government’s plan B is to allow fee rises for universities that offer “excellent” teaching, as assessed in the teaching excellence framework. This will be judged using “common metrics”, but none of the three proposed so far relates to employability. Sure, there is the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, which records the proportion of graduates in employment six months after graduation, but this is a measure of employment, not employability. The words must not be confused. In a recession, for example, employment can crash, but employability may rise as people need to compete harder for available work.

Employability is that set of attributes that makes a graduate worth employing: how well a student’s learning matches with what the labour market needs. It is the number one outcome that, in increasing proportions, prospective students expect to get from higher education. It is also integral to the cost to the public purse of student loans that are never repaid.

In a paper that I have written for the Higher Education Policy Institute, “Employability: degrees of value”, published this week, I suggest ways to create a metric of employability for the TEF. Key to this is agreeing a common definition that cuts through the Babel-like babble that currently prevents students from recognising the attributes they need to acquire, academics from supporting their development and employers from identifying the graduates who meet their needs.

My definition comprises three elements. The first is knowledge, the teaching of which is higher education’s speciality. The second is more controversial. I have provocatively called it “social capital”, but I accept that that is too narrow a term to cover a huge range of attitudes and behaviours – not to mention attributes such as class, gender, age, ethnicity, accent and appearance – that, rightly or wrongly, make a person attractive to employers. But it at least highlights the inherent advantage that some universities can gain in this area through their selection processes – and the deep implications that this has for access policies.

The third element is skills. Higher education has a better record than many realise in developing students’ hard (job-specific) and soft (transferable) skills. This is evidenced, apart from anything else, by the fact that employers stubbornly pay higher wages to graduates even though the supply has been rising steadily for decades. Different courses develop students’ skill sets differently. But that’s no bad thing. Not all careers require every skill in equal and superlative abundance. Having a distinctive skill set can aid employability, helping graduates and employers achieve a better match with each other. My proposed metric for employability focuses on a scoring mechanism for the diverse skill sets that different courses can develop.

Above all else, it is the raising of students’ self-awareness about employability that develops it. Therefore, being more transparent about employability as a clear, simple and deliberate goal of a degree course will help. Since it is a form of personal development, helping students to understand the various ways they have benefited should be a welcome feature of any course, whatever the students’ initial reasons for studying it.

In particular, being more upfront about employability could ease the scandal of students undertaking certain degrees based on course titles that suggest they will lead to particular careers, but where there are simply not enough jobs in those sectors to go around. Putting students “at the heart of the system”, as the last government phrased it, creates a supply of courses based on the demand of students, not of employers. Meanwhile, some labour market sectors have gaping skills shortages.

Raising awareness helps academics to engage with employability, too. It is a topic many are uneasy with at best, seeing it as an instrumentalist intrusion on the pursuit of understanding. Having a simple and common language to describe employability will help them better embed the development of the relevant skills, attitudes and behaviours into their programme design without forcing anyone to change their course content.

In the UK, the Higher Education Academy has already been leading a programme of embedding employability into the curriculum. Meanwhile, Push (the not-for-profit organisation I run) has created some innovative initiatives to build students’ enthusiasm and engagement with what employers will want from them.

But the sector needs to do more to overcome students’ tendency to see a degree merely as a career passport – a proxy for employability – and connect them, instead, with the thing itself: the real value that they will be able to offer to an employer. Dry though the word sounds, employability, at its heart, is about having a rewarding future. And that is something we neglect at our peril.

Johnny Rich is chief executive of Push, an organisation that supports students’ choices and skills. He is also a director of the Higher Education Academy.

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Reader's comments (7)

So what goes around comes around and of course Mr Rich will be aware that these sentiments are not only in his organisation's annals but that the same argument has been advanced since the mid-1980s. Employability has never been the same as employment (despite the simple-mindedness of some politicians) and is about student attributes; be they knowledge, skills or dispositions. Indeed, employers have been consistent over the last thirty years in stating a desire for employees with good interactive skills (communication, teamwork and the like) and personal skills such as a willingness to learn, tact and tenacity, as well as (and in some cases in preference to) subject knowledge. The only thing that has changed in those thirty years is the prominence given to IT, which reflects technological advances. But we shouldn't be surprised by revelatory tone of this piece as higher education research has a history of ignoring its own history.
Good point, Lee. I don't make many claims to originality on this topic. On the contrary, my understanding of employability is largely based on the work of many decades of researchers with far greater perspicacity than my own. To this I have added my own humble experience of working with thousands of students in schools and universities over the past 25 years. What is different in my proposals are: a) a model for attempting to measure employability, particularly the skills element; b) the role that might play in the future development of the TEF; c) the potential of raising self-awareness (or what researchers called 'metacognition') through measurement and how this will itself enhance students' employability development; d) a light-touch approach to involving academics in embedding employability into the curriculum, allowing them to teach their subjects how they do it best without expecting them to bother too much about skills development, but at the same time doing what they can (and already in many cases do) to support it; e) an expectation that skills development should be part of universities' descriptions of their courses to prospective students; e) the implications for access policy, student recruitment and contextualisation that we should gain from a deeper understanding of the role of social capital in employability.
"Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind"​ — George Orwell (1903-1950)
Johnny the HEA is, quite rightly, withering so stop using it as an anchor and get over it. Nobody of any real standing is lamenting its demise. Also, there is a blatant self interest infecting this post which you really ought not to have introduced; your credibility waned once it was detected. As for the post's substantive content?? well, once again I have read something about skills without, once again, having been privy to an acceptable definition of what a skill actually is ... perhaps the Orwellian quote above makes reference to this omission. Finally, please do not pretend to know what employers want because they have no idea either. Perhaps if you could define a skill for them they may finally realise what they're looking for ... well, this week anyway.
Dear Descartes, Thanks for your contribution. It's wonderful to have provoked a response from so illustrious a contributor (although since your corporeal demise, your access to reason seems to have been compromised. I guess it's something to with mind/body duality). 1) With reference to your accusation of self-interest, you misread what I am saying as being motivated by my role as an unpaid non-executive director of the HEA. It's the other way around. I sit on the HEA Board because I believe powerfully in what I have written about employability. I volunteer my time to the HEA because I'd like to make my own meagre contribution to an organisation that supports high quality teaching and learning in HE, helps to enhance the student experience and has a critical role both in UKHE and, increasingly, on a global stage. By all means, dismiss what I've written because you disagree or it makes no sense, but there is nothing in this article (nor in the paper I have written for HEPI) that has been written to serve my financial interests and it is unnecessarily offensive to suggest otherwise without checking what my interests are. 2) I see no evidence that the HEA is 'withering', as you put it. The number of HEA Fellows is increasing at a faster rate than ever before (around a thousand a month, if I remember rightly). A growing number of programmes are being aligned to the UKPSF. HEA-certified CPD is cropping up all over the place. And, overseas, universities from all over the globe have been looking to the HEA for world-leading best practice. Meanwhile, the HEA is at the heart of the debate on TEF, learning gain, employability and GPA – many of the hottest topics around. It's true that the block grant from HEFCE is being phased out, but then again, so is HEFCE's funding of universities and that of just about every sector agency. That's the way of things these days and, gladly, he HEA seems to have worked out how to be both sustainable and continue to provide the services that the sector needs. Compared to some sector bodies, I think the future for the HEA is remarkably bright. Personally, I'm very proud to be associated with such success. (I just wish I could take some of the credit.) 3) Your next claim that "nobody of any real standing is lamenting its demise" is also unsupported by any evidence. If, however, you're right, your Cartesian logic should allow you to consider that the absence of lament may not be because people don't care about it, but because there's no demise to lament. Maybe 'Descartes' is merely a nom de plume ("I think therefore I am" reversed in 'I'm not, so I don't")? Perhaps you are not in fact the great philosopher himself writing posthumously, but instead you are yourself some individual of "real standing" in today's HE sector and a representative of all the others of your stature. In which case, I apologise: you must surely be representing their views accurately and you'll forgive me for having got the impression from the many non-anonymous individuals of real standing I've spoken to – not to mention the reputation research I've been privileged to see – that the HEA is held in higher esteem that ever before. (I must repeat: I have no financial interest in making such claims.) 4) Regarding a definition of skills, may I suggest you read 'Employability: Degrees of Value', the paper I wrote for HEPI, which can be found at http://bit.ly/HEPI-Employability. In it, I have gone into far more detail than was possible in a short opinion piece for THE. I have broken down what the key skills are, both 'soft' and 'hard', based on a synthesis of the huge amount of academic research that has been done on this topic along with research by employers, both large and small, many of whom I have worked with on their recruitment strategies. But if you want a simple, bumper-sticker definition that doesn't quite reach the pithiness of 'cogito ergo sum', a skill is 'something that makes you useful'. That might be useful to yourself, to your community or to your employer. Employers want skills that add more value than the employee takes. That's usually commercial value, but in hospitals and schools, for instance, it's service value. So a skill is anything you can do that helps bring about that extra value. As for helping employers realise what they're looking for, I'm doing my best, but, since commenting further on that would stray into self-interest, I'll stop there.
Golly Descartes, employers don't know what they want? I can assure you that when I am hiring I'm absolutely crystal clear about what I want, and how to develop people once hired. And I'm pretty sure it's not just me.
Jenny; for a good number of years academics have had to manage a common sense of failure associated with what they do and how they do it. The government and it's agencies have levelled countless claims against our ability to engage with our students and to teach, to assess, to counsel, to develop, to enthuse, to innovate, and to modernise with any efficacy. Above all, we are labelled out of touch with a world far more important than that unreal world we inhabit. This real world is represented by Employers who, apparently, are struggling with our graduates because they are unskilled, and lack those qualities essential for those Employers' successes which are commensurate with the strengthening of our economy and community. The problem for me Jenny, and many more that influence me, is that I have yet to hear the one voice with which this group of Employers speak. I don't doubt as an employer you have full control over your recruitment and retention policies and that you have developed a culture which has made a valid and valuable contribution to your success; but is your model THE model for all employers Jenny. Is yours the voice we should all listen to?? have you got the answers?? can you categorically state that this group of Employers will endorse your model?? and can you categorically state that your model will not be affected by those pressures exerted by those external forces which may or may not be Organisational or Industry specific?? I'm not picking a fight with any individual employers or with that Employer collective we hear so much about. But I do have a concern about the potential alienation of important groups which are genuinely trying to help young people develop simply because we do not understand each other. My position on employability was profoundly influenced after a visit to a very large employer in Nottingham. A senior manager (one who dealt directly with recruits rather than one who delivered the fashionable mantras of the day) told me that during their new recruits probationary period they spent a lot of their time undoing the damage that Universities and Colleges had done to their undergraduates. I was told that Universities should concentrate on the education and leave the rest to the employer; because the employer (not Employers) know how to bring their recruits on. Is this sentiment in accord with what you have written Jenny?? I have never dealt in skills Jenny, because I'm not a trainer. The fact is writers and commentators can't define a skill. Oh, they allude to a definition by trying to give examples but resorting to an example just shows a skill is not understood. As I am about to reply to Johnny Rich's missive to me it is pertinent for me to repeat something casually offered to me at a conference some years ago, by somebody far more gifted than me. I tried to get him to develop this theme but to no avail. It was simple 'if you can't practise it then it's not a skill'. Think about it Jenny. A skill is an ACTIVITY which when practised improves. That is why entrepreneurship is not a skill, strategy is not a skill, creativity is not a skill but writing is. I should add that any improvement directly linked to practising is talent bound. Regardless of the practice there will be levels of attainment even at the highest level ... Murray is very good but Djokovic is better

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