What’s in your skills portfolio?

Employability matters, but it is poorly defined. Only by spelling out what the term means can the concept be put to work

December 10, 2015
Business person's skills portfolio (concept illustration)

There is a memorable scene in a cult comedy called Napoleon Dynamite in which the idea of “skills” is thoughtfully unpicked. The film’s eponymous hero, a nerdy high-school student, is talking to his friend Pedro about his failings with the opposite sex.

“I don’t have any good skills,” Napoleon says. “You know like nunchuck skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills. Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.”

I think that we can all agree that these are, indeed, skills – clearly defined and understood, although whether they are good proxies for teenage attractiveness is debatable (Napoleon does eventually get the girl, although his breakthrough is not his mastery of assorted weaponry, but a compliment paid to her puffy prom dress: “I like your sleeves”; “Thanks, I made them myself”).

The point I am getting round to making is that the term “skills” can mean many different things, or it can mean not very much at all.

In higher education, it is perhaps most ubiquitous in the context of employability skills.

We are always hearing warnings from industry that graduates do not have the skills required in the workplace. But what actually are employability skills?

It is a question that was raised in a recent letter to Times Higher Education: “Of course students are unready for work – like any experiential life event, gaining workplace skills is a cumulative process,” wrote Tim Holmes, associate director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University.

“The most annoying thing is that the missing ‘skills’ are rarely, if ever, specified… I suspect it is because, as William Goldman said in a different context, nobody knows anything – employers can’t be specific because they don’t know what they are looking for; reporters can’t tell us because the employers can’t tell them.”

In our opinion pages, and in a report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute this week, Johnny Rich, chief executive of Push, suggests another problem: the confusion of employability (which he defines as “a set of attributes that make someone employable”) with employment. The former is, at least, about skills, however they are defined, while the latter could just as easily be about graduating and walking into a plum role in the family firm.

Employability skills also form part of the UK Engagement Survey, a major piece of work carried out by the Higher Education Academy, the results of which we report on this week.

According to the study, employability skills are an area of significant concern for universities, with the results suggesting that there is no difference between the soft-skill development reported by first years and third years.

The analysis, which echoes the respected National Survey of Student Engagement in the US, offers the prospect of a more credible metric than student satisfaction for the purposes of the teaching excellence framework.

With more than 24,000 responses, it suggests that there are ways that we might find a path to genuinely useful measurement of how universities are engaging students and adding value as teaching institutions.

But the disquiet about what employability skills even are, is also a reminder of how fraught this whole area continues to be – and why witnesses to the select committee inquiry into the TEF are increasingly backing the idea that decoupling the TEF from fees may, at least initially, be the sensible thing to do.


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