Employability & Enterprise: Employability – Why bother?

Employability & Enterprise

This section describes what employability is all about and how it relates to the curriculum and the development of our students. It is a good place to start for anyone coming to the topic for the first time.

What is ‘employability’?

Employability can be described as ‘ a set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that make graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations.

This fits neatly with the complex outcomes of Employability that employers value. Many lists have been produced based upon varying levels of investigation and research into what employers value in graduates (see, for example , Harvey et al.,1997; Brennan et al., 2001. In a recent Salaries and Vacancies Survey the Association of Graduate Recruiters focused on the issue of skills. The list used has been developed over the years to include most of the skill areas that employers have sought to a greater or lesser extent. The ‘top ten’ were:

  1. Motivation and enthusiasm
  2. Interpersonal skills
  3. Team working
  4. Oral communication
  5. Flexibility and adaptability
  6. Initiative/productivity
  7. Problem solving
  8. Planning and organisation
  9. Managing own development
  10. Written communication

There are two important points here:

  • Some of these ‘skills’ are better defined as attributes or attitudes or other valued personal achievements.
  • They are also valued by many if not most academics either in their own right or because they are necessary for academic success. As Harvey (2003: page 6) has noted:

Despite concerns that some graduates are not work-ready, employers repeatedly say that they do not want ‘trained’ recruits. They want intelligent, rounded people who have a depth of understanding, can apply themselves, take responsibility and develop their role in the organisation. Employers want graduate recruits who are educated and can demonstrate a wide range of attributes, not least the traditional high-level academic abilities of analysis, reflection, critique and synthesis. Employers do not want graduates trained for a job, not least because jobs change rapidly. Although they may want new recruits to add value rapidly, employers wanted graduates because they can potentially do more than add value.

Such perspectives challenge the idea that it is ‘employability versus education’. Rather, employability is enhanced by good learning, and can be incorporated without damaging the subject specific dimensions of learning. De Montfort University’s work on English in the Workplace’ demonstrates how the graduate skills and attributes listed in the English Benchmark Statement are related to experiences in the world of work.

Responding to the Sceptics

Here are some of the views which are often put forward as reasons why don’t need to bother about employability in English……and the responses.

Yes but… However
Our students get jobs, indeed they already have jobs, so what’s the issue? We are talking about employability rather than employment, giving students the capabilities and confidence not just to secure a first job, but to develop over their careers.
It’s all about Work Based Learning and it’s difficult to offer that on English programmes… Work based learning may be useful to the student, and we know employers value it in graduate applicants. Some departments have been successful in integrating work based learning into their programmes. But not all courses provide such opportunities, and not all undergraduates take advantage of them. Understandably really, as a placement year might threaten increased debt and put you out of educational and social step with your friends and peers. Finally, WBL can offer ‘an experience’ but one that does not always add much to the student’s development.
Careers Services can do this. Careers Services are very important but don’t always have the resources to give sustained attention to all students and all the subject areas they have to cover. Furthermore, they may not have the power or influence in the institution to get the message across.
Widening participation is the big priority That’s certainly important in policy terms. But so is employability. And they are related. We need to ensure good levels of student retention and completion in order to help our applicants see that HE offers a good opportunity in terms of future employment prospects and access to ‘graduate jobs.’
Employability is equated with training, erosion of subject time, low standards, betrayal of academic values Anything but – if you subscribe to the idea that employability is about the all-round development of students and their beliefs about themselves.

Enhancing employability through the subject curriculum

There is no one ‘right way’ to foster employability through the curriculum; it all depends upon systems, circumstances and context. . Each brings particular challenges, and, while this might sound like more work – and perhaps more challenging work – it emphasises the active professional role and opportunities we all have.

‘Employability’ means rather different things to different people. These different understandings are associated with different thinking about the best place to focus attention when we try to enhance higher education’s contribution. Three of these foci, which are not mutually exclusive, are:

Focus 1. Student performance

Bennett (Bennett, N., Dunne, E. and Carré, C. (2000) for example, has gone beyond more conventional lists including, for example, ‘communication’, ‘problem-solving’, ‘independent learning’ and ‘team/group work’, in order to identify four management skills that can be applied across a range of contexts:

  • Management of self,
  • Management of others,
  • Management of information, and
  • Management of task.

The purpose in using such a categorisation is twofold: ‘ firstly strengthening learning within HE –such skills are fundamental to, and underpin, academic study; secondly providing learners with opportunities to enhance and develop employability skills and attributes and encourage life-long learning.’ Dunne (Dunne, E. (2003)

Focus 2. Curriculum models and structures

The emphasis here is on finding ways in which particular attention can be paid to the all-round development of students. The USEM Model developed by Peter Knight and Mantz Yorke as part of the Skills Plus Project, ascribes a central importance to students’ beliefs about themselves and their ability to make a difference. Thus the E– for Efficacy – was central to the other aspects of the model: Understanding of subject, Skills and Metacognition (defined in terms of strategic thinking, applicability to the task in hand, and personal self-awareness). In English we would also wish students to be able to be not only aware of their own thinking processes, or belief systems, but to be capable of being critical of them: a precondition for change.

Focus 3.Lecturers’ and learners’ beliefs about the difference higher education can make to employability

If teachers and learners believe that many of the attributes employers value are down to fixed personality or have been shaped before entry into higher education, then higher education has limited power to enhance employability. This leads to the argument that changing attitudes is fundamental to enhancing employability (Knight P. and Yorke, M. (2003).

Knight and Yorke (2003) further emphasise that people tend to be more effective in what they do, the more they have the following (additional) characteristics:

  • A belief that they can often (but not necessarily always) make a difference (self-efficacy)
  • They have developed ‘learned optimism’ in their approach to life rather than ‘learned helplessness’
  • They are motivated and determined in what they do.
What does this mean for developing practice?

If the curriculum we offer is to provide opportunities for the development of employability in its widest sense, we will need to :

  • Value explicit approaches to promoting employability, such as work-based or work-related learning, or career management provision, where relevance and meaning is already – or can be made – very clear to students and staff and outcomes easily articulated to potential employers.
  • Beyond this, audit what we already do in the broader curriculum, preferably in terms of the core of a study pathway rather than at the level of individual modules. Knight and Yorke (Knight P. and Yorke, M. (2003) claim that a major goal of the curriculum is to develop subject understanding, named skills, efficacy beliefs and metacognition. All four matter.
  • Make sure that the approaches to teaching, learning and assessment that are implemented are consistent with curriculum objectives, not least by creating opportunities that support the sorts of learning we intend to happen . In the development of employability, how we do things, and how we ask students to do things, are as important – perhaps more important – than the stated objectives of a particular module.
  • Make sure that students are ‘tuned in’ to their learning intentions and to the significance of aspects of learning. They should also have a perspective on their achievements, and a clear idea of actions necessary for improvement. Formative assessment can play a key role here. Students need to understand that the goals of a programme are wider than academic achievement alone, and to appreciate ways in which the work they do could support claims to employability.
  • Understand more about the career destinations of our graduates, not only their ‘first destinations’ six months after graduation but in terms of their longer-term career paths. See, for example, the survey of English graduates done by the Centre for Higher Education Research Information three to four years after graduation (Brennan. J and Williams R. (2003) The English Degree and Graduate Careers: Egham: English Subject Centre
  • Recognise the increasingly uncertain and less supported career trajectories many of our graduates are likely to encounter. The English Subject Centre’s work on enterprise skills is relevant here.
  • Finally, provide students with opportunities (and support) when reflecting on – and documenting – their achievements inside and outside the programme of study, thereby raising their capacity to represent their achievements to others. It is vital for universities, including careers staff, teachers, student unions and others who advise students, to help them to translate what they do during their undergraduate years into a language that appeals to employers. The Student Employability Profile developed by the English Subject Centre links the English Benchmark Statement to the skills employers seek and is a useful tool for helping students to do this. The processes of Personal Development Planning are likely to be important here, though employers are unlikely to want to see the records or Portfolios that accompany the process.