Employability Matters

     
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What can you do to build it into your programme?

When a UK university offers a salary of up to £80,000 per year for an employability director, as York University has recently done, you know what the new hot topic is. And with good reason: recent statistics on graduate unemployment make for sobering reading, with many still unemployed after graduation, and around half working in non-graduate jobs or underemployed.

Employability: it’s not something you “have.”

There is a tendency to assume that “employability” is something that a student or job applicant has or doesn’t have. This is simplistic at best: it’s not a set of skills, aptitudes or CV points, and it is employers who decide who will be hired. That means if we want to enhance graduate employability, we need to focus on helping employers find out about what our students know and can do. Building strong links with good local, national and international employers should be a two-way street, not a conduit through which employers cement the idea of inevitable precarious employment into students’ minds.

As academics, we need to understand the workplaces we are preparing students for, and support them to critique, change and challenge practices that may actually damage their long-term interests. Opening up dialogues between workers-in-training, current staff, researchers, and human resources professionals is just one way to do this.

Habits of highly employable graduates.

There are, of course, certain things that employers rightly expect, and others that can give graduates an edge. Students who have gained real-world experience as part of their degrees, whether as a volunteer or an employee, always have an advantage. For example, the University of Kent’s “Employability Points” scheme rewards students for extracurricular engagement.

Graduates with good degrees should all have an array of “transferable skills” in research, writing, presentation, and cooperation, as well as competencies linked to their degree topic. What many find difficult is communicating these to employers. Help students make their knowledge and abilities tangible through Web sites, presentations, posters and documents that can form the basis of a persuasive portfolio.

Make your careers service fit for purpose.

The higher employability scores of Oxbridge and the Russell Group don't necessarily derive from anything special about their courses. Their students arrive with family resources that make a massive difference, landing them internships, placements and graduate jobs that are not always linked to personal attributes.

Whilst every campus has a careers service, many are not proactive, and do too little to help less-privileged students gain confidence and find a way in. Careers advisors need to be embedded inside your programme, and inside the real world of work, not at a desk. And advice should be individually tailored: graduates no longer walk into a job-for-life with British Steel, a primary school or a government department, yet many careers events and materials are mired in that misty past.

Academics can help by insisting on realistic, up-to-date information, stronger ties with employers, and support (such as internship bursaries: see Warwick University  for an example) that allows students to access opportunities for employment, not just gain ticks in “employability” boxes. 

RESOURCES

Higher Education Academy employability resources:  [Accessed 23 January 2014]

Holmes, Leonard (2006) “Reconsidering graduate employability: Beyond possessive instrumentalism.”:  [Accessed 23 January 2014]

Special issue of the journal Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organisation devoted to a critique of employability:  [Accessed 23 January 2014]

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