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Making students objectively more employable

The Higher Education Bill seeks to embed consumerism into students’ university experience. To some, this is putting students more squarely at the heart of the system, and is a strategically important way to build a qualified and competitive UK workforce. To others, the idea of student-as-consumer denies the notion that learning is good for its own sake, and the HE Bill is flawed because “the supposed ‘purchasers’ are also partly responsible for their own satisfaction and success”.

Undeniably, though, we are in an era where many students are weighing up the cost of a degree against the benefit of future employment. For these students, and the universities that teach them, it pays to look at the data and trend analyses available about employability. Jamie Mackay from Emsi explains.

Universities UK have announced that they are conducting a survey of higher education providers, employers, students, graduates and other interested stakeholders, in order to help “inform how universities, employers and policy makers can ensure opportunities for graduates and their future employment success can be maximized.” The Review of Skills, which is open until 31st October, will ask a number of questions focusing on skills and employability strategies, skills needs and skills gaps, and effective collaboration between universities and employers.

Although there appears to be a generally high satisfaction rate for both employers and graduates, according to studies such as the recent CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey, UUK then go on to point out that there is much room for improvement in areas such as skills shortages, skills mismatches, and whether graduates are getting “graduate-level” jobs.

At least part of the answer to these questions comes down to our understanding of employability.

When universities use the term employability, often it is thought of purely in terms of the attributes possessed by student. For example, in his 2006 study, Learning and Employability, Professor Mantz Yorke defined employability 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, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy.”

Whilst this is true, there is another component that is often missed, and one which is vital to address if we want to see those skills shortages and mismatches solved. Let me explain by way of an illustration.

Doug and Evie live in the same region, and both intend not only to go to university in that region, but also hope to stay after graduating. Doug does Biochemistry, but after graduating realises that there aren’t actually any jobs for biochemists in the region. Evie, on the other hand, starts off wanting to do Biochemistry, but after researching labour market demand for graduate positions in this field in the region sees that there is unlikely to be much demand for biochemists after she graduates. However, her research also identifies significant demand in another occupation that interests her – Environmental Health. So instead of enrolling in Biochemistry, she instead chooses Environmental Health (which still includes studying the microbiology that fascinates her), and when she qualifies finds that there are a number of local councils in her region that are looking to employ.

A simplistic illustration, of course, but which one is the most employable? According to the usual definition we apply, both are equally employable. However, whilst Doug is faced with a choice between looking for work in a different field than he studied in, or moving into a different region where the demand for biochemists is higher, Evie, who has taken the time to research labour market demand, is able to apply for a number of posts in a field that she has been studying for. In other words, subjectively both may well be equally employable, but Evie has made herself objectively more employable by aligning the skills, understanding and attributes she learns to what is most likely to lead to a sustainable career.

If universities are to get serious about addressing concerns about skills shortages, skills mismatches, and whether graduates are getting “graduate-level” jobs, they need to better understand that there is an objective side of employability. They then need to take steps to ensure that the likes of Doug and Evie have access to the kind of information that will make them more objectively employable, and so give them a better chance of graduating and finding sustainable work in the field in which they studied.

There is, however, one final aspect to mention. In the illustration above, Evie seems pretty sorted, but what does Doug do? Look for work in a field completely unrelated to the one he studied? Look for work in a non-graduate job?

What if he identifies the knowledge and skills he has learnt in his degree, and then uses a comparative analysis to find out which occupations most closely match? If he could find something that matches, say, 90% of his skills and knowledge base, and then finds that there are actually vacancies in that occupation in his region, wouldn’t that be far better for him than simply looking for a job in a position where his skills and knowledge may not be needed? And wouldn’t it be better for employers too?

The good news is that information on both these issues – objective employability, and transferrable skills – is available. For the university that is serious about tackling skills shortages, skills mismatches and helping their graduates get “graduate-level” jobs, making this information available to their students and prospective students is fast becoming a necessity.

Posted by Jamie Mackay on Tue, 14 Feb 2017

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Jamie is Business Development Manager for Higher Education at Economic Modelling Specialists Int'l (EMSI). Jamie has a long track record in the HE sector, with particular specialisms in widening participation, marketing, recruitment and partnerships. In his current role, he works closely with universities to enable them to better understand their role in driving their regional economy through graduate employability and increased productivity.

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