Some time ago I published this article on LinkedIn. It was actually the content of a short presentation that I was asked to do in the job interview for what is now my current job (I guess I did pretty well!).
I was recently asked to talk a little about how I, as a careers and employability educator at a large public university, view employability. What does employability mean, why is it a challenge for students, and what might a university do to help them? It prompted me to think carefully about my ideas and practice and try to articulate my “curricular vision” of careers and employability learning. This is what I said.
What is this thing, employability?
Like a number of other higher education careers professionals, I am dissatisfied with the common understanding of employability as little more than a list of skills that employers or policy-makers tell us are essential in the world of work. Aside from the fact that what employers say they want and what they prioritise in reality can be quite different, this view of employability neglects several important factors that affect a persons’s ability to secure decent work. Some key factors that influence employability are:
- dispositional traits, such as conscientiousness or openness to experience
- characteristic adaptations, which describe how someone changes their behaviour or attitudes in response to their experiences
- life stories, which make sense of and give meaning to a person’s past, present, and future.
In addition to these individual factors, employability is contextual and relational. Contextual because the ability to secure decent work is influenced by external factors such as labour markets, recruitment practices, and socio-economic conditions. Relational, because work is an inherently social act. A person’s professional identity is influenced by their positioning in their personal and professional networks and their ability to fit themselves to the social and cultural norms of their professional communities.
Why is employability such a challenge?
The most significant barriers to employability for university students relate to contextual factors. Graduates are entering competitive labour markets and can face serious difficulties balancing their obligations to their family and community with the expectations or conditions of the available job opportunites. Many students experience economic and social marginalisation, up to and including outright discrimination, which in addition to being actual barriers to employment, can negatively impact their sense of self efficacy, optimism, and personal agency.
But an equally significant barrier is students’ limited ability to reflect on and articulate their career decisions, values, interests, skills, or goals. This lack of reflective ability is a barrier to effective decision-making and planning, as it means that a students’ biases, blind spots, and anxieties are left to run riot in the subconscious, rather than being brought into the light, confronted, and managed. Furthermore, the inability to articulate a coherent career story and vocational identity to others is a significant barrier to successful job applications and professional networking, where a strong sense of purpose and intention can make a lasting positive impression.
What can a university do to help students develop their employability?
The evidence that careers education has a positive impact on students is strong. I and my colleagues are passionate about helping students navigate the challenging and uncertain process that is university education. We do this in many ways, but there are a couple of approaches that are particularly important.
The first of these is Ruth Bridgstock’s model of connectedness learning, which promotes professional networking and socially based learning as a way to help learners develop adaptive identities and increase their agency. Universities can help students become connected by prioritising broad and deep engagement with industry, employers, and professional mentors. At La Trobe, we made an undertaking to include an employer or professional association in as many events and activities as we could, encourage our students into internships and entrepreneurship and innovation challenges, and to broker curricular collaboration between industry and academics. In addition to the specific job and networking opportunities that emerged from these efforts, we observed that the frequent and friendly exposure to employers reduced students’ anxiety and increased their career optimism and self-efficacy.
Another key approach is identity work. In my experience, few students can articulate why they chose to complete the degree that they did, or how they have developed as a result of it. Many are hesitant to make a simple declarative statement about their career identity, such as “I am a skilled analyst” or “I have a commitment to patient-centred healthcare”. It is not surprising that they then have difficulty explaining to employer why they should be considered for a role. A careers service can help students transform into confident professionals by teaching them how to think, write, and speak about their professional identity.
A third important approach is portfolio work. As students learn to reflect on and voice their career stories for themselves and begin to position themselves in their professional community, we can teach them how to communicate these things in a professional way, particularly to potential employers. By portfolio I don’t necessarily mean a literal portfolio like a website or any kind of pro-forma portfolio format. In my work, portfolio is a concept which describes a habit and system of reflection on your professional learning and development, the curation of evidence to support this, and the ability to draw on it when communicating with others.
Careers and employability learning environments
These approaches are closely inter-related and together they are much more than the sum of their parts. Together, they form the basis of an approach to careers and employability learning that is less programmatic than it is cultural and environmental. My goal in my work and study is to influence cultural change that views educational institutions as careers and employability learning environments where conversations about career, work, and professional learning are ubiquitous and normal, rather than sequestered in the career service alone.
Bridgstock, R. (2017). The university and the knowledge network: A new educational model for twenty-first century learning and employability. In M. Tomlinson & L. Holmes (Eds.), Graduate employability in context: Theory, research and debate (pp. 339–358). London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Dey, F., & Cruzvergara, C. Y. (2014). Evolution of career services in higher education. New Directions for Student Services, 2014(148), 5–18. doi:10.1002/ss.20105
Draaisma, A., Meijers, F., & Kuijpers, M. (2017). The development of strong career learning environments: The project “career orientation and guidance” in dutch vocational education. Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 1–20. doi:10.1080/13636820.2017.1392995