The problem with employability skills in career education

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If you agree that students need to take a closer look at employability skills, try out my lesson plan for teaching students to contextualise their skills on resumes and in interviews. 

“Employability skills” are a bit of a buzzword in career education. They’re typically defined as the skills that are needed in all professions, regardless of industry or specific context. There are dozens of lists of employability skills out there, but they all cite similar skills as being fundamental requirements in all workplaces:

Problem solving
Self management
Time management
Planning and organising




They’re a very useful concept, as they remind students that employability is more than just their degree and their technical proficiency. The problem is when they’re presented like this, as a list of words without a lot of context. Students then dutifully list them on their resume, not realising that without context they are meaningless.

Take “communication skills” for example. In and of itself, it’s a meaningless phrase. Almost everyone can communicate. Newborn babies can communicate, as can household pets. Bill the postcard vendor from Saigon was an engaging communicator, but I wouldn’t want him writing my research proposals. James Joyce was a genius with creative prose, but I wouldn’t put him in charge of my social media marketing.

Some employability skills resources are better than others, in that they do break down the skills into more specific actions and contexts (see this one from the University of Sydney for example). But when it comes to career education I strongly believe that any discussion of employability skills must come with some serious time given to deconstructing and contextualising employability skills, to ensure that students are attentive to the specific requirements of their professional field.

In my next post, I will share a lesson plan for an employability skills activity that I’ve had great success with, both in class and as a blended or wholly online activity. It’s a lot of fun for students and educators alike and does a great job bringing the idea of contextualising and defining employability skills home.


My job application disaster story

dunceOne of the great challenges of being a career development educator is the pressure you’re under when you apply for a job. You’re applying for a job giving advice to others about their resume and interview skills, so the pressure is on to deliver a very high quality application yourself. I thought it might be fun to share a story of when I screwed it all up.

At the time there were quite a few opportunities popping up and so I was revising and sending my application documents quite often. My resume didn’t require a lot of changes, but each Key Selection Criteria statement had to be written individually. For one application, I spent my weekend preparing my documents and submitted them with confidence the day before the deadline. The next morning I got an email from the line manager for the position:

It looks like you’ve attached your cover letter twice and there is no Key Selection Criteria statement.

My heart sank. How many times had I harangued my students about checking and double checking their applications? Here I was, making such a basic mistake. I replied immediately with the correct documents attached and made a self-deprecating joke about the irony of a career consultant making a mistake like this. I hoped that my frankness and good humour would reflect well. Straight away, there was another email:

Thanks Michael, but it looks like that this KSC statement is for a different job.

My heart sank again, deeper. I checked, and it was true. I had sent the statement for a job I had applied to at a different university a week before, with quite different duties and very different criteria. I was sure that by now they’d drawn a line through my name on their candidate list because of my incompetence. Nonetheless, I sent off the correct documents, double and triple checking them this time.

A week later, I was surprised to receive an email inviting me to have an interview. I thought they must either be very understanding or very desperate, but I wasn’t going to question it. In a strange way it actually boosted my confidence. I accepted their invitation and promised myself that I would ace the interview to make up for my mistakes with the initial application. I started by reviewing the position description, but I was stopped immediately by something at the top of the first page in the “Employment Conditions” section:

Salary: $XX,000, 0.4 FTE

0.4 full time equivalent, meaning 16 hours a week. Two days a week. The job was part-time, making it totally unsuitable for me. I had seen the salary dollar amount, of course, but somehow I had never registered the other part. I would never have applied had I realised this. So, the day before my interview I had to email the manager who had forgiven my two previous errors and cancel my interview. This time I was too self-conscious to admit to my error and just said that my circumstances have changed.

My subsequent applications were much better, of course, and not long after this I was employed by La Trobe University in Melbourne. I’m still a little embarrassed by my mistakes but I do enjoy telling the story now.

The tricky question of ethnicity and nationality on resumes

Australia_Entry_Stamp_HensleyIn my role as careers consultant at La Trobe university, I enjoy the diversity of students that I work with. It was a challenge after working at relatively  homogeneous RMIT Vietnam, but a refreshing one. I enjoy being amongst a wide range of nationalities, backgrounds, perspectives, goals, languages and cultures.

But one thing I’m struggling with is how I talk about ethnicity and nationality with my students, particularly when it comes to their resumes. I know that Australian employers can be reluctant to hire international students and that prejudicial hiring practices are a significant barrier for non-Anglo job seekers. I feel that I need to address it in my consultations, but I fear that in doing so I contribute to the marginalisation of these students.

I feel uncomfortable when asking the question “what is your visa status?” I dislike the idea that I am signalling to the student that I see them as a foreigner and expect others to as well. They may have a “foreign” name, a “foreign” accent, “foreign” schools or jobs on their resumes… yet they could be a citizen of Australia, which is more than I can say. Some of my students were born here, yet because of their name, religion, or accent, may be viewed as foreign by employers and thus placed at a disadvantage. I have also noticed that I tend to assume that students with Greek or Italian names are true blue Aussies, due to the way these nationalities have become part of the social fabric of Melbourne, whereas an Asian or Indian name will raise the question of nationality and foreignness in my mind.

More than once I have asked lazily “are you an international student?”, and felt sheepish when I’m told “I’m a citizen”. More than once I have had Australian born students ask me if they should use their actual name or an English nickname on their resume. Several times I have coached students on how to achieve “culture fit”, often a convenient proxy for discrimination.  Far too often I have been totally unable to suggest any useful advise to a highly employable student who has received zero interest from employers. In these cases, even my expressions of sympathy feel hollow and condescending.

My solution for some students is to address the hidden work rights question up front, by listing their citizenship or visa status at the very top of the resume, near the contact details. It is contrary to the recommendation of “no personal information” on Australian resumes, but I see it as a necessary compromise in the face of discrimination.

I’m not sure what the answer to my discomfort is. I do believe that it’s an important matter and that my advice can help students achieve their goals, but how can I address it without inadvertently perpetuating an othering experience for these students?


The job application “self destruct button”

Self destruct

My resume-checking consultations with students often begin with the student telling me “I’ve been sending my resume out to heaps of jobs but have had no replies”. This sentence is loaded with all sorts of danger signals, so before looking at the resume I always take some time to explore what the students’ job search strategies are like.

99% of the time, they’re awful.

It’s telling that the word resume is singular in that sentence. Students are sending out the exact same resume for a wide range of jobs. Leaving aside the fact that job search sites are a poor source of career opportunities, it’s obvious that none of these applications have a well targeted resume. Unfortunately, job search websites such as encourage this self-defeating behaviour by including an “apply now” button which instantly sends off a stored resume.

To try and combat this I put together this short blog post for La Trobe’s Career Ready website: Beware the job application self-destruct button. I enjoy producing career education nuggets like this, because although they focus on one quite specific message, you can load them up with a lot of incidental learning. For example, this post’s message is “don’t use the apply now button”, but the reader is also exposed to important ideas such as targeting resumes, reaching out to employers, and following application instructions.

I’m very interested in microlearning and using social media for career education. Workplace and social learning expert Jane Hart‘s idea of learning flow neatly summarises this approach:

A Learning Flow is a continuous steady stream of social micro-learning activities – accessible from the web and mobile devices

I’m looking forward to exploring and learning more about how I can use learning flow and social learning to improve the career education outcomes of my students. What this space: further study and research ahead.

Design note:

The image is my own, created in PowerPoint from a free stock photo from, a public domain mushroom cloud, and a tutorial on creating a comic book format from elearning design guru Tom Kuhlmann. It took longer than it needed to because there was a learning curve involved in getting the odd frame shapes right, but I learned a couple of new functions. It’s a quick and dirty effort, but I think it does the trick.

IEAA International Employability Symposium

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One of the great challenges I’ve faced in my new job as a career consultant in Melbourne is working with international students. While many of them have a lot to do to improve their employability skills, not to mention their resumes, they seem to be at a real disadvantage when it comes to finding and securing opportunities. At the Big Meet job fair, I was quite shocked to numerous employers had signs on their booths stating: “Australian Citizens and Permanent Residents Only”, despite the fact that international students have the legal right to work in Australia and a lot to offer employers. I struggled to think of what I could do to help my international students in the face of these barriers.

For this reason I joined a couple of hundred of fellow education professionals at the International Education Association of Australia’s International Employability Symposium, here in Melbourne. The goal of the symposium was to look at the barriers international students face when seeking employment in Australia, such as a lack of employability skills and experience; a shortage of opportunities; and general reluctance to employ international graduates.

At the heart of the symposium were drafts of three “good practice guides” – one for students, one for employers, and one for institutions – aimed at improving employability outcomes for international students. The attendees were asked for their feedback, much of which pointed out that booklets would be less effective than more dynamic digital or social media resources.

A highlight of the symposium was hearing from Rob Lawrence, CEO of Prospect Research and expert in international education market research, on the miss-alignment between what employers are looking for and what international students have to offer. Part of this is a lack of employability skills on the part of the students’, but it also involves a lack of awareness of the value of international students on the part of the employers. The findings offered some concrete areas where international students need to improve to be competitive: communication and problem solving, workplace experience, and fitting into the Australian workplace culture.

It was nice to be involved in this discussion and I found myself feeling motivated that I have something I can contribute to this mission. But I couldn’t help but feel that two important stakeholders were missing from the conversation: the employers and the top rungs of university leadership. The symposium participants were all very motivated and had immense expertise that they could bring to bear on the problem, if only they had the resources to do so.

Aside from the symposium proceedings, I also enjoyed my first experience of live-tweeting an event, which to my surprise and slight embarrassment saw my Twitter avatar broadcast on the projector for half the day. As a result of that I got to meet some people working on really interesting projects aligned with my interests, such as Meld Magazine for international students, Refraction Media, which publishes really nice careers guides for STEM fields, and Ready Grad, which produces online and blended career development resources.




The resume “golden zone”

A week or two ago I published “Three Easy Ways to Target Your Resume” on the La Trobe Career Ready website. One of the methods, the “Resume Golden Zone” got a particularly good response from my colleagues, both in my office and further afield via social media.

 The idea for this came from an eye-tracking study done to see how recruiters read resumes. It showed that resume readers focused more on the left margin and paid less and less attention as they moved down the page. When talking to students about this, I found myself drawing a line on their resume, from the top right corner down to about two-thirds the way down the left margin. The visual impact of the triangle this formed on the page screamed out to me for a quick little e-learning nugget.

For such a short slideshow, the Resume Golden Zone is loaded with several great learning outcomes. The main one is that it helps students understand why the cliche’d objective statement is a waste of prime resume real estate. It illustrates the value of a plain English professional summary, which itself demands that the writer make an effort to prioritise their skills and experience to match the requirements of the job.

The slideshow itself was a very straightforward PowerPoint job, using one of the fantastic free patterns from the Pattern Library project for the background. I’m happy with the result and I’m looking forward to making more nuggets like this.

Making an impact

I really enjoyed this video that wandered across my social media vision the other day.

It captures the precise moment that the singer, Patrick Bruel, realises how much he has made an impact on people.

He’s clearly had plenty of success in his career by this point, to be playing on such a stage. But even so, he’s surprised and overwhelmed to see thousands of people singing his song. It’s an experience that I would imagine few people get to experience. So much of people’s work these days in anonymous and transactional, which is a shame.

Making a impact as teachers

Educators are fortunate in that they get to see the true impact of their work, something that Taylor Mali powerfully captured in his poem “What Teachers Make”. One of the greatest rewards in a teacher’s career comes when they see a student achieve something and know that they played a part – sometimes incidental, sometimes instrumental – in that person’s success. Often, teachers never actually see the results of their influence, as their contribution is realised many years later or in totally different contexts and environments. As an English teacher, for example, my help in learning to write clearly could one day contribute to a student’s workplace promotion, a publication, or a viral blog post. The link may not be immediate or explicit, but there is one.

Making an impact as a career development educator

For me, one of the great things about being a careers educator is the immediacy of this feedback on my work. I may help a student revise a terrible resume into a good one, and later hear from them that they had been invited to a job interview. Or I may help a student articulate their career goals, and later get a Linkedin invitation from them in the role they dreamed of. I’m proud to know that I made a positive difference in their lives and motivated to keep doing what I can to educate and empower my students.