Employability has always been a ‘slippery’ concept to define. It can be difficult for students to articulate and consequently we run the risk of it being reduced to a tick box exercise, assuming students can ‘possess’ the skills a future employer may require. A focus on pre-professional identity formation (Jackson, 2016), however, turns traditional approaches on their head. A relative newcomer to previously discussed concepts of employability, this approach is more stimulating and thought-provoking, offering students opportunities to engage with, explore, and visualise their future career in a more connected way. And in doing so, it encourages greater agency and self-reflection, useful processes to help students articulate their skills and experience to would-be employers.
Importantly, however, is that this reframing has helped us address wider and more pressing issues currently featuring on the HE agenda. The critical focus on ‘closing the gap’ between white and Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students’ achievement is one such concern. Pre-professional identity development in this context offers a great deal in terms of not only helping to reduce this gap but also in unpicking some of the assumptions that are inherent when we talk about students’ career development.
So what are some common assumptions? Typically, these relate to the ideas that students are aware of the importance of developing their employability and know what steps to take to do so. Of course, in practice many of us see that this is not the case and that career readiness is very often not a major concern for our students, or at least not until those last few months before graduation. Nonetheless, there are plenty of measures in place to moderate this, with employability and careers services teams across UK HEIs offering a superb range of resources in this respect. What is often less obvious is the gap between white and BME students’ access (or perceived access) to these opportunities. Our research shows that the BME participants in our project believed that their white counterparts have (or have had) many more opportunities to build professional connections, network, and undertake work experience (Forder and Fowlie, forthcoming).
Pre-professional identity development also provides a very useful framework for providing some of the opportunities to which BME students may not have had access (see also Barbarà-i-Molinero et al., 2017). In its attempts to encourage career exploration and visualisation, it highlights how activity under these guises can successfully build student capital. This brings us to Tomlinson’s (2017) model of graduate capital. Mapping the concepts he discusses (such as human, social, and identity capital) to the aims and desired outcomes of pre-professional identity development shows broad overlap and, in our case, points to the very areas students report as missing or lacking in their own experience. As a result, we have been able to direct our efforts in closing the employability gap between our white and BME students in a much more effective way.
Putting into practice the theoretical move from employability development as a tick box exercise to one that drives the building of student capital has been relatively straightforward, largely thanks to our alumni network and the use of LinkedIn. Having previously realised the powerful impact these elements can have (Fowlie and Forder, 2019) we aimed to better incorporate them into the next stages of our research. We found that harnessing the role model aspect was especially beneficial for several reasons, particularly as we openly chose to invite only BME alumni to support this stage of our project. In addition, we also noticed how willing our alumni were to participate. From giving their time to support networking to sponsoring prizes and offering to act as mentors, their generosity and desire to give back contributed to the supportive, encouraging environment our project aimed to provide.
Following students’ own suggestions for building capital that included networking opportunities, increasing understanding of the workplace, making personal connections, and learning how to present their ‘employable self’ (Tomlinson, 2017), we saw how we could use LinkedIn© as a ‘one-stop shop’ that would help draw everything together. Informed by our existing research we knew that students would likely be reluctant to use the site immediately, so we worked with alumni to create some initial offline profiles. We used them to familiarise the students not only with the alumni themselves prior to meeting them face-to-face, but also with the general concept of networking and making connections. This step served as a helpful confidence boost to many of the students. They reported feeling better prepared for networking events and later more confident in using LinkedIn© to develop their professional online network.
LinkedIn© was also used as career exploration tool. As pre-professional identity development encourages students to explore and visualise their intended profession, the site is well placed to allow students to examine the skills and experience of others. This contributes students’ increased understanding of roles, companies, sectors and industries and at the same time demonstrates how a ‘professional self’ can be presented and articulated.
Providing more opportunities to build all students’ capital in terms of employability is beneficial. A refreshed model of employability must necessarily be inclusive and foster equality of opportunity. This model allows for specific focus on reframing typical employability development to help close the gap between white and BME students’ outcomes. These are small steps but taken in the necessary direction.
Read more about our research on pre-professional identity development and boosting inclusivity in the forthcoming ‘Enhancing Graduate Employability: A Case Study Compendium’ - a collection of case studies representing a range of creative responses to the challenges of embedding and extending employability in the student experience. ‘Enhancing Graduate Employability’ will be published in full next week.
Clare Forder leads the Foundation Year at Brighton Business School, where Julie Fowlie is Deputy Head (Education & Student Experience). Their research interests include pre-professional identity formation, students taking responsibility for their career development, and exploring the difference between behaviour and attitude versus skills and knowledge.
Booking for Advance HE's Employability Symposium 2020: Breaking the mould - 22 April 2020 - is now open.