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Employability – there is no silver bullet

20 Feb 2020 | Stuart Norton Employability – a word that can send shivers down the spine of many - perhaps because there is no silver bullet for this elusive term. So what does it even mean to address employability effectively and should we even be doing this?

Firstly let’s take a step back – surely we can all agree that graduates should be equipped through their programme, as fully as possible, to make successful transitions beyond their studies; whether that be through life, further study at a later point, multiple careers, venture developments etc.

If that is the case it is a fair assumption that all stakeholders have a responsibility to recognise and develop the wide reaching aspects of students beyond subject competencies, technical skills and knowledge. We should be encouraging wider approaches to developing self, identity, attributes and ‘soft’ skills.

And here is where we immediately hit the first hurdle - whether it be definitions of employability (employer focused, government focused, student focused, employment focused etc.) or the classification of words such as ‘skills’. “They’re anything but soft!” someone is screaming at the screen right now, “people skills are what is needed” shouts someone else, “it’s more than just skills!” shouts yet another voice.

These discussions alone are often enough of a hurdle to derail any traction gained thus far but they certainly follow a repetitive and reductive pattern.

And here perhaps is the crux of it, before we are truly able to develop strategies, cultural change and practical processes for enabling ‘employability’, we need that shared understanding (with as many stakeholders as possible) as to what we are doing and why.

I do not expect academics to start holding mock interviews or creating LinkedIn profiles with students. There are many talented career professionals, often many that transcend the boundaries between academia and professional services, who are more than willing, capable and talented enough to support career development learning alongside other aspects of employability within the curriculum.

However, what is needed within programmes is the facilitation of discussions and reflections on related employability provision in its widest context. There also has to be a focus on horizon scanning and the future perspective individuals will face.

If we know that 30, 40, 50, 60, 70%+ of graduates are not going to work in the field of their study is it enough to say that they are only studying for the love of the subject? I know I believed a lot of hyperbole when studying for my undergraduate programme but I often reflect how ‘lucky’ I have been in my career. Not everyone will be that lucky.

These hurdles aren’t insurmountable but they do need to be challenged if we are to address employability effectively, especially when we consider the pace of change and the need to focus on supporting transitions beyond degree programmes.

  • How are we adapting to and utilising technology to support students?

  • How are we recording and monitoring a range of ‘employability’ elements enabling students to self-assess and develop critical reflection right through their education?

  • If the ‘future skills’ predictions are all underpinned by strong digital capabilities, what are we doing to make the utilisation of technology an absolute priority within programmes?

  • How are we ensuring quality work-based learning?

With a non-linear job market how can we ensure that opportunities are available beyond subject discipline boundaries and ensure such opportunities are both available and accessible to all students?

I would also argue that there is a need to create connectivity not just across but beyond programmes. While there are many examples of multidisciplinary learning, there needs to be a shift to more interdisciplinary approaches, integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a real synthesis of approaches to move beyond disciplinary boundaries.

The world we are preparing graduates for requires such adaptable and nuanced thinking.


Add your thoughts on Advance HE Connect and/or  join us on Twitter for the Advance HE #AdvanceHE_chat #LTHE tweetchat on 26 Feb 2020, 2000–2100 to join the conversation on developing employability through interdisciplinary action.


#EmpSymp20 ‘Breaking the mould’ will be exploring how HE providers are focusing on these shifts: Do you have examples of working in new ways, to collaborate, to provide fuller foundations for continuous learning and ultimately to provide a long-term commitment to ensuring students succeed?

The deadline for paper submission for #EmpSymp20 is on 29 February 2020, submit your abstract here.

Stuart is a senior adviser in learning and teaching at Advance HE with a particular steer towards employability and enterprise. Follow him on Twitter @S_J_Norton.

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