Dr Suzanne Nolan is the Senior Lecturer in Employment Development in the Suffolk Business School, and has recently been recognised as a Senior Fellow of the HEA. She has been supporting students in the development of their professional skills and employability since 2010. Here, she asks: is the language we use around employability creating barriers to student, and employer, understanding?
Learning and teaching has been the focus of my academic practice since beginning my PhD in 2009. Working towards my Associate Fellowship of the HEA in 2010, I reflected on how we, as educators, embed employability skills in assessments; my application for Fellowship in 2016 focused on my role as a Lecturer in Employment Development, and the creation of a new Graduate Management Development Programme within the Suffolk Business School. This programme supports students in the development and articulation of their employability skills, enabling students to connect their experience to demonstrable attributes that employers look for in applicants. Applying for Fellowship at that time was a great opportunity for me to evaluate the programme and my approach to it, and how best to engage students.
More recently, I achieved my Senior Fellowship - something I am hugely proud of. Applying for Senior Fellowship allowed me to reflect not only on my own teaching practice, but how I support colleagues and the institution in developing a strategic plan for embedding employability, and supporting students beyond graduation. Taking this step back, and looking at my professional practice more broadly, brought some aspects of it into sharper focus, and has helped me think about a more structured plan for future development. It has also made me question some of the terms we use to describe our approach.
For example, we continue to use the word ‘employability’ in our rhetoric – speaking to students and employers about ‘developing employability’. However, to what extent does this term have meaning for these groups? Employers often use terms like ‘skills gap’ when talking about their struggles to find employees. Students talk about ‘wanting a job’ or ‘developing their career’. Are these three different ways of talking about the same thing? And what barriers are we, as Higher Education professionals, creating by using this kind of jargon when speaking with students and employers? For many, whether rightly or wrongly, ‘employability’ means ‘employment’. Perhaps, then, we need to start using different language to ensure students, and employers, really know what we mean: application of knowledge, skills, and personal attributes to a professional context, in a successful and healthy way.