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The ‘work ready’ graduate and the problems of perception

September 18, 2015 - Higher Education

RegrowthAs often happens, a valued node in my professional network friend has got me thinking, and thinking to the extent that I need to write a post to help structure out my rambling thoughts.

The background to this is a post by Techxplorer about his perspective on universities teaching ’employability’ skills, and in particular this quote from his post:

I’m not convinced that I want higher education institutions teaching students to be ‘work ready’.

On thinking through this statement I couldn’t help but feeling a general vibe of disagreement, but it took a little time to work out why.

As Techxplorer goes on to discuss, the conversations that go on around being ‘work ready’ or ’employable’ can be viewed through a number of different lenses, and I think this is where so much of my discomfort was springing from, and so I thought it was worth delving into that a little deeper here on this problem of perception.

In my travels, I think I’ve seen at least four different perspectives on what is perceived as this thing called ’employability’, which I’ll try and classify here.

What Higher Ed institutions seem to perceive as employability

Pick a university, any university, and enter the term ‘graduate attributes’ in the search box on their home page. Repeat this for maybe three or four unis. What you’ll find are lists that will probably start to look unnervingly similar across different universities. Embed these attributes/capabilities in the curriculum, or at least bolt them on the side of it somehow, and you’ve got graduates who are ’employable’ through their combination of domain knowledge and graduate attributes. While a little dated, the GAP project has some interesting information on graduate attributes around the country. It would be interesting to see if this has shifted much since 2009.

While I’ve no doubt that all of these attributes are noble in intention, I also strongly suspect that just how deeply they are embedded in the curricula would have some major variation across and within our universities. I’d be interested to know from any of my academic friends just how seriously graduate capabilities are taken when it comes to course design, and how often they are only provided lip service (or ignored altogether). All this aside, I think that at least in word if not consistent deed, universities already do try and teach some of the underpinning skills that are useful to have in the workforce, and in life more generally. I suspect these attributes cover at least some of what Techxplorer was talking about when he referred to ‘soft skills’, and so in a sense the acknowledgement that these are important is already there – at least in theory.

What an actual employer perceives as employability

Now this one has an even higher rate of variability in my experience, because not only is each role different, but each employer is different in what they perceive as ‘success’ in that role. For example, I’ve known plenty of managers who have not the slightest care for succession planning or evolution of a team as an ‘organic unit’. They simply want someone who can land on Day 1, do the specific tasks required of the job, not steal too much stationary and that’s about it. Others I’ve known do make a more concerted effort to do what one of the managers currently reporting to me refers to as ‘list management’, borrowing from sporting circles where sufficient ‘depth’ in a team is needed, as is a clear path for growth of the individuals to make a robust team able to cope with change.

These two examples will have very different perceptions of employability. The first employer will be the one that Techxplorer mentioned, who is really just interested that an employee can perform a very specific set of tasks in a specific context, while the latter employer will be able to look beyond that and make a judgement call on whether on balance the person is worth investing in as a longer term proposition. One of Allan Christie‘s tenets back when NetSpot was still a growing entity was to recruit good people, and then let the roles morph around them wherever possible – that you could train the skills, but that it was much harder to change ‘foundational’ things like commitment, intelligence, honesty and ethics.

Of course there’s a vast spectrum between these two points, and either side for that matter – but the bottom line is that while there is probably some core set of attributes that most/all employers would want, there is also I believe a whole lot of variability, which makes life hard for universities attempting to create the universally ‘job ready’ graduate.

What the job description tells you is employability

I could talk at length about this, but rather than do that I’ll just point you to this recent episode of Utopia. If you can’t be bothered watching the whole thing, the relevant bits are at 5:35, 17:50, 21:25 & 23:30, and give a wonderful example of what can happen when things get lost in translation between what an employer wants and what a position description says!

What the individual should consider as employability

Like the different employers wanting different things for the ‘now’ and for the future in what they consider as being ’employable’, so I think it is with the individual in their personal career management. Yes, it is important to be able to put food on the table each week, but it is also important to understand that whatever your job is now, you at least need to be conscious that it might not be the same in ten years’ time, and anyone who is not consciously keeping a cursory glance on the distant road ahead is at risk of ending up in a dead end. A balance needs to be struck, and it isn’t always easy.

This leads us then to the individual needing to be skilled in a particular field that is of value to an employer, such as software development in Techxplorer’s case – no rocket science there. Then there are the many graduate attributes which I’ve alluded to before, many of which are of value to varying degrees (no pun intended) to someone studying at university.

I tried to go beyond this and come up with another list of things that I relate to general employability skills, but this caused me two problems:

  1. They all came out as the kinds of cliches that I dislike in other posts about employability. Work hard. Be a good person. Never stop learning new things. Market yourself. Learn how to be a good communicator. All of these, while useful, aren’t any different from general rules of life, and so then is perhaps the quest for employability no more than a quest for self-actualisation? Whatever the case, writing them down didn’t seem to add anything to the discussion.
  2. All the ones I thought of could be countered by an exception. Work hard? No – work smart instead. Be a good person? Not if you want to work in Sales. Market yourself. Not if you’re good enough that people come to you. Exceptions like this are toxic to a person from a maths background – and so once again coming up with my own personal ‘Top 10 list of employability tips’ seemed like even more of a waste of time.

This is why the post on being networked that started this whole thought process grabbed me as an employability indicator that hasn’t been talked about much before, and certainly isn’t a focus in many university graduate attributes lists.

So where does this leave us in terms of the employability of the individual? Possibly no closer than before to any ‘silver bullets’, and certainly no closer to just how much of this ethereal concept of being ‘work ready’ can be structurally driven by any university. Perhaps the only thing resembling an answer is that employability in itself will mean different things to different people (both as employers and employees). Beyond a focus on personal growth perhaps there is no such thing as a universally ‘work ready’ graduate – everyone must find their own path of growth within the context of their own environments, just like the new growth in the bushfire blackened tree shown in the picture atop this post.