Confusing employability with employment

Employability and obtaining skills in your skills portfolio are complementary but not necessarily the same thing.

Over the holiday season, I somehow managed to find time to catch up on my reading. In one of the many publications I went through, I came across a most interesting article on employability skills which was published in the December issue of the “Higher Education” magazine of “The Times” of London.

Articles in this supplement deal primarily with an analysis of the UK Engagement survey, which echoes the National Survey of Student Engagement in the US. The survey is a major piece of work carried out by the Higher Education Academy. Although these deal with the situation in the UK, we can learn from the findings, apply many of the outcomes to our needs and hopefully be in a position to carry a similar survey among the local student population.

The Higher Education survey draws on the responses of more than 24,000 undergraduates and attempts to measure ‘learning gain’ in British campuses. Half of all respondents reported very high levels of development in becoming an independent learner, with another 36 per cent saying that they experienced a certain amount of development.

A staggering 83 per cent reported a very high or reasonable amount of development in critical and analytical thinking skills. In contrast, only about a quarter of undergraduates perceived a very high level of benefit to softer skills such as citizenship, innovation and developing personal values.

More than one in five respondents reported very little development in the ability to analyse numerical and statistical information. In general, students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics-based subjects reported significantly higher gains in hard skills than in soft skills, while undergraduates following arts and humanities courses perceived significantly lower levels of hard skill development than their counterparts in other subject areas.

This shows that development of soft skills needs to be integrated into curricula more explicitly. Professor Rigby, Vice-Chancellor for student development at the University of Lincoln, said that the result of the survey “gives universities another way of looking at what they are doing and an opportunity to rebalance some of the things they are talking to students about: it is worth spending time on this stuff.”

However there are also serious concerns which were recently raised in The Times Higher Education Supplement. The leader poses a very simple question – What actually are employability skills?

“The term ‘skills’ can mean many different things, or it can mean not very much at all,” says John Gill of Times Higher Education. It is a question that was raised quite recently – “Students are unready for work – like any experiential life event, gaining workplace skills is a cumulative process”, wrote Tim Holmes, associate director at the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University.

The publisher and CEO of ‘Push’ (Polytechnic and University Student Handbook), Johnny Rich, suggests that there could be another problem which he refers to as “the confusion of employability with employment”. He differentiates between a set of attributes that make someone employable with graduating and walking into a plum role in the family business.

Employability and obtaining skills in your skills portfolio are complementary but not necessarily the same thing. Evidence suggests that degrees fail to boost students’ soft skills. We need to specify what the term ‘skills’ means, for the employer and the employee alike. It is only then that the concept of employability skills can be put to work.