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How can we make our graduates more employable?

Friday, November 16, 2018

For most university students the end goal is not just a degree – it’s employment too. Research shows that more and more students are leaving university under-prepared and lacking skills suited to the workforce. However, there are things we can do to help our students graduate more job-ready.


But first, a definition. How would we define ‘graduate employability’? If we look through the literature around education, there are several common definitions to be found, including:

  • The capability to gain initial employment, maintain employment and obtain new employment if required

  • Skills required not only to gain employment, but to progress within an enterprise so as to achieve one’s potential

  • A set of skills, knowledge, understanding and personal attributes that make a person more likely to choose and secure occupations in which they can be satisfied and successful.

These definitions indicate that employability is not just about the ability to ‘get a job’. Nor is it enough for students to know the content of their Bachelor Degree back-to-front. Graduates are certainly more employable when they possess strong knowledge in their discipline, but there are a few more boxes they are required to tick.


Making graduates easier to employ.

The Australian Government together with the Office for Learning and Teaching recently funded a research project designed to explore strategies for graduate employability. The project was developed in response to growing social and economic demands for higher education graduates who can negotiate rapidly transforming employment contexts. These demands emerged from the realisation that many graduates are disconnected from the workforce, lacking skills to work, and are generally hard to employ.


The project’s final report presented a framework for developing employability within university students. It highlighted five key areas for educators to focus on with students: development of skills and knowledge in their discipline, development of self, development of career awareness, gaining the ability to interact with others, and learning to navigate the world of work.


The impact of technology on the job-market.

Technology has a way of transforming jobs and opportunities in ways that few can predict. Just think, ten years ago, positions like ‘app developer’, ‘social media manager’ and ‘data scientist’ did not exist. And with constant digital advances creating a job market that is almost always in a state of flux, the definition of ‘desirable employee’ will continue to change.


Technology has a way of transforming jobs and opportunities in ways that few can predict.


Due to machine automation alone, jobs of the future are predicted to be much more cognitively demanding than those currently available. Therefore educators must make changes to their current mode of operation. The focus will need to be on the development of non-cognitive factors in students that influence learning like grit, tenacity and perseverance, and higher-order skills like problem solving.


The responsibility of universities.

If a concept is easy to teach, then it is easy to outsource or automate. The implication for tertiary institutions is that if they keep teaching the same content and courses they always have, then students will keep entering the workforce with skills that have been automated by the time they get there. If an accounting degree has not changed in two decades, for example, it’s easy to see how tertiary output will fail to satisfy industry needs. Therefore, course material needs to focus on less of the replicable and more of the intangible.


Technologies are less likely to be able to replicate social skills, so it makes sense that tertiary institutes put the onus on these. Students will need to be taught how to collaborate and build on other people’s ideas, how to empathise, and how to create a human connection with others.


Recently, Ernst and Young removed tertiary qualifications from their job entry criteria due to their recruiters’ complaints that degree scores repeatedly failed to give employers a true picture of a candidate’s potential. For universities, this means that they will have to engage, collaborate and change rapidly to remain relevant to the employability conversation. In short, education today, and in the future, needs to be about so much more than helping students learn course content. Our education systems will need to achieve at levels that none have managed to date.


Though universities are conscious of the changing state of the job market and for the most part, understand that they have a responsibility to help students find work, the pace of change is not where it needs to be. To increase the speed of change, universities should form partnerships with businesses. For example – universities could provide a graduate-matching service where they work with corporations to place students on specific projects within a company. In this way, students gain the opportunity to develop specific experience in their chosen field. Not to mention, skills more suited to the workforce.


A multi-pronged approach.

Preparing students for employment should not rest on the shoulders of tertiary institutions alone: this is a responsibility that belongs to the wider community. Universities, businesses and governments each have a role to play when it comes to guiding students into the workplace, training them, developing them, and helping them succeed.


Be prepared to go through the engagement, initial training and mentorship process with new graduates – a process that can be rushed or overlooked.


The business community must be prepared to team up with tertiary institutions. They must also be prepared to go through the engagement, initial training and mentorship process with new graduates – a process that can be rushed or overlooked for various reasons – and often to the detriment of a company. A series of studies have suggested that young people who have difficulty in their early integration into the world of work suffer lifelong ‘scarring’ effects that diminish their resiliency and ability to thrive in a dynamic and demanding labour market. Therefore, it is imperative that newly employed graduates have good mentors and leaders who will train and guide them in their formative years. I’m forever grateful to my first boss for her guidance and support in my first job.


Governments need to support and facilitate partnerships between universities and businesses with the development of specific processes and policies. It is this multi-pronged approach – one in which each stakeholder has a clearly defined role to play – that will enable us, as a community, to create job-ready students for today and the future.


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