By Chris Sims
The concept of ‘employability’ has been a central concern for policy makers in capitalist societies since at least the first years of the 20th century. Today, an entire industry has developed around helping people maintain their value in the job market. Underlying this is an assumption that the individual has an obligation – as well as a right – to self-reliance through paid work, and that this can only be guaranteed through careful maintenance of skills and attributes that are valued by employers. In a time when the ’career for life‘ seems to be a thing of the past – with freelancing on the rise and the labour market looking increasingly unpredictable – the premium on employability skills has never been higher.
The concept is notoriously difficult to pin down. Depending on context, it can include basic skills (literacy and numeracy), knowledge (e.g. understanding of IT), social skills (team working, customer awareness), management skills (timekeeping, self-management) and personal attributes (enthusiasm, positive attitude, initiative). All of these have been identified by employers at one time or another as being a key component of employability. What employers tend to share is a perspective that responsibility for developing these skills lies with the individual and the education system, not with employers themselves, as highlighted by research conducted by the UK’s Learning and Skills Network in 2008.
There is a difficulty, however, in that traditional education curricula are not always well-suited to focusing on some of these components, particularly those that may be more accurately described as personal qualities than skills. There has arguably been a lack of research aiming to shed light on what would constitute effective instruction in the area of employability. Perhaps for these reasons, many schools and colleges seek to develop employability through extracurricular programmes, often in cooperation with employers. When successful, these programmes have tended to focus on an experiential, hands-on approach that allows students to learn actively and to reflect on their experiences.
They have also recognised that employability should cut across the whole curriculum, rather than being taught as a separate area. The whole-curriculum approach taken by Alverno College in Milwaukee, for instance, in which each student engages with eight broad ‘abilities’ at progressively more complex levels in both general education and in chosen specialist subjects, has been especially successful in delivering graduates who are valued by local employers. Other institutions have found that programmes to develop wider skills – such as citizenship programmes – have also had a positive impact on students’ employability skills.
It seems fair that employers should be more willing to invest in developing their employees’ job-specific and technical skills than in the basic skills and attributes needed to be productive and effective in the workplace. But employers also have a duty in that new workers are far less likely to be able to utilise these skills in the absence of a positive work environment. Ensuring that new employees’ voices are heard and that they have an accessible source of non-judgemental support as they find their feet is essential to further hone the employability skills they have acquired before entering work. This can include simple steps such as training existing staff on the needs of novice workers or instituting a buddy system for new staff.
There seems to be universal agreement on the importance of employability, but less agreement on exactly what it is, who is responsible for it and how it can best be developed and maintained. The onus lies on all stakeholders – individuals, training providers and employers – to engage with this issue and accept shared responsibility for ensuring that the best possible use can be made of individuals’ skills in a workplace environment.
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