The changing perception of higher education institutions, from being hubs of intellectualism to centres of human capital development, has led to an increased emphasis on setting graduate employability as a strategic goal of higher education.
However, graduate mobility, structural changes in labour markets, credential competition and career instability have led to complexity in designing effective employability initiatives. The mismatch in job supply and demand, due to these factors, has shifted the responsibility for developing employable graduates from employers to educational institutions and individuals. Increased credential competition has reduced the relative importance of qualifications, making some institutions better at justifying their employability offering. This can be a result of better resources or come at the cost of unequally distributed knowledge to graduates. Consequently, the acquisition and development of soft, or employability, skills to complement degree content has come into focus in undergraduate education.
The notion of developing employability skills in undergraduate education is complicated. It is crucial for all relevant stakeholders to agree on the skills that need to be developed and on ways of keeping them up-to-date upon graduation. Employability literature makes generic references to relevant skills, such as technological, problem-solving, decision-making, interpersonal and communication skills. In reality, however, stakeholders may operationalize the same skill in different ways. For example, employers may consider effective communication to mean presentation skills whereas teaching staff may assess this as writing skills. Furthermore, academic and workplace writing styles might differ significantly. Subtle differences such as these may not be captured in the literature, especially in studies using purely quantitative research methods.
So, how do we use the knowledge of changing academic and workforce trends to ensure the development of employability initiatives that are useful for all types of stakeholders?
Embedding employability into the curriculum
Embedding employability into the curriculum may provide a way to ensure that higher education institutions’ and employers’ interests in employability are given due importance. This may be done in one of two ways:
- Non-work-based learning can take the form of field trips or community engagement activities, exchange opportunities, capstone or final-year projects, and entrepreneurial education.
- Work-based learning combines academic learning with first-hand work experience in the form of working on a university campus, internships, co-op programs and graduate programs.
According to the literature, work experience or action learning is suggested by various types of stakeholders as the most valuable tool for developing relevant skills in learners. It is linked to ease of finding full-time jobs, as well as increased motivation, integration, maturity and accountability in graduates.
Employers may not give due importance to internships, assign trivial tasks to student interns, mistrust them with important decisions or confidential information, and perceive training as costly and time consuming. They are better at listing activities or tasks that graduates should be able to perform, rather than skills they should be equipped with, especially since the former is more contextual. Even then, they tend to collaborate with universities on recruitment decisions rather than curriculum or training decisions.
Higher education institutions, on the other hand, tend to believe that their employability programs are effective, but base these beliefs on anecdotal, rather than empirical, evidence. Despite these misalignments in employability-related perceptions and actions of stakeholders, research suggests that both universities and organizations stand to benefit from co-ordinating curriculum related to student internship programs.
Auditing for employability
On a strategic level, aligning the employability goals of universities and employers by involving employers in curriculum design may provide a mechanism for overcoming the communication gaps between these stakeholders. Some academics might be opposed to the idea of industry interference in curriculum–related matters. However, it is worth noting that there are are disciplinary differences in how employability is viewed and developed. For disciplines where that are more employable and where there is a strong presence of graduate programs, such as in STEM subjects, industry or professional body representation on a curriculum committee may be beneficial. For those where the supply of graduates outnumbers demand, it may be worth at least conducting focus groups with employers to gauge their sentiment about developing the graduate pool.
“[Work experience] is linked to ease of finding full-time jobs, as well as increased motivation, integration, maturity and accountability in graduates.”
A broader approach to holistically develop graduate employability involves auditing for employability by taking stock of the entire range of relevant initiatives offered by an institution, as is the case with curriculum mapping. In particular, there is a dearth of international research on the strategic contribution of university career centres and institutional research departments toward graduate employability. These departments may be the gateways for institutional effectiveness data and can collaborate on developing, implementing and evaluating employability offerings across the university experience. This will mean keeping the curriculum up to date with labour market trends and developing a feedback loop between academia and industry. More importantly, it will allow the development of a mixed–method, systems thinking approach toward the purposes, processes and outcomes of embedding employability, with a greater potential to develop versatile graduates.
With labour market trends changing faster than curriculum, embedding employability into the entire university experience by aligning employers’ and universities’ visions for developing graduates’ identities offers the potential to reduce the academia-industry communication gap.
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