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Considering employability

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 5 Oct 2022, 12:49

Over the last few days, I’ve been having a look through some materials about employability which have been published by AdvanceHE, specifically the recent 2016-2021 employability literature review (AdvanceHE). I’ve also had a read of a couple of edited collection of papers, also from AdvanceHE. The first is called Employability: breaking the mould (AdvanceHE) and the other is a compendium of case-studies (AdvanceHE).

I’ve also done a couple of other things. Whilst studying A230 as a student, I’ve been reading about the OU employability framework, through a set of pages called FutureYou (which is mentioned in the first collection of papers that I’ve mentioned). This, in turn, led me to look through the OU employability website which has taken me to a useful booklet called Your Career Planning Guide (pdf).

There is also something called the OU Employability Hub (OU website), which provides a wealth of free Open Learn courses which connect to the “ten components of the OU’s Employability Framework”. Users of this hub can filter on each of the ten components to get to resources which relate to each of these components. I’ve mentioned the Employability Hub in an earlier blog a few years ago, and it is great to see how many resources there are available.

Whilst looking through all these different resources, reports and summaries, I asked myself a question: how can I make sense of the topic of employability? 

One way to do this is to think of the whole area in terms of dimensions. Different papers, articles, initiatives, or frameworks could be characterised as a point on a number of different dimensions. What follows is a summary of those dimensions. 

These dimensions are, of course, fully open to debate and scrutiny. As I learn more, and debate more, these may well adapt and change, but I do feel that they are a useful way to think about the employability landscape. These ideas have emerged, in part, through reading through the resources that I’ve mentioned above.

Dimension 1: Embedded/non embedded employability

This dimension refers to the extent to which the topic of employability, or the provision of employability services are embedded within a programme or study, or a module. 

Services might be embedded in the way that they are in during the start of the module I’ve been studying, or they might be entirely external to a module, such as the provision of an information and advice services through a careers service.

Dimension 2: Programme/module integration

I think this second dimension can be through of a subset of the first dimension. To what extent is employability information embedded within a specific module, or does it feature across and between modules or a broader programme of study? Is there, for example, a separate module that relates to employability, with all the other modules presenting academic material, or is it functionally embedded within all the modules that a student may study? There may, of course, be differences between how this manifests itself between disciplines.

Dimension 3: Self-directed/facilitated

This dimension might also be a sub-dimension of the first dimension. One of the themes that is pretty evident is the development of reflection skills, specifically in relation to employability planning and personal development. Some of these planning activities can be carried out on our own, as a personal reflective activity. Other activities might be interactive workshops, which might go some way to sharing perspectives and understandings.

Dimension 4: Domain specific/Domain agnostic

Some employability skills are specific to a particular job, role, or activity. My home discipline is computing, in which students might need to master a specific programming language or tool. When a student masters a programming language, they may also develop of broader problem solving strategies and skills, which may be transferrable to other contexts. Similarly, there are wider and broader employability skills which can be developed, such as planning, reflection. Some of these skills relate back to the OU employability framework.

Dimension 5: Student voice/employer voice

This dimension relates to the question of whose voice, or perspective, is prioritised. If the student voice is prioritised, there may be activities which interrogate current skills, knowledge and abilities, and activities may be taken to develop those skills, knowledge, and abilities. If the employer voice is emphasised, the employer (or employer community) might emphasise the need for the development of particular skills to meet particular needs.

Dimension 6: Internally directed/externally directed

This final dimension relates to the locus of control. If employability related activities are internally directed, they are informed by the organisations in which students are situated. In other words, the HEI makes the decisions about the frameworks that they use and any initiatives that they apply. If employability is externally directed, initiatives may emerge from industry. An interesting example is, of course, industrial certifications. 

In reality, an institution's approach to employability is likely to be neither one nor the other.

Reflections

This rough set of dimensions (which can be criticised and debated) is a simple framework that can be used to understand and to characterise the different kinds of employability development activity that can take place.

The literature review that I’ve mentioned earlier emphasises the relationship between the broad notion of employability (which can, of course, be subject to criticism), and different conceptions of capital. 

When considered at a surface level employability is easily equated to the gaining of jobs, paid employment and successful graduate outcomes. Whilst it can immediately be related to economics and economic success, it can also be related to social and cultural capital. Getting a job might mean gaining a role that makes an effective and positive contribution to a community.

There is also a link between the notion of employability and the notion of mindset. Key points that I’ve noted from the AdvanceHE documents include coping with uncertainty, identifying opportunities, the ability to make things happen, manage risk, learning how to network with others, solving problems in a creative and strategic way, and being able to act independently. From this perspective, you can also consider “employability” in terms of skills which enable students to apply their learning from their chosen area of study.

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