What employability is (and what it isn’t)

Student employability never used to be something education and training providers were measured against (at least in higher ed). With many other intangible benefits to education on an individual and social level, whether someone could walk straight into a job was once a secondary consideration.

Not anymore. Employability is now part of the mainstream lexicon, to the extent that universities are beginning to move into VET’s traditional job ready heartland, marketing their courses on the employment-related skills they deliver and job outcomes they are achieving for their students.

But what do we mean by employability? And is it the job of an education and training provider?


What employability is

Bond University’s Nurturing Graduate Employability in Higher Education report cites a definition from UK scholar professor Mantz Yorke that can guide understanding of the term. It defines employability as ‘a set of achievements - skills, understandings and personal attributes - making graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations”.

  • Skills can be understood as both ‘hard’ (discipline and field-specific skills - like understanding how to use a camera as a photographer, or surveying techniques for an engineer) or ‘soft’ (transcending disciplines - things like communication, team work and problem solving).
  • Understandings are the knowledge elements required to be successful. While there is disagreement over whether this should be field-specific or generalist in nature, ‘knowledge’ is meant to prepare students for broader success and contribution in their area of work.
  • Attributes include character traits similar to soft skills - like critical thinking - and are often noted by higher education providers as elements that students are meant to develop by the time they leave, despite the inherent difficulties of teaching and assessing these.

VET and higher education both have different natural leanings when it comes to employability factors. VET is obviously already very closely aligned with hard skills requirements, while higher education probably has more claim to the attributes element of the employability equation.

Regardless, both education channels will benefit from improvements in their employability credentials, whether they put it at the centre of their culture or reap it as a welcome by-product.


What employability isn’t

It’s simple to say what employability isn’t. And that’s getting students a job.

There’s been a strong focus on employment outcomes in the public discourse, particularly with media coverage that focuses on things like job outcomes statistics and graduates ending up in part-time work or work unrelated to their field of study, rather than landing a job in their field.

This has put pressure on providers of education and training, who are increasingly seeking to integrate pathways within their programs like mentoring, internships and work placements that both provide necessary skills and experience and feed more clearly into actual employment roles.

This is where it’s important for providers – and perhaps particularly in higher education - to differentiate between employability and employment, in that providers of education are not completely (at least not yet) recruitment companies for skills that meet economic needs.

For example, while the provision of experiential learning may be a positive trend that enhances graduate employability, it can also be seen by the student and the education provider as being valuable in its own right, rather than being reduced to just a means to an economic end.

While it should be the responsibility of an education provider to cultivate employability skills, knowledge and attributes of their students, as well as maximise their work experience to make it more likely they will gain employment, being tied purely to outcomes may be a step too far.