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Destination: Employability

The UK knowledge economy is a global success story, which has been developing and generating many generations of successful, versatile and globally mobile graduates over many years. With increasing demands and challenges to the university and higher education sector including issues relating to immigration, quality and rankings, market competition, programme fees and indeed student experience, the outcome desired by all universities is to provide society with employable graduates, writes Professor Amir Sharif.

Successive governments of all hues as well as universities at all levels, have sought and continue to strive towards increasing and improving the graduate employment outcomes of their students. This is an ongoing and mammoth task. Indeed when the sector looks towards the employability demands of employers, the response from studies conducted over the years by the likes of the Confederation of British Industry and the Association of Graduate Recruiters have routinely responded by identifying that graduates still need to have fundamental interpersonal and numeracy skills. This challenge and request is unlikely to go away. But how should universities be responding to this?

Many universities, and specifically business schools, have setup and are delivering employability-focused programmes (such as the Business Life programme within Brunel Business School, which was conceived and has been running for the last three years). Such programmes seek to develop and sustain employability skills embedded within academic programmes of study and learning. In many ways, students are getting a huge value for money return on their learning experience as normally such initiatives are included at no extra cost to the student. It has been natural to organise delivery of employment skills at universities with an eye to the corporate world. But as reports such as the Witty Review have identified, the success of UK-based business and the economy lies all the way through industry sectors. This means not only addressing the needs of multinational corporations, but seeking to add value to the much greater volume of small and micro-enterprises that have flourished in the 21st century internet era.

So, what are the real employability challenges that universities must address and what are the careers and skills of tomorrow that graduates need to be equipped with? The system itself may not necessarily be at fault, but universities must begin to address the old adage of “benefits not features” when it comes to employability effectiveness. Preparing students with not only skills but also the readiness for work is therefore a key driver. Student graduates need to have increased awareness of the idiosyncrasies of working in an organisation – whether at junior or senior levels. This is a conundrum for educators, students and employers alike and there is a need for the sector to keep up with the changing nature and role of employment.

Bureaucratic but flexible, technology centric but goal-aware, generalist as well as niche – the emerging role of organisations in the future is becoming ever more predicated on what might see as a set of contradictions, as much as on genuine innovation and efficiencies. Students themselves are also quite familiar with borderless, globalised organisations and the cult of universal brands. With this in mind, future employees will need to supplant fundamental employability skills with additional capabilities. Universities are immediately well placed to extend and improve the employment outcomes of their students through addressing the current and emerging needs for all sizes and shapes of company through extending their own networks and relationships to students. If they do so, then additionally benefits may be gained through flexible employability programmes that take into account the cultivation of the following future work skills.

  • Visually ambidextrous: Data visualisation is increasingly becoming a powerful method to understand the business context. Infographics and related “visual thinking” skills are a supercharged communication skill. Being able to advance understanding of any topic through a mixture of visual graphics, narrative, data and message will help not only companies but individuals communicate their needs more directly and in an appealing way.
  • Game-oriented: Gamification (using game-based elements and approaches in non-game contexts) is one of the hottest topics of the moment. Many organisations now routinely use a combination of reward and loyalty systems, including “badges”, challenges and location-based services to keep the competition at bay and customers locked in. Millenials are naturally adept and comfortable with the concept of gamification and can use this pre-university knowledge to accelerate and position themselves in workplace.
  • Connectionist: It is very clear that successful workers are generally those who not only meet and exceed their work objectives, but increasingly, are those who excel at developing and strengthening their working (and social) networks. Not just internally or externally to the company, graduates who can do so will become valuable to organisations. Those who can network effectively, will also possess skills to identify and scale ideas, people, resources and projects within social structures. No longer the domain of those on “special projects” or those involved with “strategy” and the “big picture” stuff, being a connectionist will become as vital a business skill as opening up a spreadsheet.
  • Bi-partisan: The growth of interest in small businesses and the enterprise culture – including the rise of the micro-preneur – mean that graduates have to be comfortable with emerging ideas about bi-partisanship. Simply put, you may not only be your competitors’ competitor, but also their strongest supporter. Future market economics may not allow “simple” rules of competition or co-operation to occur by themselves. Indeed graduates and employees will be evermore loyal to a range of organisations rather than a single one (how about having greater allegiance to the entire industry within which your company exists?).
  • Human: The greatest and most powerful asset and skill a graduate should possess – and which recruiters regularly seek to uncover is the value-add an individual can make to an organisation. Companies will seek to identify more roles which accentuate human traits and behaviours, beyond fundamental ethical and responsibility driven agendas.

So whilst it is true that the jobs, careers and notion of employability and employment is a continually changing landscape, universities are uniquely placed to offer an environment to foster future work skills. This can be achieved by ensuring that recruiters, collaborative research partners and the wider community within which students live, study and work are brought together. Hence, whilst a focus on leaver statistics is important for universities and needs to be maintained as a crucial KPI, working towards future employment skills is equally important.

And that is a destination worth working towards.

Professor Amir Sharif is acting head of Brunel Business School, 

(The views and opinions expressed are personal and that of the author and are not those of Brunel University)

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