Talking about employability at #ConnectMore18

employability - Woman at job interviewThe team is currently involved in this year’s round of Connect More events alongside colleagues from the rest of the subject specialist and research and development teams.

If you want to catch up on the whole thing then the slides will be available on the Connect More site but I wanted to focus on just two learning points I took away from preparing a session on employability in the digital age.

Although employability isn’t a core part of my own specialism (it’s more Esther‘s thing!) I do have an interest in it and much of what we do in the student experience team touches on it at some point.

Let me say from the outset that I’m a firm believer that the mission of education goes far beyond turning learners into productive workers. But given it is probably on the minds of most students and staff and that one of the common measures of the effectiveness of an institution is graduate employment it’s an important issue.

And personally speaking, I’ve got “skin in the game” too with two children working through the education system  and naturally I want them to be in a position to be able to do what they choose and to live happy and secure lives.

Active or passive?

Previously, whenever I’ve been involved in talking about employability it’s usually been with the question in mind “how do we help our learners to survive and thrive in the world of work?”.

In other words how do we equip them with the capabilities and attributes that are valued by employers making them attractive hires.

There’s no doubt that the world of work is changing and a lot of the dicsussion focuses on how increased automation, the growth of AI and other topics like big data both shape our view of the future workplace and introduce an element of unpredictability about it. As well as the opportunities that are out there, there’s also a sense of precariousness; of being at the mercy of developing trends.

It’s worth remembering that there are human forces behind the technological trends. It suits some business models to maximise profit by increasing automation for example and reducing the need for certain job types. Employees therefore need to be able to prepare for and respond to changes in the workplace and it’s partly the job of education to ready them for that.

When I was preparing the workshop I found myself coming to the same conclusion that plenty of you will also have arrived at. That seems like an awfully passive way of looking at employability.

Words like “resilience” and “grit” keep coming up in this topic area and I know from thinking about this in the context of my kids’ school that there’s a risk that people develop a “grin and bear it” mind set where we are at  the mercy of decisions made elsewhere. As David Webster and Nikki Rivers says in their excellent blog post

What … if the University could furnish the future with graduates ready to do more than merely tolerate the world, who instead had an appetite for transforming it[?]

It’s a much more empowering view of the world and more in tune with the mission of education about transforming society rather than replicating it.

My other worry is how it relates to mental health. If a student or emplyee suffers from anxety or depression as a result of conditions at college, university or work, if we look at their own “resilience” as the root cause of this it ignores the fact that the environment and the relationships they are in are potentially dysfunctional or harmful. And at the same time it’s effectively saying they are responsible for their own mental health problems.

The fact is that when we consider employability we need to acknowledge that our current learners are also future leaders as well as just employees. They will be the ones eventually making decisions about how businesses and other organisations are run, in many cases their own businesses. How are we preparing them for that level of responsibility, that “employer-ability”?

How can they recruit and develop staff in a way that empowers them in things like lifelong learning and lifelong employability? How can they support the wellbeing and mental health of their staff in a world made increasingly precarious thanks to technology? How can decisions made about the use of technology filter down to affect employees and society in positive, negative or unexpected ways?

So I’ve found myself looking at the framework of employee attributes we use for the workshop through a slightly different lens. (Clicking on the image or the link above will open the mind map up so you can see more detail in each section.)

employability mind map

High level aspects of student employability – Peter Chatterton and Geoff Rebbeck (click to open)

How are teachers role models with technology?

My second learning point was when I was thinking about the role of the teacher in this and reflecting on the fact that teachers are quite often the first or most influential professional role model that learners get to know well and school and college is usually the first workplace they encounter albeit not as employees.

So what messages are learners picking up about employment and employability from the activities, attitudes and relationships they see about them? These can be profoundly influential.

And what about teachers and other staff in daily contact with learners? For me there’s an opportunity here to demonstrate how it’s possible to respond to technology and make the most of it. I don’t mean just by using things like the VLE appropriately or using online assessment, but thinking more broadly and critically about working in a digitally rich environment. After all, we’re preparing learners for this as well. If they are learning from teachers that are  creative with technology, who understand how to manage online identities and wellbeing both for themselves and their students then they are already getting a glimpse of ways that they can do this too.

Jisc runs a workshop on how to embed digital capabilities into the curriculum rather than seeing it as an add-on subject but I think there’s more to it than this. Without wanting to suggest that university or college should be a close facsimile of the workplace we need to think about how the attitudes and capabilities of teaching staff can shape those of learners.

For me, it’s another strong argument for engaging with technology in learning.

Finding out more about employability

If this is an area that interest you, we run an online workshop on employability. There’s also one available on supporting learners’ digital identity and wellbeing.

It’s also worth looking at some of the guides, toolkits and case studies linked to from the research and development team’s project page on Developing Student Employability.

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