A New Vocationalism

Skills for graduate employment: a critical appraisal

    The development of employability skills within university education is sometimes criticised on the grounds that it dilutes the spirit of university education as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. That is not the criticism we offer in this paper. Our challenge is that, for the most part, developing employability skills in university education is not very effective in reducing graduate unemployment or underemployment. We offer six reasons for believing that it is a weak or ineffective strategy for enhancing graduate employability.


    1. Systematic empirical study of the effects of graduate employability skills initiatives in HE has failed to identify positive outcomes in the graduate labour market. For example, a fairly recent study by Mason et al (2006) could find no impact of teaching employability skills on either the ability of graduates to find employment within six months of graduating or to secure 'graduate-level' jobs. Moreover, including employability skills in the assessment of students showed no impact either. These results may however have been caused by the research methods used (multiple regression using data gathered at university departmental level together with HESA's First destination statistics). Conceivably, they were not strong enough to detect the impact. Even if this were so (and the statistical methods were powerful enough to pick up the significant positive effect of student work experience and employer involvement in degree course design) it would indicate that the effects of teaching (and assessment) of employability skills on graduate employment is very weak. By contrast, we have been unable to find any systematic empirical studies of the university teaching of employability skills that report reduced graduate unemployment or higher rates of employment in graduate-level jobs.


    2. Graduates from universities which have focused most on developing employability skills seem to have been less successful in finding graduate employment than graduates of universities that have been less focused on the development of employability skills.


    "Paradoxically, those institutions at the forefront of employability development may be ignored by the larger graduate employers." (Universities UK, 2003, P.2)


    This observation is confirmed by examination of HESA’s 'First Destinations' data on the percentages of graduates unemployed and in non-graduate jobs six months after graduation.


    There is a puzzle here. Some universities have taken very seriously the advice of graduate employers about what skills they would like graduates to be equipped with and have gone to considerable lengths to include these skills in their university education curriculum, whereas others have retained a more traditional university education. The paradox is that, according to the first destinations statistics, graduate employers seem to prefer to employ the graduates from the latter. This puzzle replicates the experience in the 1970s and 1980s when polytechnics were developed to provide a higher education that was more employment-led and more focused on the needs of the local economy than was available from the universities at that time1. This they did, with consultation with local employers, a higher incidence of sandwich courses to provide work experience (and employment-focused part-time courses) and more emphasis on employability skills, yet the first destinations statistics consistently showed that the graduates of traditional universities remained more attractive to graduate employers (Bourner, 1984).


    3. If skills for graduate employment were a well-ordered list of a limited number of well-defined skills then it would be relatively straightforward to integrate them into university education. In fact, however, they are not well-defined as different surveys produce different listings of employability skills (Cannon, 1986). Moreover, skills that are highly ranked on some lists have a much lower ranking on other lists. And the lists are anything but limited. The decade of the 1990s contained the high years of high profile surveys of what graduate employers look for in graduate recruits2. Its peak was probably in the mid-1990s with two influential reports on graduate skills for graduate employment by Hawkins and Winter (1995) and Harvey et al., (1997). The latter3 provided the research that underpinned a particularly influential report by Universities UK in 2002 titled Enhancing Employability, Recognising Diversity. Making Links between Higher Education and the World of Work (Harvey et al, 2002). That research is the source of table 1 below which shows an illustrative list of the graduate skills/attributes that such surveys produced:


    Table 1: 62 items ranked in terms of importance by graduate employers


    1. Willingness to learn

    2 Commitment

    3. Dependability/reliability

    4. Self-motivation

    5 Team-work

    6. Communication skills (oral)

    7. Co-operation

    8. Communication skills (written)

    9. Drive/energy

    10. Self-management

    11. Desire to achieve/motivation

    12. Problem-solving ability

    13. Analytic ability

    14. Flexibility

    15. Initiative

    16. Can summarise key issues

    17. Logical argument

    18. Adaptability (intellectual)

    19. Numeracy

    20. Adaptability (organizational)

    21. Can cope with pressure/stress

    21. Time management

    23. Rapid Conceptualisation of issues

    24. Enquiry and research skills

    25. Self-confidence.

    26. Persistence/tenacity

    27. Planning ability

    28. Interest in life-long learning

    29. Ability to use information technology

    30. Understanding of core principles

    31. Organisational skills

    32. Critical ability



    33. Can deal with large amounts of information

    34 Consideration for others

    35. Leadership potential

    36. Independent judgement

    37. Ability to relate to a wider context

    38. Maturity

    39. Tact

    40. Equipped for continuous education

    41. Innovation

    42. Loyalty

    43. Tolerance

    44. Technical ability

    45. Influencing skills

    46. Decision-making skills

    47. Curiosity

    48. Imagination

    49. Creativity

    50. Experience of the world of work

    51. Leadership ability

    52. Commercial awareness

    53. General knowledge

    54. Financial knowledge or under- standing

    55. Negotiation skills

    56. Deep understanding

    57. Problem-solving ability

    58. Relevant work experience

    59. Specialist factual knowledge

    60. Knowledge of social/political issues

    61. Knowledge of the organisation

    62. Prior knowledge of the job




    Collating the results of the many surveys that have been undertaken would produce a list of hundreds of skills and related attributes. Introducing employability skills into a course of academic study can therefore be seen as the thin edge of a large wedge. Some university academics view it as opening 'Pandora's Box' which might swamp the more familiar concerns of a traditional university education. This anxiety is a significant reason that many traditional university academics resist it, passively if not actively.


    4. The term 'graduate employability skills' is really a misnomer as these skills are virtually all equally applicable to non-graduates. Moreover, they are the sort of skills and knowledge that people develop more naturally in employment contexts e.g. 'teamworking', 'time management skills' and 'commercial awareness'.


    5. The implementation of the development of employability skills usually takes the form of either adding stand-alone employability skills courses or including them within existing courses. There seems to be some consensus that the former is not terribly effective, largely because the students do not see the relevance of these stand-alone courses to their other studies and some see them as a distraction from the main concerns of their degree course. Including them within subject-centred courses is more effective when it works but it rarely works well because it relies on subject-specialists who are more interested in their specialist subjects than employability skills and are not particularly equipped to teach or assess employability skills. It is not clear, for example, why a physics lecturer or a statistician or a specialist in Renaissance art will have any particular expertise in teaching any particular employability skill such as 'teamworking' or 'commercial awareness' let alone expertise in teaching employability skills in general.


    6. The belief that employability skills are learned better in the classroom than in the workplace does not stand up to critical scrutiny. We could find no empirical studies to support it and reason suggests otherwise (Cranmer, 2006).


    Faced with the problem that new graduates are encountering increasing difficulty in finding employment, and in particular graduate-level employment, the solution of trying to enhance their employability skills seems to be, at best, a weak one. It is difficult to find any actual evidence that it makes a significant difference to the success of new graduates in finding graduate employment.



    Next: A new vocationalism: a different approach to graduate employability