Skills and employability

This post looks at a couple of recent publications, which ask how many graduates do we need, what skills do graduates need, and where might the gaps be? As we are gong though the process of refining our strategic plan and operating model, and asking ourselves what kind of a university we will be, it’s important we understand what kind of people our graduates will be

A couple of months ago the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development suggested that  as many as 58.8% of UK graduates were in non-graduate jobs. This was based on a research process of self-reporting, and even if this figure seems overly high, then clearly a number of graduates are not matched well with the roles in which they find themselves, which is not good for the individual, or for the organisation.

CIPD suggested that the findings raised questions about the size of the HE sector in relation to our labour market needs. They conclude with;

Policy-makers need to scrutinise the range of courses offered by the HE sector and seriously consider the social and private returns to them. We conjecture that they will conclude that, in many cases, public funds could more usefully be deployed elsewhere in the education and training system. Our findings suggest that the presence of a large HE sector will not necessarily lead to the attainment of the knowledge economy so beloved by successive UK governments.

It is worth remembering that many of the social returns that come from engagement in higher education are indeed social, and affect wider society and are not purely economic. In a marketised HE system, then policy makers do not have jurisdiction over the range of courses that are provided – mainly because in the main public funding is no longer directed to the course, but to the individual in the form of a loan

CIPD  make good points about the need for wider opportunities for post 19 education, and also point out that in previous generations, many would have felt “under-employed” in their role.

Last week University UK produced  a new report “Supply and Demand for Higher Level Skills”  which provides a counterpoint to the CIPD position, and again asks if there are too many or too few graduates, and looks at the relationship between their subject choices and the future labour market as well as considering employability skills.

There are 6 key recommendations from the report, summarised as:

  1. There is currently an undersupply of graduates that will
    continue into the foreseeable future;…..There needs to be a better understanding of why certain graduates become mismatched, which skills could prevent this and where they can be best attained
  2. universities and employers need to talk about ‘employability skills……..Universities and employers should jointly develop a ‘skills translation’ exercise to help all parties understand how and where these ‘soft skill’ principles can be practically developed and applied.
  3. there will be demand for a greater number of workers with higher – but not necessarily degree-level – qualifications…….Young people should have the opportunity to develop higher-level skills through a system of integrated pathways between the two forms of provision, one that provides a theoretical underpinning to technical knowledge and offers the chance for upskilling in line with economic, operational and technological change
  4. the sector needs both a clearer and a more granular understanding of the size and content of provision across both further and higher
  5. in spite of a strong supply of STEM  students, there are continued shortages of highly-qualified workers in technical industries. Identifying – and mending – this obstruction in the talent pipeline is crucial
  6. there should be a heightened focus on skills utilisation. What sort of management and business practices best utilise higher-level skills and how can similar practices be adopted by firms of diverse sizes and sectors?.

The UUK report summarises a number of surveys looking at skills that employers look for in graduates, and the extent to which graduates do, or do not, have these. While recognising the difficulty of identifying relationships between the various surveys, the authors note that “there is consistency in that most surveys point to graduates’ lack of work experience and some combination of ‘necessary’ or job specific skills.”

UUK suggest that universities have two things to tackle in this regard – making sure that students gain the necessary employability skills at the same time as gaining subject level knowledge which will provide skills in critical thinking, analysis and creative thinking.

Crucially UUK identify that when universities talk about employability skills, for instance teamwork, communication, they don’t necessarily understand this from the perspective of an employer. Hence the recommendation for a skills translation exercise, to make sure that all parties understand what is meant, and what is needed.

UUK also looked at how graduates of different disciplines self-reported  their levels of skills, which provided the following:


There are some clear message heres, then, for different subject areas to consider in terms of where the focus is needed in developing non-subject skills.

Another report published this week by HEPI was “Employability – degrees of value“, written by Johnny Rich, in which the emphasis is on understanding employability, not just employment, and Rich argues for a new framework of employability embracing knowledge, skills and social capital. A novel part of this report, and one that is rarely mentioned is the importance that social capital plays in securing employment, and in being able to develop employability.

Similar in part to the conclusions of UUK, Rich proposes a generic set of skills, the level of which might vary by subject This same set of skills can be mapped by employment role, and so mismatches can be seen. A consistent framework for employability is proposed, designed to reduce the burden on academics, and which would allow students to personalise their course and their skills profile according to their needs and ambitions. This is not that dissimilar to our own Staffordshire Graduate Employability Programme in theory, if not in delivery.

In drawing these three strands together we can see that as  a university we need to be mindful of what our students want and need, especially in how we can make sure they are best prepared for when they leave us: not just to be “job-ready” but to have the embedded deep employability skills that they will need for their whole careers. Some of the sections of our new Learning and Teaching strategy already refer to reviewing and updating our Graduate Attribute statements and referring directly to social capital needs.

As we move into the next phase of our strategy delivery, then with our increased focus on employability we can be working now to ensure that our Staffordshire Graduate statements remain meaningful, not just for us but for students and potential employers, and that we have a common understanding of what we mean when we talk about transferable skills.

When we work with ministry panels or advisory boards, or use external expertise in curriculum development, we need to make sure that we are asking questions not just about subject and technical needs of employers, but also gaining that deeper shared understanding of what transferable skills are needed, and how we can help to develop them.

We need to make sure that graduates from all disciplines have the right mix of skills, to make sure that they are not mismatched to employer requirements, and finally, we must ensure that our graduates gain in social capital while they study with us, to make sure that they can compete with, and indeed be better than, everyone else.