Saturday, October 13, 2012

Notes on Employability Training

Employability, in Higher Education, seems to be that one thing that everyone wants but no one knows what it is. Therefore, how to train for employability remains both open to interpretation and a subject of intense debate. I have had the privilege to see two sides of the debate in close proximity: Being in the For-Profit Education sector for many years, where employability is the key selling point, I have noted the disdain for such a trivial thing from the other side of the education divide. Things indeed have changed over time: However, sitting through a focus group on an employability training product very recently, I witnessed how uncomfortable university lecturers still are in acknowledging that it is something that their students may legitimately want as an outcome of their education.

To be fair, employability was never a Higher Ed thing: Degrees, at a different time, almost always got a job for those willing. The professors, mostly a product of that era, is slightly perplexed about why students worry about it so much. As proud professionals, they would usually think that what they do in the classrooms are relevant and would get students a job, and sneer at the possibility of the whole notion of employability training, with all the near-absurd ideas such as creating an 'employability certificate'.

The employability enthusiasts miss a few points on their own as well. While employability should be one of the outcomes of education, the latter should not be reduced to the former. Besides, employability isn't straightforward to define: There are variations of employment. Most people would define employability the convenient way, in terms of an employment that the students can get to at the end of their education: Incidentally, this is the way employability is measured in different countries and indeed, marketing claims are made on this basis. However, educating for an employment could make the whole educational enterprise incredibly narrow, not to mention the immediate loss of relevance that the education may suffer at completion as the job market changes with time.

A more meaningful way to define employability is to define this as the creation of choice of employment, rather than an employment. This is what employability indeed is - the ability to escape unrewarding or deadend or seasonal jobs, and to be able to create opportunities for oneself. It isn't hard to measure: In fact, it should be easier to check whether an educational credential gets people calls to interviews or not. I have known education companies which defined its employability outcome in terms of the number of interview calls within a certain time frame and it is not at all difficult to measure or provide. The problem indeed is that this may not be what the students really want, but I have seen that this seems, for many, a reasonable yardstick.

Now, if we accept the second definition - that employability is about the ability to create suitable employment opportunities for oneself - how one must approach learning/ teaching it? The common practice is to focus on the process of searching employment, like writing CVs and preparing for interviews. Most of these efforts are sincere, but I doubt whether they really improve employability. Making a students' CV professional looking, or talking about common courtesy and dress code for an interview are useful, but these wont really create choices of employment, which is the main point. I have known people who did not get a job because they were not appropriately dressed for an interview, indeed, but taking this to an absurd level of discussion, such as why one should wear white shirts and not coloured ones, which is what some of the employability gurus indeed do, is pointless. This is employability for the dummies, which may be a starting point but does not go too far.

So, what could actually be meaningful employability training, which enables the student to have choices of employment over a long period of time? The problem, particularly for Higher Education, isn't that the students can not write a CV, which is a problem relatively easily remedied, but rather they don't know what they want, what is expected of them and many of them end up in jobs which isn't suitable for themselves. My suggestion is that this is about training the students think like an employer. This is a departure from the usual focus on CV writing and interview techniques, but essentially the same thing from the other side of the table: Appreciating what employers expect from an employee and how to create economic value yourself. An understanding of how one can contribute, make a difference and what those different opportunities are out there, are the key elements of employability; and indeed, what kind of life does one really want.

 I have read recently this wonderful little book called The Start-up of You, by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha, which I shall make it a required rewarding for all such endeavours. This book is all about creating economic value, and various strategies for doing so. I don't necessarily see all of life as a business, and as long as one accepts that employability is only one of the several goals of education, the thinking presented by Reid and Ben come pretty close to being a standard curricula. Indeed, I shall ask the students to do a few more practical things, one of which is to sign up to Reid's very own Linkedin, as well as to travel, or read travel journals and literature, so that their horizons expand. In many ways, different phases of life are different territories/ countries, and the transition from school to work is somewhat akin to leaving your homeland, where you have support systems and transgressions are somewhat tolerated, to a foreign land, where you are left on your own, measured and judged all the time and errors may snowball quickly.

Governments across the world are now making employability central to their Higher Ed agenda. For-Profit schools always sell employability as the only thing that matters. But all of them seem to miss, somewhat deliberately, the point about employability being the choice of employment, rather than a job: It is surely because the thinking about mass Higher Education remains centred on creating cheap labour for various knowledge industries. However, the world has moved on and creativity, choice and intellect has taken the center-stage at the new knowledge work; the professionals today need a different set of skills than they needed even twenty years ago. Therefore, it is time to update our thinking about employability training and create an agenda that serves the students and make them able professionals in control of their lives.

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