In Part 2 and Part 3, we looked at the issue of productivity, firstly asking how universities can boost productivity in their region, and then asking how they can have an impact at the national level. In the first instance, we showed how universities can identify the skills needs in their region and apply this knowledge to produce a more tailored course portfolio. In the second instance, we showed how universities can identify specific industries in other parts of the country that are related to their specialisms, which in turn can be used to forge better links with employers in those sectors.
However, as we pointed out in Part 1, productivity is really only one side of the coin, the other being employability. But what is actually meant by employability? In his 2006 study, Learning and Employability, Professor Mantz Yorke defined it as:
“A set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that make graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy.”
He went on to say that:
“‘Employability’ refers to a graduate’s achievements and his/her potential to obtain a ‘graduate job’, and should not be confused with the actual acquisition of a ‘graduate job’ (which is subject to influences in the environment, a major influence being the state of the economy).”
We would agree with this, but would want to add something we believe to be vital. In theory, the more skills, understandings and personal attributes a person has, the more they are likely to be sought after by employers. However, as Professor Yorke pointed out, this comes with the caveat that such a person is by no means guaranteed a graduate job. However, what if there was a way that someone can make themselves more employable, not just on the basis of the skills and training they learn, but by basing their decisions on what skills and knowledge to learn on a more realistic assessment of the labour market? Wouldn’t that make them more employable?
To take an illustration, Anthony and Karla live in the same region, and both intend not only to go to university in that region, but also hope to stay after graduating. Anthony does Biochemistry, but after graduating realises that there are no jobs for Biochemists in the region. Karla, on the other hand, would like to do Biochemistry, but after researching labour market demand for graduate positions in this field in the region sees that the demand for Biochemists is falling, whereas the demand for another occupation that interests her — Dentistry — is likely to rise significantly over the next few years. So instead of enrolling in Biochemistry, she instead chooses Dentistry (BDS), and when she qualifies five years later finds that there are a number of local dental practices in her area that are looking to employ.
That’s a simplistic illustration, of course, but which one is the most employable? Well in the sense of skills, understanding and attributes, they might well both be equally employable. However, whilst Anthony is faced with a choice between looking for work in a different field than he studied in, or moving into a different region where the demand for Biochemists is higher, Karla, who has taken the time to research labour market demand, is able to walk into the position she has been studying for straight away. In other words, subjectively both may well be equally employable, but Karla has actually made herself objectively more employable by aligning the skills, understanding and attributes she learns to what is most likely to lead to a sustainable career.
Students increasingly understand this, even if they don’t necessarily yet have the tools to make the kind of decision Karla made. For instance, according to the UK Graduate Careers Survey 2015, the graduating class of 2015 — the first to pay the £9,000 tuition fees — was more career-focused than previous cohorts of graduates. The Accenture Strategy 2015 UK University Graduate Employment Study also confirmed that graduates were more focused on career prospects and anxious to pursue a graduate-level job.
Another pointer to this attitude shift is to look at which degrees are the most popular. Whilst humanities and arts degrees have been declining in recent years, according to HESA, degrees which are more associated with higher incomes, such as business and administrative studies and science-based subjects, have increased. This shift is clearly being driven by the student recognition that since they are going to come out of university with debts of over £30,000, they need to give themselves the best chance of finding employment.
However, at present this approach is very much based on assumptions rather than actual knowledge of labour market demand. Students are choosing such degrees because the careers which are related to them tend to pay well. Yet if the demand for related occupations is actually falling, would studying in this area actually improve a person’s employability any more than if they had chosen to study something else? This is not to say that someone doing a degree such as business and administrative studies won’t find work, even if demand for related careers is falling, but in such a scenario it would mean that the degree they chose in order to make themselves more employable may be of no more use to them than the degrees they ruled out as being less likely to lead to a sustainable career.
To achieve the objective part of employability mentioned above, students need access to objective information about the labour market they are thinking of entering. Interestingly, the kind of information that can help them make informed choices to enhance their employability is essentially the same Market Intelligence we demonstrated in Parts 2 and 3 as helping universities better understand the labour market they operate in.
Let’s just take an illustration. The data below shows the forecasted change in demand for Biological scientists and Biochemists from 2015-2020 at the County/Unitary Authority Level. We have included the five counties with the highest level of growth at the top in blue, and the five counties with the highest level of decline at the bottom in red:
How could this sort of information be used to help students become more employable? Packaged in a “student-friendly” way, it can be used to help students understand the trends of the occupation they are thinking of studying for, which in turn can help them to think through whether training for that position is necessarily a good idea. In the case above, someone in North Yorkshire who wanted to study Biochemistry and remain in the area after graduating would be encouraged by this data, whereas someone in Kent might decide it is better to look at other options. Out of interest, the graph below shows our forecast for the Top 10 highest growing graduate positions in Kent over the next five years, and so demonstrates how someone in that area might begin to make alternative choices more likely to lead them into a related, sustainable career:
As stated above, this sort of information would need to be packaged together to make it more “student friendly”, which is something we have done with our Career Coach tool, incorporating not just labour market demand, but also information on salaries, job postings, links to relevant courses provided by the university, and also similar careers.
This last point — the links to similar careers — is especially important. Labour market demand can and does change, and it is vital that someone studying in a particular field is aware how their achievements — the skills, understandings and personal attributes mentioned by Professor Mantz Yorke — relate to other occupations and careers. This is what we’ll be turning to in more detail in the next part of this series.
For more information on how we can help your university improve productivity and the employability of its students, contact Jamie Mackay at firstname.lastname@example.org.