Graduating from University and entering the world of work can be a tricky transition for many students. Graduate entry jobs have not grown in line with graduate supply, which could be related to the government’s “widening participation” agenda. Consequently, the graduate job market is increasingly competitive and leaving University with purely a degree and a CV alone is no longer an option.
As a result, there is now an emphasis on producing employable graduates and employability is high on the agenda for many UK HEIs (Higher Education Institutions). Employers are wanting more. In-fact, the civil service are no longer accepting CVs for job applications. There is an increased demand for transferable skills and key competencies. The challenge for HEIs is finding ways and providing students with opportunities to help students develop such skills and competencies – as well as showcasing them and ensuring transferability.
So what exactly is employability?
And how do we measure it? Is it simply “getting a job” after leaving University or getting a job that utilises a specific skill set? Or is it providing students with a core set of transferable skills which will be beneficial throughout their career?
The DLHE (Destination of Leavers in Higher Education) Survey only initially measures activities of students six months after graduating. However, there is evidence to suggest that some graduates may take a little longer to land themselves in a graduate entry job, leaving DLHE data open to criticism. In a sample of 2010/11 graduates, only 76.6% were in full-time work or further study after 6 months, but data from a longitudinal DLHE survey showed that 73.6% of those who were not working after 6 months were in-fact working three and a half years after graduating.
Despite this, the Government White Paper titled “Success as a knowledge economy: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice”, published in 2016, warns that 20% of graduates are in non-professional roles three and a half years after graduating. This could suggest graduates are not necessarily utilising their degree skill set or perhaps they don’t have sufficient evidence of transferable skills to assist in the transition to the working world.
In summary, graduates may well be in work, but they are not necessarily acquiring jobs within six months of graduating, nor are they all acquiring “professional” roles.
However, as Norton (2016) points out, the DLHE in its current form is only a static measure of employment – i.e. whether a student has a job six months after graduation. It is not a measure of employability. Which brings us back to the question in point – what exactly is employability and how can it be measured?
The increasing importance of employability for HEIs
The introduction of the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) puts HEIs under more pressure to take employability seriously. Why? The framework now measures “student outcomes and learning gain” – in other words – the employment outcomes of graduates. The metric for measuring this will still be the DLHE (at least for the time being) but the key thing here is that there will be a direct link between how universities perform against the framework (i.e. their TEF rating) and the tuition fees that they are allowed to charge. Basically, perform poorly and you can’t demand the top-tier fees. HEIs will be able to submit additional employability evidence but at present we do not know what other metrics (if any) related to employability will be adopted.
Building a Personal Profile
With CVs no longer being enough for some employers, it’s important that students concentrate on building a “personal profile” right from the start of their studies in order to capture evidence of experiences, associated skills and achievements. This can help students to demonstrate “soft skills” such as leadership, collaboration and presentation. “Anything constructive and positive will work in a candidate’s favour. Evidence of involvement in community activities, a presence on a business network such as LinkedIn, and anything to demonstrate good communication skills are key attributes we look for.” (Baldwin, L. in Cooper, G. 2011). Ultimately, it’s about building a picture of a “real person” with work experience, transferable skills, resources and a personality.
How can ePortfolios help?
An ePortfolio can help students work towards composing a “personal profile” which can help to boost their employability by differentiating themselves from others in today’s competitive graduate recruitment market place. In essence, an ePortfolio is a collection of “artefacts” organised into “pages” and “collections”. Students can begin to develop an ePortfolio right from the start of their studies and use it to demonstrate development and evidence learning, transferable skills and key competencies, whilst supporting and recording personal growth through reflection.
As Yorke (2006) points out, “the ‘transferability’ of skills is often too easily assumed”. Billing (2007) in Simatele (2013) suggests that transference of skills is more likely to occur to a higher degree when it is learner centred and active learner engagement is involved. Successful transfer is also encouraged by reflection. The use of ePortfolios encourages both reflective and active learning, and from this perspective acts as a good vehicle for encouraging the transferability of employability skills and competencies.
Students can draw upon their ePortfolio to help at various stages of the job application and interview process. It may be possible for them to make a more coherent application by reviewing content stored in their ePortfolio, reflecting on it and then putting their learning into context. An ePortfolio may also be used during an interview as evidence to support demonstration of key skills and competencies. “Many students already have the right skills, but seemingly lack the ability to demonstrate this during interview” (Yorke, 2006).
Portfolio@Tees – Teesside’s ePortfolio Solution
Portfolio@Tees, powered by Mahara, is Teesside University’s dedicated ePortfolio solution available to both staff and students. Despite being in its infancy, the system has already seen significant use and uptake by the Food Sciences department, where it has been used for both formative and summative assessment purposes. Students have been asked to develop “pages” in Mahara for various purposes, such as CVs, personal statements, reflective essays and management of group projects, evidencing their engagement in group work. All of these require students to reflect and work towards developing employability skills and showcasing competencies required for the real work of work. To facilitate in consistency of marking, students were given a CV framework to work with, but for personal statements and reflective essays, students were allowed to develop their own.
Students in the first year of the food degrees were also asked to use Mahara groups to collect evidence for a short project involving reviewing articles from New Scientist magazine.
Work is currently on-going to raise the profile of Portfolio@Tees around the University.
Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (2016) Higher education: success as a knowledge economy – white paper. Cm. 9258. London: Williams Lea for HMSO. Available online: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/523546/bis-16-265-success-as-a-knowledge-economy-web.pdf [Accessed 1 March 2017]
Katsifli, D. (2016) Student employability – soft skills, not soft option. [Blog] Available at: http://blog.blackboard.com/student-employability-soft-skills-not-soft-options/?lang=uki [Accessed 10 March 2017]
Norton, S. (2016) Embedding employability in higher education for student success, Higher Education Academy. Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/downloads/employability_viewpoint_july16_1.pdf [Accessed 1 March 2017]
Simatele, M. (2013) ‘Enhancing the portability of employability skills using e-portfolios’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, Volume 39, Issue 6, pp 862-874.
Speight, H. (2010) ‘Darwinism and the Durham Award: the missing link between education, employment and engagement’, ALT Journal, Number 10, Winter 2010, pp. 26-29.
Yorke, M. (2006) Employability in higher education: what it is – what it is not. York: The Higher Education Academy.