HE has traditionally been the realm of the academic elite. Single figure percentages of the population attended. Entrance was determined by stellar academic performance. Graduating from university was a true differentiator. You possessed a qualification the vast majority of the population did not. You could use this qualification to charge a premium in the jobs market.
This is economics 101. The Knowledge Economy required people with university level qualifications. As the supply of graduates was low, degree holders could demand higher wages in return for their services. Once this trend became common knowledge, everyone wanted a piece of the pie. The world and his wife processioned towards higher education. As Adam Smith will tell you, once supply of labour increases, wages decrease. This reduces the impact of HE on an individual’s salary.
University has since opened up. 40% of university age population now attend HE. Going to university has become more the rule rather than the exception. As thus, employers now look at more than just education results. Employability skills are becoming of greater focus.
The AGR has reported that the provision of graduate jobs is sufficient to service the supply of graduates. Yet vacancies remain unfilled. Employers cite a lack of skills as the reason. Despite possessing HE level qualifications, applicants do not possess the basic employability skills to be effective in roles on offer. Employers would rather do without.
Let’s digress quickly to define “employability skills”. The term can seem nebulous and almost mystical. Kloodle’s experience has shown us many students do not understand the term, and I feel employers use the term in a “buzz word” fashion.
At its most basic, an employee is selling their time and skills to solve an employer’s problem. Time is finite for us all, so it is skill level that enables us to command a premium in our wages. Employability skills are the attributes that enable us to provide an effective solution to an employer’s problem.
Example – if an employer requires working as a team to solve a particular business problem, your teamwork ability is an important employability skill. If an employee requires a deep understanding of computational chemistry to solve an employer’s problem, then this is the skill you need to possess in order to perform the role successfully.
Our education system has created an entitlement mindset. We are convinced from an early age that if we get excellent grades we deserve a job. Our teachers and parents instil this mindset, but it is a dangerous attitude. Students should imagine themselves as products. We purchase products to fulfil a need, perform a job or realise a desire. Students are employed to perform a job or fulfil a need. In order to do this effectively, the individual has to possess the necessary attributes, just as a product needs to have the necessary features to be effective. A student needs to see their education as a journey to build the necessary attributes to become employable. Whilst studying, you are building the skills required to contribute.
If employability skills are the credentials that enable you to provide the solution to an employer’s problem, it therefore becomes the responsibility of the individual to develop them and the responsibility of the purchasing organisation to source them. We’ll take these two scenarios in turn.
Firstly, students are responsible for their own employability. Expecting university to provide these skills as well as a world class technical education is another way of absolving yourself for responsibility. It is far easier to say “university didn’t teach me those skills” than it is to take ownership of your own education. For me, universities exist to produce world class research and innovation to propel our economy forward. Oxford university has its reputation not through quality of its undergraduate teaching but for research and innovation.
Unlike high school and further education, a university’s first priority is not its students; it is its research. We are coming close to “watering down” this academic rigour. By expecting university lecturers to take responsibility for their students results and employability, we are creating an advanced high school. We have already ruined the lives of countless teachers by blaming them for underperformance of students. We are going to do the same with university education. Yet a university’s role is becoming hazy. Economic pressures caused by tuition fees causes higher education to be interpreted as a “product”. The benefit HE sells is an increase in employability prospects. HE institutions, therefore, have to deliver their promise. They need to produce employable students who can charge a premium in the labour market.
At university, students should take responsibility for their own development. They need to look at their skillset and ensure they are developing the abilities required by employers. If they are attending university to further their employment prospects, they need to be professional in approaching their skill development. This requires researching jobs they may apply for upon graduation, determining the required skills, and cultivating these attributes through deliberate practice. University IS NOT responsible for this. It is responsible for administering knowledge of the subject being studied. Students can do with that knowledge what they wish, but ultimately, the student is responsible for the outcome.
Secondly, employers are seeking skilled people to propel their company forward. They need the people who are intelligent enough, technically competent enough and effective enough to help their organisation succeed. Without skilled people the organisation will become dead in the water. An employer therefore has a responsibility to seek the supply of effective individuals. If the education system in a particular country isn’t producing the required skills, an employer has 3 choices.
1) Get involved in the education system to help produce the skills required
2) Move countries to one that provides the skills required.
3) Bring in recruits from overseas.
Blaming a particular country’s education system for a lack of skill will not solve the problem. An employer must be proactive in seeking the talent they need. If the education system isn’t giving them what they want, they have to impact the system in some way. Two key ways of doing this are: –
1) Providing employees to mentor students at High Schools, Colleges of FE & HE/Universities
2) Developing programmes of work experience for school and college of FE students and formal internships for students studying at HE level
Clearly, these activities require resource, but will go a significant way to solving the problem. By providing guidance to individual students, an employer can outline the skills they require from an effective employee. By reaching out to academic institutions, employers can help educate organisations regarding what they require and how education can help produce that type of individual. Employers are responsible for helping produce the talent they require to stay in business. Our education system is the source of this talent. If employers aren’t getting what they want, and education isn’t providing it, then employers need to perform these two activities to impact the system.
Alternatively, employers can up sticks and move abroad. If skill provision is lacking in one location, what is stopping an employer from seeking this talent elsewhere? Nothing. Multinational organisations can shift operations quickly and easily. They are able to find talent in all corners of the globe. If the UK continues to believe large companies owe our students a living then we’ll find that more organisations leave our shores to find hungrier, less entitled students.
Employers, therefore, must be motivated to get involved in our education system if we are going to create employable young people. Higher education needs to make this involvement easy. Barriers to entry must be low. Ease of transaction will encourage employers to get involved in mentoring and outreach. We have technology that can facilitate this interaction. It is just a question of emphasising the importance of employability and facilitating student-employer interaction. Higher education’s role becomes one of a facilitator. Their “day job” is producing excellent research and providing knowledge to students. They, however, need open doors and clear lines of communication so that student / employer interaction becomes easy.
Of course, the alternative, as stated above, is to ship in talent from abroad. Britain has put the mockers on this by voting “Brexit”. We have made a statement that “our people and economy are strong enough to survive alone”. Voting Brexit signals our belief that we are producing the talent, goods and demand to ensure a stable economy; without the crutch of the single market. We’ve diminished a company’s ability to “ship in talent”. The core tenet of the leave campaign’s argument was that free movement of labour has destroyed our economy and NHS. The UK’s biggest economic problem is arguably our terrible productivity. Germany earns £1.35 in the time it takes a British worker to earn £1. There are a number of reasons for this, none of which are simple. If you were a business, which labour market would you invest in? Organisations will get more for their money elsewhere. Yet we’re relying on this work force to attract foreign investment and produce goods to smooth the bump caused by Brexit. If companies deem other countries more attractive, they’ll simply move. Unemployment must surely rise.
Students then need to take responsibility for their employability. They need to take advantage of the education provided by employers and take ownership of developing their own skillset. By the time an individual reaches university, they should be smart enough to develop their own “skill” curriculum. This will come by listening to employers and searching for opportunity to develop the skills an employer requires. Kloodle’s aim is to provide a platform that facilitates this connection. We want employers to offer students the necessary careers advice. We want interactions between employers and students to lead to the latter understanding exactly what skills they need to develop.
We need to be careful. By allowing students to believe that it is someone else’s responsibility to make them employable, we are disempowering our young people whilst at the same time losing the opportunity to incentivise employers to engage with them. If organisations are unable to source the skills that they require, they will look for them across a much broader landscape overseas. Students will be left with fewer and fewer career opportunities, bemoaning their expensive education and how the system failed them.
The potential for this to occur starts much earlier in children’s education than Higher education. How often does a teacher take the blame for poor exam results at school? There is a meme doing the rounds on the internet of a 1970’s parent’s evening and a 2010’s parents evening. The 1970’s parents are rebuking their offspring for poor results. The 2010’s parents are rebuking the teacher for their offspring’s poor results. If we allow our young people to believe that poor performance is only ever someone else’s fault, we are doing them a great injustice, along with that of our country’s future economy. However, if we teach young people that they need to contribute, to add value and to take responsibility for their own employability, we’ll create a generation of young people hungry to create opportunity. If our schools teach young people that they DON’T deserve anything until they’ve earned it and that they need to “get involved” to achieve reward, then we’ll generate a more effective workforce. As discussed earlier, the UK’s productivity levels lag behind the rest of Europe. We need this generation of students to have the mentality of contributors; of people who will pull up their socks and work to reduce the potential damage of Brexit. We will not do this by relying on a workforce convinced paper qualifications means a cushy managerial job. We want a workforce obsessed with results; a workforce determined to add real value and contribute.
University is merely one option to increase employability prospects. If a student chooses this path and picks to invest the £9,000 per year, they need to ensure they are generating a return on their own investment. We need to teach young people to think like investors: “What is my return on this investment?” Seeing university attendance as the hallmark of success is a damaging mentality. Selecting the correct path for each individual student is far more effective. Can you increase your employment prospects along another path? If you go to university, can you maximise your return on investment by finding work experience, by learning sales, by networking, by learning another language, by learning to code? Or maybe universities should take lessons from other countries? Perhaps a US system of selecting Majors and Minors will increase skill levels. Students could develop a range of skills as opposed to going deep in one narrow field of expertise.
Whilst it remains the responsibility of the individual to develop themselves, it is up to businesses and education to provide the resource and access to information students require to become more employable. We need to emphasise the importance of employability and place these skills on a par with the content taught in any curriculum. Skill development and personal effectiveness are the differentiators across the course of a lifetime. An individual who can realise opportunity because of the skills they have developed is worth their weight in gold. Economics will soon determine whether HE is worth £9K a year. If students do not feel the value, they will stop paying. How can HE improve their product to ensure it is worth £9K per year? That’s another argument!