Employability – a view from a recruitment specialist
‘Over 80 applications for every graduate vacancy’ – headlines from just 12 months ago, with similar dramatic claims regularly being made. But it’s not just the graduate market that is concerned about the number of applications people make. With alarming regularity we hear of someone unemployed for years who has made hundreds of applications, dozens every week, who has been rejected (that’s if they get a reply) for every single one! Is it that there are not enough jobs, people haven’t the skills to do the jobs on offer or is it that there are plenty of jobs around but no one wants them or a maybe a bit of both?
Employability is an interesting concept; dictionaries fail to agree on a single definition, it is mentioned in research dating back to 1998
‘Employability is the capability to move self-sufficiently within the labour market to realise potential through sustainable employment – Hillage and Pollard (1998)’, Robinson (2000) similarly suggested that it was a basic set of skills necessary for getting, keeping and doing well on a job whilst more recently the definition seems to have widened to include adaptability (Harvey, Fugate, Kinicki, and Ashforth) that ultimately enables individuals to compete in the job market but does not directly relate to being employed.
Interestingly whilst the research points to employability being about becoming more adaptable and flexible within the job market all the measures of employability relate directly to being employed (actually in a job). The biggest measure of all is from the census taken 6 months after graduation by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. This statistic by which employability following university study seems to be classified, simply asks if the student is unemployed (or 11 other classifications of being either in the job market or legitimately not seeking employment e.g. long term travel).
Is it surprising then to find a whole raft of approaches to dealing with employability? Hardly surprising at all. From denials by many that it is even about the job market to others that are being very specific with the skill based interventions to assist with gaining a job.
Recently the CIPD published a research report (September 2013: ‘Real-life leaders: closing the knowing-doing gap’) that argued that knowledge based training was significantly less effective than previously thought. With some arguing that medium/long term impact was close to zero. The missing element seems to be the ‘doing’ – why give someone a skill or knowledge and not let them practice it? For example you don’t ‘teach’ a baby to walk, you encourage them to stand up again every time they fall. Imagine a performance management approach: right that’s the tenth time you fallen over and failed to walk, walking is clearly not for you, next time you fall down, stay there and ‘bum shuffle’ across the room… and by the way, do the same for the rest of your life. That’ll work then?
Teaching employability either in a classroom or lecture hall is probably about as effective as a PowerPoint presentation on tying shoelaces – without actually doing the activity the learning and understanding is lost almost immediately.
Rothwell and Arnold (2007) argued that employability is ‘the ability to keep the job one has or to get the job desired’ – nothing in this definition about writing a CV or learning about different interview techniques, rather it talks about focus and dynamic action ‘to keep’ and ‘to get’, positive doing based actions related to a specific outcome (keeping or getting a job).
A high degree of focus, resilience and mental toughness (some call that emotional intelligence but we need much more) is needed if the job seeker is to remain highly action orientated in the face of multiple job applications and the rejections that will naturally follow. Being Mind Fit with a resilient, ‘can-do’ attitude and winning mind isn’t about learning a skill or acquiring knowledge rather it is about taking ownership and responsibility for your own actions. Graham Williams (2012 Mind Fit for Success) argues that people can only be in one of three states ‘Can Do’, ‘Can’t Do’, or ‘Won’t Do’. With high performance obviously associated with the powerfulness obtained by operating in the ‘Can Do’ state. However high performance isn’t necessarily about being the next CEO, it is about being the best you can be in whatever you are doing. Only the individual themselves can choose to operate in this state and it applies as much when applying for a job as actually doing it, keeping it or growing within and beyond it!
If Einstein was right in defining madness as doing the same thing again and again in the hope of achieving a different result, then sending out 200 CV’s in the hope that one won’t be rejected surely falls into the same category. Similarly lecturing 100 students on interview skills isn’t going to address the individual needs of each and every one of them. So why keep advising students in this way?
Virtually every careers service within British Universities has recently rebranded themselves to include employability either within the departmental name or to expand on their core undertaking – however some have taken it a step further by realising that creating the right ‘Can Do’ mind set in their students enables them to have a greater impact across a broader cohort of students. They have adopted an employability programme that doesn’t talk about vacancies, job boards, CV or interviews and yet has a massive impact on the employment statistics.
In a worldwide survey in 2011 a national paper said: “It discovered that 96pc of employers would hire someone who did not have a complete set of skills but displayed the right attitude over an applicant with the perfect skills but who lacked the right mindset.”
And it isn’t just about getting employment.
Increasingly employers are running a simple one day prequel to training or development courses to get their people into a ‘Can Do’ mind set so they don’t just sit through knowledge based training, but rather actively engage with the learning intervention and seek opportunities to implement change. So it is the ‘doing’ that makes the difference and within that seeking out what needs to change and what needs to stop. Graham Williams calls it “behavioural waste – all forms of behaviour that divert energy, talent and resources away from personal or organizational goals”. He defines Mind Fit as people who are: able to think flexibly and appropriately; emotionally competent and resilient; driven with a real sense of purpose; able to connect meaningfully with others. They will minimise their behavioural waste and focus on achievement – and that applies to development, training interventions or employability.
The CBI in 2010 defined employability, in probably the widest of all the definitions, as: ‘A set of attributes, skills and knowledge that all labour market participants should possess to ensure they have the capability of being effective in the workplace – to the benefit of themselves, their employer and the wider economy.’
So if we focus on where the journey is going – towards being employed – then perhaps Einstein would say ‘do something different and do it now’. The old mantra of hire on skills and fire on attitude has flipped, so the smart, common sense way forward would be to develop graduates with the right attitude. But another saying in Mind Fit is “when has common sense, been common practice?”
Employability skills are life skills so maybe we should start with developing the right attitude earlier than university.
By Adrian Thomas – recruitment professional
Feedback from a recent programme from a Catherine Farrant – Lecturer and Course Leader – PPD3
“Mind Fit delivered a workshop for Employability Skills using their approach to my undergraduates at Greenwich University. It really encouraged them to take personal responsibility for their own career development and to work on developing a truly ‘can do’ attitude. They also supported evaluations of group podcasts and presentations giving invaluable feedback to the teams. The CEO, Neville Gaunt additionally brought along two expert colleagues to ensure the undergrads had a truly relevant assessment experience. I know my students found it nerve-wracking and stimulating at the same time! The personal growth of all students in such a short time frame was amazing! I can see great value if this was run as a 1st year course as my students are clearly more engaged in their studies and starting early would allow us to build on effective foundations and raise attainment.”