10 ways to improve your students' employability

A university professor offers his ten-step manifesto to ready learners for the world of work

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The employability of young people in the UK is critically important to both our economic and social prosperity. However, employers and Ofsted tell us that young people are still not ready for work when they emerge from the education system. The UK is not alone in grappling with this issue. More than 35 million 16- to 29-year-olds across OECD countries are neither employed nor in education or training, and even those with good educational qualifications can still find it difficult to get employment. While employers want numerate, literate employees with good digital skills, they also want other capabilities. The CBI, for example, has argued explicitly that the education system should produce determined, curious, optimistic, creative and emotionally intelligent young people.

The FE sector has a particularly important role to play in cultivating more employable learners given that many of its students are already technically employed as apprentices or progress straight into employment of some kind. Recently, with City & Guilds, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, and the 157 Group, Janet Hanson and I have been looking more closely at the research into employability. Specifically, we have explored and applied an important body of evidence relating to what is increasingly referred to as ‘performance character’. While this is becoming used in schools, it is less well known within FE. Our new research brings thinking from a range disciplines together for the first time to focus on implications for colleges and providers.

Character building

The argument goes like this. Character, as well as examination results, plays a significant role to play in shaping young people’s life chances. By character or performance character we mean those attributes often, unhelpfully, referred to as ‘soft skills’ or ‘non-cognitive skills’. Character is too broad a concept so we need to focus in at a level which makes sense to students, providers and employers. To do this we think it is helpful to separate those aspects of character which are essentially attributes or dispositions (we call these habits of mind) and those which might be best termed transferable skills. Only once we have been more specific about these as desired outcomes can we decide what cultures are important in terms of leadership and which pedagogies are going to be most likely to cultivate them.

Today the City & Guilds Alliance launch this research, called ‘Learning to be Employable', which is authored by myself and my colleague Janet Hanson. In it we propose a set of habits of mind for employability along with a set of core transferable skills. The employability habits of mind are self-belief, self-control, perseverance, resilience, curiosity, empathy, creativity and craftsmanship. The transferable skills include communication, time-management, self-management, problem-solving, team-working and giving and receiving feedback. You can download the full report at www.cityandguilds.com/learningtobeemployable.

Employers often talk about finding people with the ‘right attitude’ but this, too can too easily remain a vague aspiration. Employers consistently describe exactly the kind of habits and skills I have just listed as being both desirable and too often lacking. It is a pleasing win-win for training providers, learners and employers that the employability habits of mind on which we focus are also powerfully associated with better educational and life outcomes.

In our research we suggest a ten-point plan of action:

  1. Be much more precise about what the desired habits and skills are
  2. Recognise that employability is largely a state of mind
  3. Stress that employability habits of mind are learnable
  4. Create an ecology within colleges and providers which actively promotes employability
  5. Use those learning methods - signature pedagogies – known to be most effective
  6. Develop a rich array of co-curricular opportunities
  7. Focus especially on transition points
  8. Invest in professional development for staff
  9. Recognise the role of parents and families, and, of fundamental importance
  10. Keep an open dialogue with employers.

In the report we highlight are some practices which will help FE practitioners to embed these skills in their learners. We suggest that such examples need to be explored and shared more widely. Acquiring the habits of mind of employability is a way of boosting results, developing learners’ skills and making them more employable.

We also argue that we should build on recommendations by others, for example, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility which called explicitly for the teaching of character and resilience. There are current opportunities for enhancing employability, too, presented by the National Citizen Service and the new Careers and Enterprise Company for schools.

All of this thinking, of course, has implications for leadership and staff professional development in FE, and that is where we must now make significant progress.

Bill Lucas is professor of learning and director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester.

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