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What a difference a VQ makes to a shy girl

There has been a lot said recently about employability by the Scottish Executive, MSPs, funding councils, HMIE - and, most important of course, by employers.

But it is so difficult to define. For many of us involved in interviewing prospective employees, it tends to fall into the category that "you know it when you see it".

We claim to be able to recognise someone exhibiting all of the necessary skills that we seek but often the focus is on what might be described as the technical or vocational skills for the job. And it is different at different levels of post but first allow me to engage in some reminiscences.

I first started thinking about employability 20 years ago when I was teaching statistics at Sheffield City Polytechnic. Our honours degree programme in applied statistics was a "thick" sandwich whereby students spent the third of their four years working in industry, commerce or government agencies.

Our students changed beyond recognition in that year. We thought that they had matured in terms of their approach to applying the statistical skills we had given them in the first two years, so much so that we redeveloped the course to limit the amount of new material in the final year after they returned to us, driving it through case studies and live projects.

In hindsight, perhaps we did not recognise that the key factor causing the change was the personal development that occurred and this would have come about whatever subject they were studying. It was the experience of a workplace regime that made our students "employable", as well as the statistical skills we sought to give them. One aspect of this, which again has only been overtly recognised recently, is that they spent a year developing their learning skills; they genuinely had to learn "on the job".

A couple of years ago, this hit me again in both my personal and professional life. When one of our daughters was leaving school at the end of S4, our final parents' evening was not particularly encouraging; teacher after teacher expressed fears that she was shy, didn't have many friends, didn't contribute in class and so on.

Well, two and a half years later, with a VQ programme behind her, the tall elegant blonde stylist chatting away to all and sundry in Medusa in the centre of Edinburgh is that shy girl. She has certainly picked up the skills that are so difficult for us to define.

At that time at Telford, we began to identify these skills, working with major employers to ensure that we could devise a programme to help students find part-time jobs while on course, and so developing what has now become known as "employability".

The focus was initially on them getting part-time jobs and encouraging employers to advertise their jobs with us. Through a web-based solution, employers can now match jobs to students and vice versa.

A number of delivery modes for the programme have been developed and certification is available through the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

Of course, in courses with a formal work placement, preparation for the placement holds the key to employability.

Work is also afoot in our schools - often in partnership with colleges - although typically this has been under the heading of "enterprise" due to the language used in Determined to Succeed. I have argued that this is not an appropriate label since I believe that the skills involved in employability are a prerequisite to enterprise (which is itself a prerequisite for entrepreneurship).

Such a hierarchical approach is another powerful use for the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework and the Skills for Work pilots may help to develop our use of consistent terminology.

I cannot turn the clock back to sandwich courses but we can instil in all of our students employability skills as well as specific vocational skills.

But what are they? The heart of the matter is an appropriate level of self-confidence and that traces right back to my sandwich students.

They developed a confidence to interact with other professionals, apply statistical techniques, sometimes getting it wrong but learning from it, and then present and defend their findings.

And the other employability skills? Well, I've run out of space here, but if you want to contact me at Telford . . .

Ray Harris is principal and chief executive of Edinburgh's Telford College and was formerly professor of applied statistics at the University of Central Lancashire.

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