Published on 2012/04/12

Higher Education And The Department Of Human Resourcefulness

Higher Education And The Department Of Human Resourcefulness
The winding road can be the most rewarding. Photo by Håkan Dahlström.

With the jobs market expanding in some areas and shrinking or disappearing in others, how well-equipped are students for the changes that lurk before them? Are we losing talent because we only do half a job at developing it? Talent goes way beyond subject specialism into Life Skills, or the dry-sounding employability skills.

The business clients who approach me are dipped headfirst into the sort of employability skills that seem to skip by their education at Oxford or Manchester – or wherever they racked up their student debt.

Whether experiencing the skills of building rapport, dealing with conflict, using influence or any of those elusive skills that come under the banner of the ‘soft sciences of management’, the participants experience both elation and bewilderment. As one attendee declared in a session last week “How many opportunities have I lost, not knowing what I know now!” At 31 years old, he’s not too far from the generation of graduates being tipped out into a competitive workplace now.

So what else, other than the qualification that students may have, constitute employability skills? For a graduate, this has to be more than writing CVs and sitting mock interviews. According to a UK Commission on Skills and Employability Report, employability programmes should consist of the qualities that employers now want: interactive attributes including communication skills, team working, the personal attributes relating to flexibility and the ability to help organisations deal with change. Gavin Patterson, CEO of British Telecom states in Great Expectations’ a recent CIHE report (The portal for Leadership and for Business and Higher Education) the majority of technical skills being taught in schools and universities will no longer be valid by the time young people are 10 years in their careers. So let’s add to that cocktail of employability skills, the knowledge of how to learn.

According to a CBI report ‘Future Fit’ from 2009, the best way to develop such skills is through extra-curricular activities; voluntary work, personal development planning and a focus on transferable skills. And that leads me to the core of the failing for graduates: still in their early twenties, for the most part, they’re expected to be able to choose a lifelong career that will keep them on an upward trajectory for the next 40 years or so. My own path of acting and writing to consultancy, with a stint in Public Relations somewhere in between is only slightly bendy compared to the snaky roads on which many graduates may find themselves. One example that comes to mind is of the Chemistry graduate who is now Business Development Director for a Civil Engineering consultancy with years in between publishing promotional material for the Construction Industry. Oh, and then there’s the Anthropology student who is pursuing a successful career in TV production. Looking at that, you may see a vague through-line within those career routes, and it will also give you an idea of exactly how lateral careers guidance needs to be.

The flexibility of guidance and the need to be adaptable to changing demands is all the more important in light of the fact that the average adult in the UK will have had at least 10 jobs by the age of 38. Women’s careers tend to be less linear than that of men, yet those variations are rarely accounted for within the advice given to students in Higher Education, and the idea of a portfolio career – the recent synonym for ‘hedging your bets’ – is given even less mention. Many students need to be more open to the initial juxtaposition of the job done for love and the one done for money, until the former combines the latter. This requires life experience and imagination within the Careers Service, delivered by those who’ve done more than dispensing advice to students.

There are strong examples in Higher Education of how this is already being delivered. Cass has a comprehensive service of alumni talks and panels with industry experts as well as mentoring schemes and visits to companies – across the globe – to give students a taste of possibility beyond graduation. Students may be packed off to China, Dubai or South Africa, and thrown into the challenges of enterprise in the emerging economies.

In Durham, the role of the Careers Service is shared between an Employability Development Manager, Enterprise Co-ordinator and Placement Officer who work in tandem with requests from Academic and College staff and a focus group of students who take responsibility for the social media tools in spreading stories and updates.

I’ve heard it suggested that students should be penalised for not gaining work experience. However, that would deny the fact that some study for the intellectual joy of learning rather than the career progression in itself.

For those that are looking for greater employability, the irony lies in encouraging them to gain work experience as students don’t even know what they don’t know, until they’re in the workplace. Hence, Higher Education Institutions may need to ensure students have that opportunity to experience working life by incentivising work experience: some universities, such as Durham, offer an award for students who can prove that they’ve developed exceptional employability skills. Others may fail students without the work experience. One business school in which I’ve worked is employing students within the staff team, thereby saving the college money and giving the students quality work experience. For example, one Business student is helping the Sales Team to maximise opportunities through research and partner contact. Paid internships will also ensure that corporates refrain from using under-graduates to make tea and do the photocopying but, instead, give them relevant work experience. Students who have accomplished internships are more likely to find themselves with a job after study and employers are now actively seeking links with Higher Education institutions to pluck out talented students before they graduate.

Not everyone will aim to work for a big corporate and this needs to be recognised more widely within the Higher Education system. The fact that many students now study entrepreneurialism as a separate subject is a farce. I set up my own business at 25 out of desperation, not because I wanted to. In those days, we had Business Link, which proved to be as useful as square tyres when it came to setting up a business. What students have now, after leaving university, is again the School of Many Failures before they can strike lucky. Shouldn’t we be giving our graduates the options to put their knowledge into practice by setting up enterprises?

Perhaps we need to initiate Enterprise Hubs for those students who wish to develop their own ideas and create a business, under the aegis of mentors and facilitators. This will give students greater confidence, technical and interpersonal skills for a life beyond study. However, for this, it’s the responsibility of Higher Education Institutions not only to demystify entrepreneurialism for students but also to help them in how to think, as well as what to think. Understanding how creativity enhances innovation and being able to tap into it at will is an art that students – and their employers – need to master, with an increasing urgency.

By providing inspiring alumni networks, virtual ways of reinforcing learning and accessing advice, those that leave Higher Education have a greater chance of success.  These organisations need to be offering an ‘anytime, anywhere’ approach to learning in order to serve under-graduates who are working, and supporting families, as well as those who’ve completed their qualifications.

Keeping up with the demands of employers and the hurdles and developments of the real world calls for a more innovative approach to preparation for the world-beyond-study. It’s not a chance visit to the Career Guidance that will help students to reach their goals but a more holistic approach that may keep them on a winding road but it’s more likely to be a rewarding one.

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Readers Comments

Daniela Thomas 2012/04/12 at 2:36 pm

How can we have gone this long without emphasizing entrepreneurial and soft skills in higher education?

The way the system is now, we just make students slightly more advanced versions of the people they walked in as.

What the system should be doing is molding youth into the leaders (business and government) of tomorrow.

    Alison 2012/04/13 at 1:50 pm

    Hi Daniela

    I share your exasperation! Although there are some bright spots like the ones I mentioned in the article, one of the problems that exists amongst the more innovative colleges like Brunel, with their award winning range of courses, is that they can’t get the students to turn up.

    So whilst some are running these courses, there’s a problem with making students see the need until a couple of years in the workplace, by which time they’re floundering.

    The irony is that the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the more likely you are to benefit from more CPD in soft skills, or unless you have a problem that demands instant remedial attention. So either you have to be in a crisis, or nearing the top of the tree!

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