What is Employability, and can you get some at University? | Top Universities

What is Employability, and can you get some at University?

By Laura Bridgestock

Updated September 29, 2016 Updated September 29, 2016

The past five years have seen governments, societies and individuals struggle to cope with the aftermath of the 2007-8 financial crisis – and there’s widespread agreement that young people have been among the hardest hit. To quote Monika Kosinska, secretary-general of the European Public Health Alliance, “Young people today are entering the most difficult labor market in decades, with potentially tragic consequences for their lives and futures.” 

This may sound overly dramatic, but perhaps not so much if you’re among the thousands of young people who’ve found themselves joining the “NEET” (not in employment, education or training) category. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that even a relatively short period of time in this state can have a devastating and long-lasting impact on future career development and earning potential. According to Kosinska, “Those who do manage to find work after being unemployed will earn around 8% less and suffer weaker career progression across their whole working lives than peers who enter the workforce directly.”

With this in mind, the questions of employability, soft skills development and skills employers look for have become increasingly important, and has especially been discussed in the context of how universities and other education providers can better prepare students for a life of fulfilling employment. But just what is employability, and is it really something higher education can provide?

What is employability?

These were some of the main questions up for discussion at the European Students Convention (ESC27) in Brussels a few weeks ago, with many of the early talks in particular attempting to set out some basic definitions. When addressing the question “what is employability?” there was general agreement that this term means more than just the state of being employed. Rather, it encompasses a combination of personal, social and economic factors that combine to give a greater or lesser likelihood of an individual being able to secure and maintain employment.

Ivana Juraga, project officer at the European University Association (EUA), provided a reasonably succinct definition of employability as: “The ability to search for a relevant job, to perform competently in your workplace, and to be a lifelong learner.”

Guntars Catlaks, research coordinator at Education International (EI), emphasized the concept’s composite nature: “At Education International we see employability as a hybrid term, bringing together people’s competencies, professional skills and academic knowledge in combination with labor market needs.”

A similar fusion of personal attributes and external factors was outlined by Stefan Delplace, secretary general of the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education (EURASHE). Delplace categorized the key ingredients of employability as the fusion of personal factors (including individual skills and aptitudes), educational factors (including academic qualifications, work-placed learning and training), and external factors (including industry demand and competition for jobs).

Can university increase your employability?

With these multi-faceted definitions of employability in place, discussions turned to the question of the role tertiary education providers can play in helping individuals and societies attain higher levels of employability. Two main ways in which universities could contribute were highlighted: by providing courses well-matched to industry demand, and by focusing on the development of longer-term employability skills.

While no one challenged the importance of this first aspect, convention attendees were overall more inclined to focus on the second, that of soft skills development. This was in part due to recognition of the difficulties involved in matching course provision to industry demand, especially in a world where rapid change is increasingly the norm for many professional sectors. It also reflected a feeling, particularly among student representatives, that “soft skills” remain relatively undervalued both by employers and universities.

The good news is that attending university is likely to increase your overall employment prospects. Studies from around the world have shown that, while all groups have been affected by the recession and by poor employment rates, those with higher levels of education still have better employment and earnings prospects in almost all countries.

What are the skills employers look for?

For many professional roles, it’s easy to see how a degree provides the necessary employability skills; for example, if you want to be a medical doctor, an architect or an engineer, you will learn the necessary knowledge and skills at university. In other cases, the link between university and employability skills is not so obvious, but it is still there.

Tia Loukkola, director of the Institutional Development Unit at the European University Association, gave a good example of this. Recalling her time as a modern languages student, she said she couldn’t understand the point of hours spent practising the language by writing up summaries of longer texts – but that those soft skills proved extremely useful a few years later, when her job required her to quickly summarize long and complex policy documents.

So the short answer to this question is yes: university can improve your employability, in ways that may be very obvious or only become clear later in life. When choosing a course, you may want to think about the specific role it will prepare you for, but don’t worry if you don’t know yet what you want to do, or you can’t see how your favored subject will prepare you for the workplace. Especially if you study at a university where independent study and thought are supported, you’ll be developing all kinds of the skills employers look for and which are useful in many professional roles without even realizing it.

This article was originally published in April 2014 . It was last updated in September 2016

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The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'

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