I visit and interact with some 20 to 30 educational institutions every year. What I have observed is that there seems to be a fundamental problem here about the perception of employability skills – and how they are developed in students. I would like to make 4 points:
“Employability” is treated almost as a separate subject: Something to be bolted onto the curriculum. And it’s not just about Maths and English grades.
Even if students are lucky enough to get a placement, the experience isn’t always related back to the learning.
They may attend career days or CV writing workshops but with little guidance, and little purpose. They have no idea of the potential of their subject.
Thanks to the Internet the younger generation find it very easy to call up Google and click search, but what they can't do is research. So giving them a laptop and telling them to look up jobs is meaningless. I’ve witnessed first-hand how lost they are – and with no sense of logic about how to proceed.
You can see the results of this kind of teaching in industry. A brilliant start-up company that we work with which is pioneering software tools for the financial sector complains that even university graduates are like “zombies” that are used to being "spoon-fed" with information. They struggle with basic problem-solving tasks, and fail to grasp the importance of quality and testing procedures in software development.
This company actually prefers to take on 16 or 17-year-olds and train them up rather than have to "unteach" graduates.
So when thinking about “employability skills” we need to think much more deeply. Employability should be embedded into every part of the curriculum. From the way that tasks are carried out, the decisions that students make and how they interact with each other.
Students should be helped to understand the widening potential of their subjects –and how they cross-sectors.... That electronics could take them into robotics, or aeronautical or automotive work, that IT and engineering are now vital to life sciences. If they understood this better, maybe there would be a lower dropout rate from courses.
Learning should be exploratory, harnessing students’ innate curiosity and grounded in real life. In the US, for example, some college students are allowed to experiment with real life data sets from NASA.
Colleges should interact more closely with companies. Many student placements are hard to come by, and the opportunities are sometimes squandered by both parties. Bring companies into colleges, and get the students to run projects with them and alongside them.
Get students to lead their own research projects. The tutor should be the facilitator and enabler rather than the teacher.
Students have to collaborate more with their peers – and expect more from each other.
Allowing students to take charge of their learning is both liberating and empowering. When they take responsibility and expect more of each other, general performance should go up.
Our current and future generations of students cannot expect to have one type of job for life, or even work in one sector for life. So what are employability skills that we should really be cultivating? It’s about flexibility, it's about being able to switch between sectors and it's been about being able to recognise and seize opportunities. It’s giving students the confidence to innovate.
Get that right, give students a sense of purpose and a reason for getting up in the morning and I would be willing to bet that other issues such as motivation, timekeeping and attention to deadlines would become less of a problem.