The Employability Challenge

19 June 2009

A report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills

UKCES assesses the current state of research on employability skills, identifies existing good practice, advises on how to develop these skills in schools and makes detailed recommendations for the involvement of employers.

The conclusions of this report rest upon a combination of site visits, telephone interviews, web research and a review of submissions sent in response to a call for evidence, engaging with 210 diverse organisations: schools, FE Colleges, universities, employment training providers and employers. It also includes 20 detailed case studies and the results of a literature survey, drawing on the experience of professionals within the UK Commission and related fields (particularly Asset Skills). They review the proliferation of definitions for employability skills (over 100); noting that, although there is no agreement, they “are in practice quite similar”. They then synthesize all of them into one, new, overarching definition. The Learning and Skills Network and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform had significant input into the piece.

Employability skills are best developed via experiential action-learning, “connecting the course with an actual workplace and involving non-teaching staff in delivery”; built-in opportunities for reflection and, “critically, raising the stakes by allowing the possibility of failure and creating consequences for poor performance.” The report finds the central issue to be that the skills “are just not practiced widely enough” and that current assessment methods “do not measure the subjective and qualitative aspects of employability skills well.”

Although simulated workplaces can be effective they are no substitute for direct engagement, the best route because it makes the end goal of learning “a more believable reality” and increases learner motivation in cases where “employers are involved in assessing their work”. One university college reported that 20-40% of students undertaking high quality work placements obtain permanent employment with the firm which has provided it. Informal contact of this nature is also particularly valuable to students unused to interviews, who “may well be better at doing the job than at getting the job.”

They identify a detailed series of steps for creating employer-education partnerships, giving a breakdown of the process. Above all, though, “it needs to be made easy” for employers to engage. The report also explores benefits for the employer, finding that contact with schools results in a reliable source of candidates; increased workforce diversity; improved retention; increased staff motivation and development opportunities; improved perceptions from the community; and good value derived from work undertaken by students on their placement. Perhaps unexpectedly, a CSR focus could undermine employability outcomes: “when employers get involved out of philanthropic motives they may leave their business mindset behind”.

Researchers also acknowledge the high degree of personalisation involved, leading to a “more relational and collaborative” learning approach that needs to be inherently flexible in its delivery. This is balanced by the point that businesses and some vocational courses have standardised tools for capturing the more qualitative aspects of employability skills. They found no clear consensus on whether the skills should be embedded into other topics or taught as an individual subject, judging that the area “requires further research”. However, OFSTED studies “suggest that it works best when mainstreamed throughout schools activities rather than as a discrete element in the curriculum”.

The report concludes there is need for “systemic changes” in school culture in order to refocus on and develop employability skills and that “employer involvement is vital” to this end. In short, “employability skills are worth making sacrifices for”.

Download The Employability Challenge report

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