‘A theoretical framework for employer engagement’

Julian Stanley & Anthony Mann

In Understanding Employer Engagement in Education: Theories and Evidence, Mann, A., Stanley, J. & Archer, L. (eds), London: Routledge (2014), pp.36-52.

The book is available here.

This book chapter conceptualises employer engagement in education through the ‘life course’ theory – arguing that life is contextually constructed in a social and cultural manner and that the outcomes of a person are shaped by past events and experiences, creating a chain of outcomes.

The authors depict employer engagement in education as a useful resource in the ‘life course’ as it provides advantages for youths when later progressing through the labour market. The benefits of increased levels of engagement can be broken down into human, social and cultural capital to form the basis of the theoretical framework.

Human capital is defined as ‘the increase in labour productivity that arises through education or training’ (Becker, 1993). Human capital is usually an individual’s own outcome of education and training (certified knowledge and skills), which provides an economic resource in employment. Gaining necessary and appropriate qualifications as a student provides a later benefit when seeking employment.

Social capital views relationships between people as a resource that individuals within groups can utilise to meet their goals. Existence of social relationships and networks, or lack thereof, can either bolster or restrict the success of individuals. The authors highlight Granovetter’s (1973) conception of the value of ‘weak ties’ in providing resources; knowing many people a small amount may be more beneficial than knowing a few people very well. Meeting people and making connections through employer engagement activities provides a resource through which students have contacts with different employers.

Cultural capital reflects the interface between culture and social relations, social action and institutions, making it difficult to separate cultural and social influences. Taking culture to be the influence of shared norms and understandings on behaviour, cultural capital sees knowledge and aspirations as resources. Bourdieu (1986) depicts three forms of cultural capital: personal culture (e.g. ‘habitus’), material culture (e.g. books/tools), and symbolic culture (e.g. qualifications). ‘Habitus’ represents a knowledge of ‘how things work’; students will understand the education system to varying degrees and thus some will be better placed to navigate their way to success than others. Different cultural groups may unconsciously develop and share attitudes that later impact upon their outcomes, for example ethnic minorities or women. Employer engagement activities are potentially crucial for providing resources that challenge stereotypical cultural norms, with the hope of raising or broadening aspirations to produce better outcomes.

Viewing human, social and cultural capital as varieties of resources that can accrue from employer engagement in education, the authors argue that it is important to note that individual benefits gained are influenced by previous accumulation of capital – as supposed in the ‘life course’ theory. Employer engagement interacts with other environmental factors influencing the progression of a person, such as societal and economic pressures. Individuals also exert their own agency, personality and beliefs, in determining their life outcomes.

The authors use the example of work experience placements to demonstrate how resources are drawn in different ways. The experience gives individuals practical employability skills, a form of human capital. The students also form relationships with potential employers, advancing their social capital. Furthermore, the experience allows students the opportunity to discover whether the profession is correct for them, or not, building their cultural capital. Data from existing studies is used to illustrate the ways in which human, social and cultural capital can be seen to relate to episodes of employer engagement.

Theorising employer engagement within the ‘life course’ projection is useful in providing a framework for activities that relate specifically to outcomes and benefits for students.

Further reading available here.