Digitally empowering learners’ employability

The education to employment gap and Prospect to Alumnus employability services

Project three of the Jisc Prospect to alumnus is all about employability.
Working with a range of partners and stakeholders, we are designing exciting and innovative new services which will empower students’ employability, meet employers’ needs and enable institutions to track and demonstrate the employability of their students.

Prospect to Alumnus (P2A) employability work is focussed on delivering a dynamic online employability skills-match service, an employability data service in the medium term and, in the longer term, a learner cradle to grave data service. This blog post deals mainly with the first of these three services. The work complements Jisc’s Technology for Employability project which is investigating and uncovering themes for development such as the need for better partnership working with employers (Jisc’s Business and Community Engagement resources are also relevant in this regard).

Our vision for P2A has been shaped by three contextual factors. These are: the current pressures on universities, colleges, learners and graduates around employability (with expectations heightened in the tuition fees environment); recent findings from the CBI and others such as McKinsey that make abundantly clear the Europe-wide education to employment gap; and the national economic and social imperative for sustainable improvement in employment prospects.

Soft skills in demand

CBI Pearson 2014: What Employers Want

A 2014 CBI Pearson survey found that employers value attitudes and aptitudes above all in school and college leavers. Indeed attitudes, (as in character) were valued the highest, with qualifications considered half as important. Attitudes and aptitudes also emerged as vital when employers were asked about the most important factors considered when recruiting graduates. In the same CBI report, a quarter of employers surveyed stated that they were dissatisfied with graduates’ problem-solving skills and the same proportion dissatisfied with their communication skills. More than half of employers were dissatisfied with graduates’ business and customer awareness and a similar proportion with their foreign language skills. There were also notable deficits of satisfaction in graduates’ relevant work experience, intercultural awareness and self-management/resilience. Most large graduate recruiters prefer to invest up to a year of training in recruits to make them job-ready. In their Report ‘Education to employment: Getting Europe’s youth into work’ (P.45 of Report, Exhibit 22) McKinsey found that, across Europe, the deficit between skills needed and competencies apparent in entry-level employees was by and large greater for soft skills than for hard skills.

In a recent NCUB Fuse event I attended, two renowned entrepreneurs leading creative, media and digital SMEs highlighted what they value in graduates. Simon Morris of Bareface Media stressed the need for ‘graduates to be able to think/work across subjects/boundaries’, and for Naveed Parvez of Andiamo, the single most important quality for people in building and developing a business is empathy. Naveed called for ‘a greater mixing of disciplines within universities’, while David Dunn, Chief Executive of Sunderland Software City said we need ‘T-shaped people who have a vertical discipline and lateral appreciation of what others do and what motivates them’. Several speakers highlighted the forgotten value of arts and humanities as making a major contribution to some of the qualities sought.

The skills and qualities sought by employers have a strong correlation with the professional attributes collaboratively defined with university engagement professionals by Jisc and Auril:

BCE CPD attributes

Life skills for employability

The recurring theme is that soft skills are critical for employability and vital to the economy, as is ‘interdisciplinarity’. Reflecting on all this, and wider context, led me to conclude that, crudely, there are three levels of skills and behaviours that can be defined:
i) qualities or character attitudes such as determination, empathy, resilience, versatility;
ii) soft skills or aptitudes such as problem-solving, communication skills, customer awareness;
iii) domain specific (or sub-domain) skills such as IT expertise, economics, illustration/drawing etc.

Level ii) and iii) skills remain important (STEM skills to name an obvious example), but it is apparent from the above that there is an acute need for the level i) qualities. Yet these are not currently reflected in any meaningful way (other than through e-Portfolios) in the education to employment system. This conclusion is somewhat counter-intuitive, given the legitimate fears many academics have about losing academic integrity and independence through stronger business influence. The skills we are talking about are life skills, so are not a threat to this, yet they are precisely what employers are crying out for.

Vision for the employability skills-match service

In Prospect to Alumnus, we plan to provide a digital employability skills-match service that can address this employer need, and can at the same time empower students and graduates by building their employability capital. How do we propose to do this?

Open badges have great potential so they are part of the answer, but we are adopting a hybrid approach, and utilising the power of digital technologies to create a dynamic service. We are building an online platform that we envisage will enable:

  • employers consortia to publish and define open badges, and badge classes, which will specify and group the requisite soft skills and qualities in a form that suits their needs;
  • learners and graduates to claim, using third-party attested examples, that they have demonstrated particular soft skills and qualities in their non-formal learning and experience.

Learners could also potentially self-assert that they qualify for a badge, and employers consortia could endorse this assertion. The examples cited will need to be in a consistent and very concise format, accessible to, and co-designed with employers.

The key features of this are:

  • it values the soft skills and qualities used by learners in part-time jobs, voluntary work, placements, secondments and other non-formal settings – experience that generally is currently not captured by institutions;
  • endorsement of a badge is not dependent on a institutionally-validated accreditation process but on recognition and digitally moderated negotiation between learner and employer;
  • the service is designed to increase employability and soft skills valuation rather than match candidates with opportunities, though the process may lead to opportunities;
  • badges will be created and defined by employers consortia rather than individual employers.

Based on this pilot service, which we plan to deliver in the autumn, we will develop a more extensive and sophisticated Employability Data Service initially for further education (in response to demand), then subsequently for higher education. There is scope to improve education to employment vocational pathways, so that these become more attractive and fruitful to students, learning from elements of the German and Austrian models. The Employability Data Service is likely to involve level ii) aptitudes and skills as defined above, and will involve institutions in the supporting and tracking the process, but we are open-minded about how it will work and its features, and welcome your comments and involvement in the process.

Our modus operandi is by necessity rapid and agile. We recognise the need to be flexible, with iterative and overlapping phases of design, develop and user test, and we may need to redesign some aspects of the service. We are currently collaborating with our Italian development partners CINECA, our service design partners Livework, student representative groups and employer consortia, as well as expert consultants and key stakeholders to design this exciting digital service.








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