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Bob Gilworth on graduate employability and career planning

March 2018

With students trying to do anything and everything to make themselves employable, it is important to use research and evidence to help focus their efforts, says the AGCAS president-elect

Are there any challenges facing careers services right now?

One challenge is that some of the discourse around employability only tells half the story. I would say that our careers and employability efforts need to provide students with assets and structure. We need to help our students to gather collateral in the form of knowledge, skills and experiences and develop insight, purpose and direction in planning for the future beyond graduation.

Unfortunately, the second half of the equation can get lost among all the noise about employability, which tends to focus on the first. Career choice and planning can get relatively little attention, yet research shows that these are actually key factors in graduate and by extension, institutional, success. I sense that this is starting to change now since the publication of the Department for Education's 2017 report Planning for Success and the huge amount of evidence generated by Careers Registration.

Large careers services have gone through a rebranding process and the students have said 'please, don't call it employability'

Why might students dislike the term 'employability'?

Employability can mean different things to different people. To me, employability means being capable of making well-informed plans for the future and having the ability to execute them in a changing world.

We can get bogged down in the semantics, but there is some evidence to suggest that employability is a turn-off word for students. They can see employability as a buzzword and a bit overly corporate and impersonal.

To use a bit of my own jargon, employability is abstract, career is personal. I'm aware of instances where large careers services have gone through a rebranding process and asked their students what their new organisation should be called and the students have said something to the effect of, 'please, don't call it employability'.

On the other hand, I heard an example very recently where the same was said about 'careers'. Employability is a political reality and part of the environment in which careers services need to operate.

Whatever the terminology, students need to be supported into rewarding and fulfilling futures and institutions seek to be successful in this crucial area. I would argue that it isn't hard to see the practical benefits of making sure that we get across both halves of the careers and employability story.

For example, we sometimes see engaged students, having heard all this rhetoric about employability, get the idea that they need to be constantly working to make themselves more employable in an abstract sense because in this context, the perceived alternative is to be unemployable in an abstract sense. Meanwhile, they also need to ensure academic success.

From our point of view, it would be much less stressful for some of those students if there was more emphasis on developing a clearer idea of a direction so that they could manage their time and energy in a more structured and productive way.

How do you relay research into practical policy and methods of engagement with students?

As far as engagement with students goes, we do a lot of work with Careers Registration. I lead a HEFCE Learning Gain project in this area. This is a process by which we gather simple but important data about students through the formal enrolment process.

We gather it when they first enrol and again when they re-enrol each year. Careers Registration gives us live data, about the students we have right now, as distinct from Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) data, which is very useful but essentially retrospective.

This is very important for student engagement because it enable us to understand current students’ starting points and journeys and tailor our messages and support accordingly. A nice example is where some of the institutions with Careers Registration have a way of ensuring that as soon as the student puts something, they get something back. In these cases, when the students clicks the button to register, they receive automatically generated but tailored responses, based on the information that they have provided to suggest what they should be doing now and how the Careers Service and others can help them.

Crucially Careers Registration enables us to reach students who might otherwise be unengaged. For example, a student responding along the lines that, 'career planning hasn't been on my radar, I haven't thought about it at all' can be reassured that this is an entirely normal starting point. We can illustrate that there are hundreds of other students in the same boat and that we are happy to start from there, because we have expert staff who are trained to do exactly that.

One of the areas where we must improve is in making graduates aware of the options available to them

You're preparing graduates for jobs and roles that don't exist yet. How do you do it?

We pay a lot of attention to labour market trends. That's part of our job and I'm sure that the new Luminate platform will really help us with this. At the same time, left-field, disruptive changes are inevitable.

A key part of our role is to help students and graduates develop career management skills so that they are equipped to face challenges in their future careers. Change is a nailed-on certainty.

One of the areas we must improve is in ensuring that students are fully aware of the options available to them. Currently 82% of Institute for Employers (ISE) members do not specify degree subject. The UK graduate market is unique in this regard.

Most students don't know this. Looking at the Careers Registration data drawn from biological sciences, for example, shows us that many of these students are only aware of a narrow range of options open to them. Meanwhile, we regularly have employers telling us they want more science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates, yet many of these students don't even realise that they could work for them.

In careers-speak, we could improve outcomes for some of these students through an emphasis on 'opportunity awareness'. Sharing this with the relevant academic colleagues is key to success and having the data to illustrate the issue helps with those conversations.

What about engaging with staff?

In my experience, the most productive relationships are based on partnership working between academic and careers staff, where there is mutual respect and understanding between two sets of experts who may have different professional drivers, but both want the best for the students. An issue for our profession can be a reticence on the part of some careers colleagues to see themselves and present as experts, even though they are.

A good evidence base helps. Around the country, colleagues are making greater use of Careers Registration, DLHE and engagement data to support evidenced-based conversations that provide the rationale for directing scarce resources to where they'll make the most difference, as in the biological sciences opportunity awareness example.

Data can be significant in myth busting. If colleagues in an academic department have a particular idea of what it is their students might be interested in and they've had that idea for a long time, then data from students themselves can be critical in understanding how things are now. These conversations are not always comfortable if they challenge long-held assumptions, but it is better to share the up-to-date evidence and act on it.

For Bob Gilworth's take on the new Graduate Outcomes survey, the launch of the Office for Students and what it's like to lead one of the largest careers services in the world, see part one of this interview.

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