Employability and young people

Kieran Gordon

What is employability?

In its most simple form “employability” is the ability to get employment and maintain it. Increasingly, sustaining gainful employment is becoming as challenging as the act of getting employment in the first place. This is due to the short and long-term trends in the employment market where jobs are threatened by economic downturns (cyclical unemployment) and by the fast changing skill needs of businesses in a global and technology driven marketplace (structural unemployment). It is right to include here the importance of progression or promotion in and through employment, as this is a great individual motivator and motivation is an important dimension of employability.

Defining employability skills is not straightforward as they are broad ranging and can vary according to the needs of different employers and employment sectors. They are inclusive of core components such as numeracy, literacy, and use of IT, which are measurable through the national qualifications framework, and extend beyond to encompass what are termed “soft skills” for which there is no set curriculum or qualifications infrastructure.

Employability skills deal with behavioural aspects of a person's readiness for work, this includes attitude, motivation, enthusiasm, selfdiscipline, commitment, confidence, and timekeeping. These are frequently cited by employers as the essential ingredients of what makes a “good employee”, particularly when referenced to young people. A recent survey of employers undertaken by reachfor1 and AQR2 in developing a new psychometric careers assessment tool elicited similar responses from respondents and added others such as: the ability to focus on customer needs, which may be interpreted as emotional intelligence; adaptability, the ability to deal with changing circumstances or resilience; creativity, the ability to suggest and believe in new ways of working; and responsibility, the preparedness to be accountable for one's actions at work.

Employer representatives are often critical of the lack of these skills in school leavers, which begs the question as to whether these are skills which we expect to be acquired at school as part of the curriculum or are they acquired through other social influences such as effective parenting and family life? The answer to this is probably both, but what is certain is that there is no normative measure that embraces all of these attributes and for the most part there hasn't been a valid, consistent, and reliable measure of the individual skills that go to improve one's employability. However, as this chapter will go on to explain there has been a significant development in relation to measurement of a number of these attributes, which has come to be known as mental toughness.

The case for employability

The cost of youth unemployment in the United Kingdom in the next decade is estimated to be £28 billion,3 a figure arrived at when the full cost of the loss of economic productivity, coupled with the welfare and health costs associated with unemployment and the wider social impact of large numbers of young people disengaged from mainstream society. Apart from the economic costs, youth unemployment has a personal cost to those who experience it, and for young people in the transition from education to the world of work even short periods of unemployment can leave an indelible mark on their outlook and their wellbeing; what has been termed the “scarring effects” of youth unemployment. Young people unemployed on leaving school will spend an average of an additional two months per year out of work between the ages twenty-six and twenty-nine, according to research. They will also suffer a thirteen per cent to twenty-one per cent wage penalty by the age of forty-two4 when compared with those who make a “smoother” transition from education to work, due to lower earnings potential and the levels of work they are able to secure and sustain.

The “scarring”, referred to above, involves psychological scarring with increased potential for illness, mental stress, helplessness and damaged self-esteem, all of which can lead to depression. Stress levels and recorded cases of mental illness amongst young people are on the increase and this is exacerbated by the alienation felt by those not in education, employment, or training (NEET).

So, in making a case for employability we must go beyond the skills demands of the workplace and look at the whole person when seeking to adequately prepare people for the demands and rigours of the working world. These demands and the challenges they bring are ever more complex and numerous due to the pace and scale of change in the modern economy. Increasing competition through the globalisation of markets, technological advancements, and changes to organisational structures all have implications for the future nature of work and therefore for employment. Employability skills will change with time and with greater frequency than has been the case thus far.

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