Employability, employability capital, and career development

A literature review


In recent decades, skills demands in the global knowledge economy and its constituent labour markets are constantly changing due to globalization, massification of higher education, technological disruptions and the fourth industrial revolution (Klaus & Richard, 2016). There has been scarcity of full-time work, increase in casualization of the workforce, prevalence of short-term work and self-employment, as well as rising career mobility (Lewchuk, 2017; Oliver, 2015).

Given the aforementioned context, higher education (HE) systems worldwide have expanded and subsequently produced an over-supply of graduates for labour markets (S. Li, Whalley, & Xing, 2014; Tomlinson, 2012) in what has increasingly become a challenging and “turbulent career environment” (Fugate, Kinicki, & Ashforth, 2004, p. 15). To succeed in job hunting and career development endeavours, graduates today need to develop skills and attributes that will enable them to overcome challenges, identify opportunities and harness their career potential. As such, employability becomes a lifelong developmental journey with emphasis on adapting to and managing changes (Fugate et al., 2004), rather than a static possession of expertise. Nonetheless, HE stakeholders have tended to define employability as something tangible that graduates can possess, enabling policy makers and institutions to ‘tick boxes’ in terms of graduate employment outcomes. Employability concepts and models, therefore, need to be re-examined in a more comprehensive way.

This chapter provides a review of literature related to employability and career development, which will be used as the scholarly foundation underpinning the graduate career narratives in the subsequent chapters This chapter addresses social, cultural, identity, economic and psychological capitals that sustain graduates’ employability in a fiercely competitive global labour market, on top of the widely agreed human capital. Drawing on the literature from multiple disciplines, including but not limited to sociology, psychology, education and career management, this combined ‘corpus of knowledge’ offers cross-disciplinary and sophisticated understanding of the employability landscape.

Higher education stakeholders’ perspectives of employability as possession of expertise

The concept of employability has evolved over time. Initially employability was defined simply as the ability to be employed (McQuaid & Lindsay, 2005) and primarily associated with individual characteristics and linear outcomes arising from the acquisition of higher education degrees. These days, employability in a higher education context presents as a more complex phenomenon shaped by several stakeholder groups: the government, employers, university leaders, academics, students, graduates, etc. These stakeholders come with different beliefs about the purpose of HE and their responsibilities to advance graduate employability. The net effect is illustrative of a mismatch in terms of how employability is perceived from the perspective of these stakeholders, each bringing their own experience and perspectives to bear. This section will briefly elaborate on how these major stakeholder groups view employability.

Policy makers’ perspectives

Policy makers from international organizations and governmental bodies have developed many policies and initiatives aiming to advance the graduate employability agenda within higher education systems (Burke & Christie, 2018; Yorke, 2006). The objective is to foster economic growth through the stock of human capital to compete in a global knowledge economy (Yorke, 2006). At the international level, the International Labour Organisation (2013), for example, defines employability as the possession of competencies and qualifications to obtain jobs and thrive within the formal employment sector. At the national level, many governments have supported employability skills frameworks and urged universities to develop employability skills for students to better match with employers’ needs. For instance, the Australian Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) deem transferable skills to include competencies related to communication, teamwork, problem-solving, initiative and enterprise, planning and organization, self-management, learning and technology skills (Department of Education Science and Training, 2002). More recently, DEST have issued its Core Skills for Work Developmental Framework that describes a set of non-technical skills, knowledge and understandings that underpin successful participation in work (Department of Education Science and Training, 2019).

Employers’ perspectives

Many employers understand graduate employability as the behavioural competence displayed by graduates that demonstrate a wider range of personal, performative, and organizational skills (P. Brown, Hesketh, & Williams, 2004; McQuaid & Lindsay, 2005). According to Knight and Yorke (2002), employers generally prefer to hire individuals with workplace experience, especially those who can show what they have learned from it. Employers are moving away from

Employability-related literature review 43 the idealist notion of academic credentials and assigning importance to more practical and utilizable skills including personal graduate attributes such as resilience and commitment, along with more generic skills including communication and teamwork (P. Brown et al., 2004; Tran, 2019).

After three decades of debate over quality of graduates, employers still maintain that graduates lack employability skills (Clarke, 2018). Empirical data from employers across labour markets in developed and developing country contexts indicate a prevailing dissatisfaction in terms of graduate employability. For example, studies in developed countries such as the UK, Australia, and New Zealand suggest that employers deemed graduates to lack communication, interpersonal, problem-solving, and teamwork skills (Archer & Davison, 2008; Khoo, Zegwaard, 8c Adam, 2018; Matthews, Guthrie, Lindsay, 8c Edge, 2016). In Malaysia, in addition to the aforementioned skills, employers from a variety of industries alleged that graduates lack critical thinking and need to build a more positive attitude (Seetha, 2014). Business graduates in Pakistan were found to be deficient in leadership, self-management, numeracy, and critical thinking skills (Abbasi, Ali, 8c Bibi, 2018).

Hence, allegations of the graduate skills gap appear to have ignited the skills-based approach to employability development in HE. Empirical data from employers shared with HE institutions have facilitated the promotion of relevant graduate skills in HE. However, as labour markets are changing quickly, herein lies the perennial gap between university graduate training and the reality of employers’ demands (Tran, 2018b).

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