Beyond human capital: Combining different employability capitals for career development
Employability research to-date has predominantly focussed on an individualized skills-oriented agenda to explore graduates’ ability to find and maintain meaningful work. Defined in varying ways, employability is increasingly considered as the ability to find, create, and sustain meaningful work across the career lifespan and in multiple settings (Bennett, 2018), and acts as an important connection between student, community, government, and industry and their respective expectations of what higher education can deliver (Bennett, 2019). Underlying this is the assumption that graduates with the most desirable skills or attributes are considered more employable (Tomlinson, 2017) and thus are best positioned to achieve favourable labour market outcomes. Following this assumption, universities have been instrumental in developing human capital to connect graduates with the labour market (Clarke, 2018). This tradition aligns with a neoclassical perspective, based on an economic growth model (Quiggin, 1999).
Indeed, human capital - presented via technical knowledge and skills - is important for obtaining graduate employment and career development. However, prioritizing human capital without balancing the importance of other capitals that can facilitate employability is limited to meet the evolving labour market. Even when graduates acquire adequate levels of different types of employability capitals, it appears that their ability to identify and draw on the appropriate capital in a specific context would further enhance employment prospects and career success (Clarke, 2018; Tomlinson, 2017).
In this chapter, I present a guided reflection on my career development story. Based on a detailed reflection, I will identify salient employability capitals and implications for my career. The study shows while education and international experience contributed to my employability, it was my ability to appropriately apply these types of capital in specific contexts that has enhanced my career advancement.
Technical skills: an essential but inadequate asset for career development
In higher education, a skills-based approach to employability is dominant (Helyer, 2007). Universities around the world are investing in students developing technical knowledge and skills, considering these as determinants of employment outcomes and career development. While the reliance on technical skills may generate positive student employment outcomes in the case of some disciplines, such as Medicine (Clarke, 2018), recent studies have increasingly evidenced that a possession of technical knowledge and skills alone does not equate to graduates securing a job and enhancing their career development (Tomlinson, 2017).
The skills-based approach encompassing generic skills - sometimes termed ‘soft skills’ - prioritizes non-technical abilities, such as communication, teamwork, and problem-solving ability, which employers and recruiters often seek in graduates. For example, recruiters of business graduates in Scotland prioritize identifying trustworthiness, reliability, motivation, willingness to learn, and communication (McMurray et al., 2016). In the US, both Fortune 500 companies and non-fortune 500 companies prioritize the ‘soft skills’ of business students’ above their grade point average (Jones et al., 2017). In Malaysia, communication is highly regarded by employers, while further proficiencies attributed to graduate employability include professional ethics development and teamwork skills (Singh et al., 2014). Collectively, these studies suggest that non-technical skills are also important for graduates’ employment across multiple countries.
Subsequently calls for higher education to better equip graduates with non-technical skills have been made. For example, Bridgstock (2009) emphasized the importance of career building and management ability, positing that they are important for navigating a career and moving between jobs. This is particularly relevant for ‘generalist degrees’ such as business and education. Calls have also been made to expand the employability agenda to encompass lifelong education ( Bridgstock, 2009) and expand graduate potential employability capital for transitioning to the labour market (Tomlinson, 2017). This is important given that the contemporary labour market places demands on individuals to actively self-manage their careers and foster their employability (Tomlinson, 2013). Simultaneously, globalization and internationalization require graduates to be able to operate in culturally diverse contexts (Crossman & Clarke, 2010), also emphasizing the importance of career self-management. It is with these shifts in mind that a need exists for expanding employability capital, beyond that of human capital.
Types of capital essential for career development
The combination of technical and non-technical knowledge and skills are often referred to as human capital (Clarke, 2018; Tomlinson, 2017). Human capital is considered critical to graduate employability and has often been used in attempts to connect skill development with direct graduate employment outcomes, yet this capital alone offers no guarantee of positive labour market outcomes (Clarke, 2018). Although human capital theory does show parallels with the predominant skills and attributes emphasis of employability research to date, a hierarchy approach to skill acquisition and employability is not suitable (McQuaid & Lindsay, 2005), partly because of the way capitals interact with one another (Tomlinson, 2017) such as human capital and social capital.