Employability refers to a person's capability for gaining and maintaining employment (Hillage and Pollard, 1998). For individuals, employability depends on the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) they possess, the way they present those assets to employers. As such employability is affected by both supply-side and demand-side factors which are often outside of an individual's control.
The concept of employability has been in the literature for many years. Current interest has been driven by:
- the changing nature in public employment policy, with increasing emphasis being given to skills-based solutions to economic competition and work-based solutions to social deprivation.
- the supposed end of ‘careers’ and lifetime job security, which have, of course, only ever applied to a minority of the workforce, the greater uncertainty among employers as to the levels and types of jobs they may have in the future, and the need to build new relationships with employees.
Employability: towards a definition
While there is no singular definition of employability, a review of the literature suggests that employability is about work and the ability to be employed, such as:
- the ability to gain initial employment; hence the interest in ensuring that ‘key skills’, careers advice and an understanding about the world of work are embedded in the education system
- the ability to maintain employment and make ‘transitions’ between jobs and roles within the same organization to meet new job requirements, and
- the ability to obtain new employment if required, i.e. to be independent in the labour market by being willing and able to manage their own employment transitions between and within organisations.
It is also, ideally, about:
- the quality of such work or employment. People may be able to obtain work but it may be below their level of skill, or in low paid, undesirable or unsustainable jobs, and so forth.
- The capacity and capability of gaining and maintaining productive work over the period of one's working life. (Muhammad Nawaz Qaisar, MSBA, NUML, Islamabad, Pakistan)
Berntson (2008) Employability refers to an individual‘s perception of his or her possibilities of getting new, equal, or better employment. Forrier and Sels (2003) An individual‘s chance of a job in the internal and/or external labor market. Fugate et al. (2004) A forms of work specific active adaptability that enables workers to identify and realize career opportunities. Fugate (2006) A constellation of individual differences that predispose individuals to (pro)active adaptability specific to work and careers.
Harvey (2001) Employability is the ability of graduate to get a satisfying job. Employability is a process of learning. Hillage and Pollard (1998) Employability is the capability to move self-sufficiently within the labor market to realize potential through sustainable employment.
Robinson (2000) A basic set of skills necessary for getting, keeping and doing well on a job Rothwell and Arnold (2007) The ability to keep the job one has or to get the job desires.
Sanders and De Grip (2004) The capacity and the willingness to be and to remain attractive in the labor market. Van der Heijde and Van der Heijden (2005) The continuously fulfilling, acquiring or creating of work through the optimal use of efforts.
Fugate, Kinicki, and Ashforth (2004) define employability as a form of work specific active adaptability that enables workers to identity and realize career opportunity. Employability facilitates the movement between jobs, bothwithin and between organizations
Fugate et al. (2004) contend that employability enhances an individual‘s likelihood of gaining employment, although it does not assure actual employment.
Fugate (2006) later refined and introduced a dispositional perspective of employability namely dispositional employability, defined as a constellation of individual differences that predispose individuals to (pro)active adaptability spe Harvey (2001), on the other hand conceptualizes employability in a much more specific subject and direct employability of higher education institution‘s graduate. Harvey (2001) defines employability as the ability of graduate to get a satisfying job. Harvey (2001) concurs that job acquisition should not be prioritized over preparedness for employment to avoid pseudo measure of individual employability.
Harvey (2001) argues that employability is not a set of skills but a range of experiences and attributes developed through higher-level learning, thus employability is not a ‗product‘ but a process of learning. Employability continues to develop because the graduate, once employed, does not stop learning (i.e. continuous learning). Thus employability by this definition is about learning, not least learning how to learn, and it is about empowering learners as critical reflective citizens (Harvey, 2001). Harvey‘s (2001) definition is important for it emphasizes employability of graduates, which is similar to our context, hence, able to provide insight about how to measure graduates‘ employability and what are the differences between graduates and experienced individuals in labor market.
Berntson (2008) argues that employability refers to an individual‘s perception of his or her possibilities of getting new, equal, or better employment. Berntson‘s study differentiates employability into two main categories – actual employability (objective employability) and perceived employability (subjective employability).
Four components of employability
This suggests that we can separate out four main elements in respect of individuals’ employability: the first three are analogous to the concepts of production, marketing and sales, and the fourth is the marketplace in which they operate.
An individual’s ‘employability assets’ comprise their knowledge (i.e. what they know), skills (what they do with what they know) and attitudes (how they do it). There are a number of detailed categorisations in the literature which, for instance, distinguish between:
- ‘baseline assets’ such as basic skills and essential personal attributes (such as reliability and integrity).
- ‘intermediate assets’ such as occupational specific skills (at all levels), generic or key skills (such as communication and problem solving) and key personal attributes (such as motivation and initiative), and
- ‘high level assets’ involving skills which help contribute to organizational performance (such as team working, self-management, commercial awareness etc.)
Further key points from the literature include the importance of the transferability of these skills from one occupational or business context to another for employability and the increased attention employers are paying to the softer attitudinal skills in selecting employees.
Merely being in possession of employer-relevant knowledge, skills and attitudes is not enough for an individual to either ‘move self-sufficiently’ in the modern labour market or ‘realise their potential’. People also need the capability to exploit their assets, to market them and sell them.
These are a linked set of abilities which include:
- Career management skills and life skills — commonly identified as self-awareness (i.e. diagnosing occupational interests and abilities), opportunity awareness (knowing what work opportunities exist and their entry requirements i.e. labour market knowledge), decision-making skills (to develop a strategy of getting from where you are to where you want to be) and transition skills. The latter generally includes:
- Job search skills — i.e. finding suitable jobs. Access to formal and informal networks is an important component of job search and employability.
- Strategic approach — being adaptable to labour market developments and realistic about labour market opportunities, be occupationally and locationally mobile.
There is obviously an important inter-relationship between assets and deployment. The extent to which an individual is aware of what they possess in terms of knowledge, skills and attitudes and its relevance to the employment opportunities available may affect their willingness to undertake training and other activities designed to upgrade their skills etc.
Another key aspect of employability is being able to get a particular job, once identified — sometimes included under career management skills, but is given prominence as a separate element here due to its crucial importance to securing employment. It centres around the ability to demonstrate ‘employability’ assets and present them to the market in an accessible way. This includes:
- the presentation of CVs etc., (including Records of Achievement)
- the qualifications individuals possess (both academic and vocational), perhaps accredited through prior learning
- references and testimonies
- interview technique, and, of particular importance,
- work experience/track record.
In the context of personal circumstances and the labour market
Finally and crucially, the ability to realise or actualise ‘employability’ assets depends on the individual’s personal and external circumstances and the inter-relationship between the two. This includes:
- personal circumstances — e.g. caring responsibilities, disabilities, and household status can all affect their ability to seek different opportunities and will vary during an individual’s life cycle; while
- external factors such as macro-economic demand and the pattern and level of job openings in their labour market, be it local or national; labour market regulation and benefit rules; and employer recruitment and selection behaviour.
Priorities for action
For the state, as well as raising the skill profile of the existing workforce, especially at lower levels to boost flexibility and competitiveness, there are a number of potential priority groups including:
- labour market entrants
- labour market re-entrants
- disadvantaged groups
- insecure or under-utilised employees
where different policies may need to be targeted according to different circumstances.
For employers the priorities might be to help key groups of staff to develop both those assets which have explicit, immediate value to the organization as well as those transferable ones which have a wider, longer term currency, thereby engendering a sense of security, encouraging commitment, risk-taking and flexibility among employees. From 2005 to 2007 The Association of Graduate Recruiters in the UK identified where there was a skills gap in the graduates leaving university. It suggested that commercial awareness, leadership, commitment and drive, problem solving and managing own learning as the areas in most need of attention.
For the individual the need is to boost those aspects of their employability which will most enhance their opportunities in the light of their circumstances. However, what the individual believes to be most critical does not necessarily coincide with the views of the employer.
Issues for public policy
The above definition of employability provides a basis for analysing the policies affecting the employability of certain groups (e.g. 16 and 17-year-old school leavers), or conversely how major policy initiatives (e.g. the New Deal) impact on employability. A brief review of government initiatives in this area suggests that policy is aimed:
- more at the development and accreditation of knowledge and vocational skills than at the ‘softer’ skills and attitudes
- more on the demonstration of assets than their deployment — particularly for adults (e.g. lack of provision of a careers education and guidance service for adults)
- more at individuals looking to enter the labour market (e.g. from education or unemployment) than within
- more on the individual and the supply side, than on employers and the demand side (i.e. the labour market contextual factors).
This policy orientation may reflect a variety of factors such as difficulties in defining, assessing and verifying ‘soft skills’, and difficulties identifying and accessing specific groups of employees at which to target limited resources.
Thus some key questions for future policy interventions include:
- who are the priority groups
- where the most serious gaps are for such groups be they related to e.g. which assets, dimensions of deployment or presentational skills
- how these gaps might best be remedied and
- which of the arms of public policy are best placed to add such value and how through interventions.
Finally, whatever the interventions, they need to be evaluated so that lessons can be fed back into further improvements and to the decision to continue with, change or stop such interventions. Potential measures include those relating to input measures, e.g. possession of vocational qualifications, or the receipt of careers management training; perception measures, e.g. the views of employers and the workforce of their employability; and outcome measures, e.g. the speed at which people are able to get jobs or ‘measurements of failure’, e.g. the numbers or proportion of people with difficulty finding or keeping work, or the number of job changes, however defined. Obviously there is room for some combination of all three. Whatever route is chosen, it is important to take account of the overall state of the labour market and how it is changing, to take account of any dead-weight effect and assess true additionality.
Duality of Employability
An alternative account of employability takes a more relative approach. Brown and Hesketh define employability as ‘the relative chances of getting and maintaining different kinds of employment’ (2004).
While most people view employability in absolute terms, focussing on the need for individuals to obtain credentials, knowledge and social status, the concept of employability can also be seen as subjective and dependent on contextual factors. ‘Employability not only depends on whether one is able to fulfil the requirements of specific jobs, but also on how one stands relative to others within a hierarchy of job seekers’ (Brown and Hesketh, 2004). Taking the supply and demand of labour into account challenges the idea that credentials, knowledge and social status alone will guarantee a good position in the labour market.
With the move to a more knowledge based economy, it is widely thought that there is an increasing demand for high-calibre managerial talent. However, a focus on obtaining skills in order to gain good employment has led to an over-supply of graduates and a larger number of contenders chasing the same top jobs. Brown and Hesketh argue that there is a clear mismatch between individuals’ expectations of employability and the realities posed by the labour market.
Under these conditions, students will use a number of tactics in the labour market to maintain competitive advantage. Brown and Hesketh identify two ideal types of individuals entering the labour market. Those who will do anything to get a top job are classed as ‘players’. Players are not afraid to take on a different identity if they feel that is what the employer is looking for. The second type, 'purists', are those who believe that job market outcomes should reflect meritocratic achievement. For purists it is important to maintain an authentic sense of self as this will ensure a good fit between individual capabilities and occupational demands. Purists may be as competitive as Players but feel that Players are cheating in order to get ahead.
This view of employability incorporates the dual aspects of supply and demand of labour to show that advancing one’s position in the labour market by gaining credentials is partially dependent on structural factors outside the individual’s control. The recent financial crisis demonstrates that global economic factors can and do have a significant impact on the likelihood of an individual securing a job regardless of their skills, credentials and social status.
- Brown, P. and Hesketh, A. (2004) The Mismanagement of Talent: Employability and Jobs in the Knowledge Economy. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
- Hind, D. and Moss, S. (2011) Employability Skills. 2nd Edition. Sunderland, Business Education Publishers.
- Schneider, K. and Otto, H-U. (2009) From Employability Towards Capability. Luxembourg.