Each LMIP Briefing is an evidence-based contribution to informing the development of a skills planning mechanism for South Africa. Briefings showcase our cutting edge research and aim to highlight key trends and potential implications from LMIP research projects.

LMIP Briefing 20

Interrogating the concept of employability 

The concept ‘Employability’ remains a contested term and is differently understood and utilised by various stakeholders. We begin by distinguishing key definitions, as these have implications for curriculum policy and deciding roles and responsibilities.

Employment is the base concept. This refers to being productively occupied, usually for some form of remuneration, either for an employer or for one’s self. Being ‘employable’ at its simplest refers to the degree to which one can become employed. It is always a relative term as it has to be linked to a specific occupation or job. You may be employable in one kind of job, or at a particular level within an occupation, but not at other levels or in other jobs.

Employability is therefore dependent on a complex mix of qualifications, skills and personal traits that varies from individual to individual. Thus there can never be a generic form of employability. What has confused the discussions around employability is the use of the term ‘employability skills’, referring variously to specific skills for a job, to so-called ‘soft’ skills such as communication or empathy, to generic skills or transversal skills such as ICT skills or ‘problem solving’, or to life skills (e.g. financial planning, time management) usually associated with general functioning in an organisation. At times, the skills needed to access employment such as CV writing or interview skills are also included in the term. ‘Experience’ is a key dimension in many of the discussions about employability, but often simply acts a proxy for having demonstrated the ability to work in an organisation or team and has little to do with the skills learned on the job.

The engagements at a LMIP policy roundtable in February 2016 suggested that what employers bemoan as a ‘lack of employability skills’ refers in large measure to a poor basic education, particularly the inability to communicate effectively, have a well developed number concept, and a general knowledge. Secondly, there appears to be a generalised concern with what can broadly be defined as attitudes and values of young people. This includes a range of issues linked to demonstrated commitment and motivation, appropriate behaviour and presentation, willingness to undertake menial tasks, and having unrealistic expectations about promotion or remuneration.

Such concerns have been raised by employers in a range of other contexts, and are at times related to a difference in generations. Younger people today have been raised in a milieu that places far less emphasis on tradition, includes a high level of access to information, and a general culture that valorises the individual. Part of the problem is a societal one.  In a globalised world these issues can also be employer specific as expectations vary greatly, dependent on occupational field or company culture. For example, research literature shows significant differences in the working cultures of American versus Japanese versus European firms in the same economic sector.

It is unrealistic to expect education providers to prepare students for all the variations of workplace expectations or workplace specific technologies. If they were to try to do this, the curriculum would be overloaded by non-technical and non-core components. However, if one distinguishes between the different component types of skills that make people employable in specific occupations, then it is possible to incorporate some of these into the curriculum and pedagogy of vocational teaching. Modelling workshops and classrooms on firms, enforcing expectations of time management and punctuality, and assessing in ways similar to workplace settings are all realistic strategies that do not require extra curriculum space. Indeed, separate modules such as Life Skills tend to become divorced from the workplace context and appear to make little difference to students. Some participants at the policy roundtable referred to successful attempts to prepare students at the time of transition. For example, doing a course on writing a CV has more impact when students are actually applying for jobs than when they still have a strong student identity. Thus, timing may be more critical than simply covering the skill.

It is also unrealistic to expect vocational education qualifications to compensate for weak foundations in basic education. Depending on occupational field, allowance needs to be made for testing students’ level of preparedness for the technical or physical expectations of the course and occupation and, if necessary, allowing students to strengthen components of their foundational knowledge.

From the employer side, there is a critical role to play in making students employable and productive in the workplace. Firstly, through partnerships with education providers there is an important role for providers in shaping the curriculum and pedagogy to align expectations. However, the proviso must be that it is a partnership and education providers bring their own expertise to the table. Secondly, the training of an individual to make them employable cannot end at the point of graduation or even the point of employment. Successful companies have extensive induction and mentoring programmes, and effectively the curriculum that the student follows continues for the early phase of their work-life, and through professional development, this should be a life-long process. The more explicit these programmes are, the more likely the alignment between the school or college component and the workplace component.

Policy Implications

1. In reviewing existing qualifications and the development of new qualifications there should be an interrogation of the skills required for that occupation and where those skills should be picked up. What is assumed when the person enters the programme (pre-requisites), what is covered in the programme, and what is required of the employer when the student graduates? Making different responsibilities explicit is helpful for all parties, as it signals the limitations of what is being offered by one or other party.

2. The use of the concept of ‘employability skills’ in policy documents should be discouraged as it is not helpful.

3. Focusing on transitions is key in assisting students to employment situations. Thus short interventions before or after students enter into qualifications can be as important as redesigning the entire curriculum.

This LMIP Briefing was prepared by Volker Wedekind.