The problem with the way most universities use the term employability is that it sounds too much like a destination. We can be lured into believing that if education providers, universities in particular, fulfil their role related to graduate outcomes, that employability will have been achieved. Your degree shows everyone that you are employable, and just like your degree that has no expiry date, neither does your employability.
Not only is this perspective untrue, it is dangerous; especially in the current context of the new demands for an evolving workforce. We hear constantly about “The Future of Work” and what it means for the working future of individuals. The problem is, that “Future” is already here. A series of research reports by the Foundation for Young Australians give great insight into the issues affecting Australia’s youth, and undoubtedly, those in other countries as well.
The Future of Work: your context, not your concern
As individuals, we should not focus our attention on the Future of Work because that is a context over which we have no control. The correct perspective for individuals concerns the Future of Employability! The Future of Work is something that needs to be addressed by governments and employers. They need to be ready and need to reshape their thinking for the changes that will impact organisational or national competitiveness. As individuals, we need to be concerned about where we fit in that future, and that is about the Future of Employability. It is something that we can control and plan for ourselves.
While lifelong learning has been advocated for decades, the changes in the nature of work and the fact that even greater change is being accelerated by technology, means we need to critically evaluate whether our current systems are able to serve our needs. The issues are many. Everything from broken funding models, outmoded ways of thinking from our educators and the institutions in which they work, the regulatory framework that stifles innovation and the fact that as a society, we are hanging onto old-world values related to education and employability, and thus, allowing the dangers to our economy to persist.
Higher education: doing great… but failing?
It is easy at this point to blame our universities for the terrible job they are doing. The reality is, however, that by traditional measures of what universities ‘should’ do, Australian universities do remarkably well. The Australian Higher Education system is ranked by Quacquarelli Symonds as number 4 in the world. While rankings vary and are themselves not necessarily the most reliable measure of quality, they drive inter-institutional, and even inter-country competition, and do represent key indicators that institutions themselves care about. Nevertheless, how can higher education systems of such high standing around the world be failing so much when it comes to initial employability, let alone the lifelong journey?
In a recent interview with SwampEd titled, Is College Still Worth It?, Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Education and Workforce Development at Gallup Inc, made the point that our understanding of quality and value of higher education has not been undermined by measuring the wrong things. “The problem is that we have not been measuring all the things that matter.” (Podcast timeline 23 minutes) For anyone that has a high regard for the transformative power of education, there is a deep longing for the institutions to deliver the sort of human development that will ensure that people are employable through life. The current format of our system, or education platform, does not respond well to that type of challenge. Like many other organisations (educational; professional associations; consumer-facing businesses) the most important challenge is that of relevance.
For our universities to re-attain relevance in the face the challenges posed by changing work patterns, automation, hybridisation of job roles, etc, we need a fundamentally different system that is built for employability as a journey. We know, however, that not only is there an internal conflict regarding institutional mission when it comes to considering this type of change, it is also undermined by revenue and funding models and impeded by government regulation.
In the late nineties, Dr Michael Zastrocky ,who at that time was the Managing VP of Higher Education and Research at Gartner Group, would frequently urge caution to higher education during his keynotes. “You need to start to transform now because if you don’t, private enterprise will take all the lucrative parts of education and leave you with all the ‘hard stuff’ that makes no money.” [paraphrased] The challenge is just as relevant today, if not more so, given the wave of disruptive technologies, the democratisation of content, and emerging disruptive innovations that will shift competition for higher education into new spaces in which they will find it difficult to compete.
Zastrocky’s prediction was not a short-term prediction. It was not intended that the effects would be seen in the following academic year. It has taken time, but now there is evidence that the chines are well advanced. While the current models for change often include educational institutions, it is likely that this is more from habit and from governments being pressured into supporting existing systems (like higher education) rather than a genuine desire to find the best solution for current employability needs.
The need for new educational models
Hybrid, Work Integrated Learning (WIL) models are now obvious in the UK with degree apprenticeships, and these are now spreading to other countries, including Australia. Stephen Parker of the University of Melbourne makes the argument in favour of degree apprenticeships in Australia in a structured and considered manner. As outlined by Parker, approaches such as these are more useful in preparing degree-earning students for the world of work because they are already participating in it. Yet, while innovations such as degree apprenticeships should be welcomed, the focus on degree attainment may still fall short as continuous employability requirements push for even greater change.
The pace and nature of change that is predicted as a result of the pressures related to The Future of Work require a different response than that of a system dedicated to the granting of degrees for what you know after several years of study. Rethinking employability and the development of people through life into jobs that will require more hybridised skill sets, and require more agility from both employer and employee, argue against degrees as the stamp of readiness. We need something more granular that supports agility throughout an individual’s career.
Please note that I did not say that we don’t need the learning that occurs within our educational providers. Instead, I have questioned our reliance on degrees as a signal of initial and continuing employability. We also need to change the role of educators to embrace the potential of adaptive learning technologies.
The employability journey in a new context
It is now common, and I would argue accepted, that people are going to change jobs, and even careers, on an increasingly regular basis. (See, for example, the collection FYA reports amongst other sources.) But what if you are not changing your job but your job is changing you? You may not choose to change your job but the requirements of your job change because of decisions that are outside of your control and in the hands of employers or industries responding to external pressures. How do you remain employable in that context? How do employers know that you have continued evolve in ways that suit their needs?
The Future of Employability requires a new, more granular system for credentialing and recognition of what people can do, not just what they know.