The recent results of the annual Employer Satisfaction Survey seem to have provoked their usual mixed response. On the more negative side of things, the Head of the Australian Industry Group, Innes Willox, writing in The Australian, said that the results show universities are failing to send their graduates out with the skills that are needed and that employers are frustrated by the lack of employability skills they find in graduate job applicants. On a more positive note, others emphasised that actually most employers expressed a reasonably high level of satisfaction, with 84% expressing overall satisfaction with their hires and 85% saying they were satisfied with the level of employability they were seeing.
Elsewhere, the survey results opened up that age-old question “What is the purpose of education?” As Eleanor Roosevelt once stated at the beginning of her article, Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education:
“This question agitates scholars, teachers, statesmen, every group, in fact, of thoughtful men and women.”
She was right. If we were to ask this question to ten students and ten university staff, no doubt we’d get twenty answers. The purpose of education is to pass a body of knowledge on from one generation to the next. No, the purpose of education is to equip people to be able to think critically and analytically. No, the purpose of education is to equip people with the skills and knowledge that will help them to succeed in the world of work. Etc.
Actually, there is something of a false dichotomy occurring in this debate. It is obvious that some degrees, such as those in the liberal arts are, by and large, unlikely to be connected directly with a career. Yet does this mean they fail to pass on the kind of skills that make a person employable? Of course not. Likewise, it is obvious that other degrees, such as chemical engineering, are specifically designed to be linked with a particular career. But does this mean that they fail to teach critical thinking and analytical skills? Again, of course not.
Some degrees are, for the most part, not directly related to a particular career. For instance, most history graduates will not go on to become historians. Others are very much related. If you do a degree in mechanical engineering, you probably hope – perhaps even expect – that you will end up doing mechanical engineering for a living.
In the light of the Employer Satisfaction Survey and the overall debate about education that it inevitably sparks, here are three crucial questions that universities should be thinking about:
- For those degrees that do directly relate to a particular occupation, how can we make sure that we are putting on ones which will help our students into employment?
- For those degrees that are not directly related to a particular career, how can we ensure that those who take them are aware of their employment options?
- How can this help industry get the right skills that they are looking for?
A part of the answer to all these questions involves better use of data. Let’s take the last question first. By delving into good Labour Market Insight, we can first unpick which are the industries in any given area that are set to grow over the next few years. For the university that particularly wants to become a regional powerhouse by forging links with industries in their area, the data can be used to delve down past national level to state level, and even down to statistical areas 3 and 4.
However, establishing which industries are most prominent in an area, or which are projected to grow, does not actually tell us what their skills needs are. Yet because of the way our data is modelled, what we can do is to run a staffing pattern for any industry in a region, in order to identify the occupations that it employs. By doing this, a university can not only establish which industries they should be prioritising, but also the actual occupations and skills that those industries are looking for.
This then enables the university to answer the first question. If they know the skills needs of the most prominent or fastest growing industries in their area, curriculum planners within the university can use that information to shape a course portfolio which better serves those needs. For students doing a degree which directly relates to a particular career, what this means is that they can have a certain assurance that when they graduate there is likely to be the demand for their skills, and so their chances of gaining employment are greatly improved.
But what of those students whose degree is not directly related to a particular career, or if it is, there are so few vacancies that they are highly unlikely to find employment in that field? Can data help them? The answer is that yes it can. Firstly, every degree, regardless of whether it directly relates to a particular occupation, will have a number of knowledge and skills requirements which can then lend themselves to certain occupations. Secondly, in the US, the O*Net database ranks the knowledge and skills required for any occupation, making it possible to compare the knowledge and skills in one occupation with those required in another.
Put these things together and what you have is a way of mapping the knowledge and skills learnt in any course, with the employability skills needed for any occupation. In other words, for those doing degrees that don’t translate directly to a specific career, such as liberal arts degrees, it is still possible to direct them to the careers which most need the employability skills and transferable skills that they have learnt.
Benjamin Franklin famously said that the only two certainties in life were death and taxes. Of course, there a third, which is that come next year’s Employer Satisfaction Survey, the same debate over whether universities are providing the skills that employers need, and even whether they should even be trying to, will be had. But here’s a suggestion. For those degrees which do relate directly to careers, how about we do all we can to make sure they are the right degrees – the ones which employers need. And for those degrees which don’t relate directly to a particular career, how about we still try to help those students gain employment after graduation by showing them which occupations most need the skills they have learnt. You never know, it might just lead to students that are more employable, and employers that are more satisfied!
To find out more about how we can help your university make your students more employable and better meet the needs of employers contact our Managing Director for Asia Pacific, Anthony Horne