How to Turbocharge your Student Employability

by | Nov 1, 2021

How to Turbocharge your Student Employability

Graduate Employability

graduate employability skills

Subject skills and holding a degree do not guarantee employability. Employers now demand a wide range of skills to access and succeed in the 21st-century workplace. Here I provide an overview of those graduate skills deemed essential and how to master them.

Landing a fulfilling job

Getting a satisfying, engaging role at the end of your studies is likely to be a top priority. After all, a job helps with financial security, cultivating a sense of achievement, building your identity and experiencing a sense of belonging.

Equally important, you also want a return on your investment, having studied for several years at university.

Since you want a job you deserve, I’m first going to share ‘the what?’ of employability. Then I cover the specific skills employers are demanding. Given these points, I then share why your degree doesn’t guarantee your long-term employability. And finally, to turn the situation to your advantage, I finish off with actionable takeaway tips to help you get and flourish in the job you want.

Let’s get started.

Article Quick Links
What does employability mean?
What transferable skills do I need?
How university increases employability
But watch out – mind the employability gap
Why universities struggle with employability
Key takeaways to succeed

What does employability mean?

Employability, unsurprisingly, resists definition. Let’s face it. Few, if any, important words boast a unanimously agreed definition.

Yet, we can learn a lot from both employers and academic experts. While not exhaustive, below are seven critical pointers to keep in mind.

1. It’s what employers demand

This is a no brainer. We first need to listen intently to what employers are demanding. Secondly, it’s important to make sure you supply what they want (more on this later). Given this, employability is about both demand and supply.

2. It involves different sets of skills

Employability goes far beyond the subject skills and knowledge you learn at university. Employability includes personal qualities, habits of mind and specific attributes and attitudes. While university tends to be a character-building experience, a degree programme doesn’t explicitly teach the full work-ready skill set required to succeed in the workplace (again, more on this later).

3. Many employability skills are horizontal

It doesn’t matter what industry, sector or job you want or end up in. Unlike the vertical skills you learn in your subject area, transferable skills cut across siloes. These skills range from self-management to emotional intelligence.

4. It isn’t employment

Employability doesn’t stop when you land a job. It involves the skills needed to maintain and flourish in it or successfully move to another position. Nowadays, a ‘job for life’ is a rarity. In reality, employability is a constant in working life. And that’s a long time. The current average working life in the EU is 35.7 years.

5. Employability skills are learnable

To be sure, employability is learnable. And learnability is the critical takeaway message here, a point emphasised by Professor Bill Lucas when getting learners ready for the world of work. As a Professor of Learning, his message is clear: The ‘habits of mind’ and ‘transferable skills’ involved in employability are learnable (much more on this later).

6. Employability goes beyond the individual

While it’s a given a graduate needs to work on their employability skill set, there are other factors to consider. These include: social class, gender, ethnicity, age, disability, and the university attended.

As Moreau and Leithwood’s analysis shows, these factors impact employability. In other words, there remains an urgent need to level up fair opportunities for everyone. As with students needing to learn employability skills, so must employers. For instance, firms must learn to rid their recruitment and workplace policies of discriminatory blind spots and practices. Progress is happening, but there’s still lots to do.

7. The bigger picture shapes employability

Employability is not just down to the individual and the hiring firm. Everyone finds themselves situated within a larger context that shapes a person’s prospects for better or worse. For instance, the covid pandemic has taken a heavy toll on employment levels. And according to the OECD, the youth employment gap may take years to recover.

While there’s a lot to contend with and debate by what ’employability’ means, it’s helpful to have the bigger picture in mind. But while we cannot control every factor, you can do a lot to increase your chances of getting a good job. Now let’s turn to those must-have skills.

Student employability is the sweet spot. It involves subject and transferable skills and is also dependent on the external environment.
Figure 1. Employability is the “sweet spot”; it demands both subject and transferable skills and depends on the external environment

What transferable skills do I need?

Now that we have a much clearer idea of employability, let’s focus on the skills employers are demanding.

For starters, there’s a lot of skills to master. In hyper-competitive job markets, employers are in a position to have a pretty long wish list when hiring graduates.  

Due to the sheer number of skills required, please take the time to study the table below. While there are several ways to slice up the soft skill pie, our table, based on academic research, organises these must-have skills into three different types. These are (1) personal qualities, (2) core skills and (3) process skills.

TABLE: List of Employability Skills 

Personal Qualities
Malleable self-theory
Emotional intelligence
Stress tolerance
Willingness to learn
Core Skills
Reading effectiveness
Information retrieval
Language skills
Critical analysis
Written communication
Oral presentations
Global awareness
Process Skills
Computer literacy
Commercial awareness
Political sensitivity
Ability to work cross-culturally
Ethical sensitivity
Applying subject understanding
Acting morally
Coping with complexity
Problem solving
Resolving conflict

Adapted from Suarta et al. (2017) Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, volume 102

Does attending university teach all these skills?

While addressing each of these skills is beyond the scope of this post, many of them can be checked off by the demands if met by a university degree. This is particularly the case if you’re doing an independent research project. But several of these skills are not taught, but sorely needed, at university.

Let’s now consider what this means in practice.

How university increases employability

On a positive note, university definitely builds many important skills demanded by employers. For instance, in terms of personal qualities, doing research involves both independence and reflectiveness.

Now let’s consider the core skills. Here a dissertation comes into its own.

Reading effectiveness? Tick. Numeracy, information retrieval, critical analysis, written communication and explaining. Tick, tick, tick, tick and tick again.

Creativity too. After all, your research contribution needs to be original. And then there’s every chance you will give an oral presentation. If not in your research, in another class.

The same applies to many process skills. Without wanting to risk repeating what’s in the table above, research demands many of these skills. For starters, ethical sensitivity is a must in research, as is problem-solving.

But it’s the skills demanded by, but not taught, during university that presents a real problem.

With this in mind, let’s now turn our attention to those needed skills currently missing in action.

Employers generally see a graduate’s achievements related to the subject discipline as necessary but not sufficient for them to be recruited. In some employment contexts the actual subject discipline may be relatively unimportant. Achievements outside the boundaries of the discipline (such as the possession of so-called ‘soft skills’) are generally considered to be important in the recruitment of graduates…

Employability in Higher Education: what it is-what it is not, Mantz Yorke 2006

Watch out – Mind the employability gap

We’ve already mentioned some of the skills taught at university and demanded by research. So far, so good. But what about the skills needed to thrive in research, the workplace and life?

Take stress tolerance.

Plenty of students pass their dissertation with flying colours but suffer from stress. Or poor time management, indecisiveness, procrastination, lack of confidence, self doubt, and so on. This isn’t breaking news. Stress, for instance, is a well-documented side-effect of research. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re an undergraduate, master’s or PhD student (or a research supervisor for that matter!).

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Better learning can bridge the gap

Many think stress tolerance is a personality trait. And it may be, but only up to a point. Stress tolerance is a skill. And is learnable like other skills, for instance, statistics, critical thinking, and so on.

This observation equally applies to all the skills tabled above – say emotional intelligence, self-confidence, self-management and so on.

I shudder to think how many of us are trapped by faulty beliefs. Or stuck with unhelpful labels. For instance, ‘I’m short tempered’, ‘too shy’, ‘impatient’, ‘not smart enough’, ‘lazy’, ‘arrogant’, or ‘difficult’ – take your pick. Instead, it’s more helpful to realise that many simply haven’t had the opportunities to unlearn the old ways and relearn in a better way.

By understanding employability as learnability, it becomes clearer the problem doesn’t lie with the individual per se. Instead, our education system – from kindergarten upwards – is falling short in teaching the whole skill set.

So the question is: If we accept personal qualities are states, not traits, and are learnable, why aren’t they a core part of your university education?

Why universities struggle with employability

Universities are not struggling for lack of trying or caring. Universities care deeply about student employability. And are investing significant resources in helping students get rewarding employment. But as I outline below, universities are constrained by three key factors.

1. A degree has its limits

Literally. A typical honours degree is 360 credits. A masters degree, 180 credits. This limitation leaves little scope to include the whole set of transferable skills alongside subject skills.

Why do transferable skills take a back seat? Because an employer’s wishlist for subject skills keeps changing and growing as well. And understandably, for a university, subject skills take priority.

Knowledge is increasing at an incredible rate. IBM predicts that by 2020 (at the time of writing – last year), knowledge will likely be doubling every 11 to 12 hours!

Whether or not your subject area’s knowledge increases at IBM’s predicted rate, your subject’s shelf-life, in terms of knowledge, is shortening. And that means there is mounting pressure to keep degrees up to date.

I know from first-hand experience as a programme leader, deciding what to include and exclude in a degree is a continuous and challenging balancing act. And it’s fair to say there is little if any room to teach all the necessary subject and transferable skills within a single degree programme.

So all too often, employability is side-lined to the careers service. But as we shall see, while helpful, this is hardly the place to teach the transferable skill set.

2. Where’s the proof?

Employers demand proof of skills. Without a doubt, universities offer proof of subject skills. In this regard, your degree award is highly valuable. But what about resilience? Or emotional intelligence? Or self-management?

If your course’s expected learning outcomes don’t specify resilience, emotional intelligence or self-management, then neither will you be explicitly taught these skills. And if these skills are not taught, neither will they be directly assessed. And if they are not assessed, then where’s the proof?

Without proof, recruiters find it hard to discern whether you’re the right person for the job. But there is a solution.

A degree is no longer enough. Within a saturated graduate market, CPD enables students to stand out from the crowd to employers when applying for jobs or positions on graduate schemes.

The CPD Standards Office

If you’re unfamiliar with Continuing Professional Development (in short, CPD), its learning activities and accredited certifications allow you to demonstrate your commitment and achievements in personal and professional development. In other words, CPD, like our self leadership certificate, can bridge the employability skills gap.

And as the above quote attests, you don’t have to wait until you’re in a job to undertake CPD. You can start CPD at any age to help you to stand out from the crowd.

Even better, if you do CPD during your studies, you’ll enjoy and perform better in your degree as well.

3. Emotional competences require different pedagogies

This is the hurdle that most universities face. You can’t learn emotional intelligence from a bunch of Powerpoint slides. Nor, as a HEPI paper shares, should it be sidelined to a careers service.

Research indicates a different set of pedagogies – the methods of learning – is required. After all, emotional competencies and self leadership involve change – in attitudes, qualities and behaviours. Consuming and acquiring new knowledge, or attending a career service, is only a small part of the learning process.

Recent research indicates that individualised learning and coaching are best for transferable skills.

But coaching is different from teaching. Do universities have the resources to retrain lecturers over and above their teaching qualifications? Probably not.

What’s more, individualised learning is labour intensive. Can universities afford to provide this one-to-one learning experience over and above what they already supply?

An alternative – the use of technologies – could deliver customised learning experiences. But the learning platforms currently in use, notably Blackboard and Moodle, don’t provide this – not in the way needed to deliver highly customised content to match each student’s needs.

Even if these technologies were widely available, this is only half of the equation. Blackboard et al. do not produce the content. Lecturers do. But lecturers barely have enough time allocated to produce a ‘one size fits all’ approach, let alone different versions to suit different needs. It’s hard to imagine how universities could fund this additional content when academic workloads are already sky-high.

Despite these constraints, attending university is undoubtedly good for employability. But neither can a student rely solely on their degree. After all, think of the number of graduates, just like you, who also have a degree. To get ahead of the pack, I now leave you with several takeaways to boost your employability.

Key Takeaways for employability success

To turbocharge your employability – to increase your chances of gaining, and thriving in the 21st-century workplace – here are some important takeaways.

1. Recognise a degree is rarely enough

Subject skills are an essential pillar of employability. And your degree gets you into the race. But it’s clear from the employability data that it doesn’t guarantee success.

To be gainfully employed, both self and market awareness is essential. But given success is often where preparation and opportunity meet, start investing in your work-readiness now.

Revisit your CV with a fresh perspective and importantly through the eyes of a prospective employer. With this in mind…

Here are some questions to ask yourself…

  • Does your CV showcase the full set of employability skills that recruiters are looking for?
  • Have you prepared for a wide variety of behavioural interview questions? If so, do your concrete examples draw on evidence-based techniques? Do you know what type of behavioural interview questions could be asked? (see takeaway 4)
  • Are you involved in extra-curricular activities, such as volunteering, active membership of clubs and societies? Have you entered any relevant student competitions?
  • Importantly, are you making the most of what your university already provides? For example, attending CV workshops, guest lectures, interview workshops?
  • Are you regularly updating your Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) to share with potential employers?
  • Have you gained consent from at least two referees, one academic, the other professional, to attest to your accomplishments, attributes and character?

These questions, if responded to, will get you on par with many of your peers. But more can be done…

2. Employability is learnable

Employers want students with ‘learnability’ potential. That is to say, people with curious, hungry minds.

And this hunger for learning applies equally to both subject and transferable skills.

Designed to fit around, and enhance your current study commitments, our self leadership course for instance, tackles this ‘learnability’ challenge upfront. It shares the scientific evidence that change is possible and provides the right kind of learning tools to realise this change. Whether or not you take this option—this is your choice—the key takeaway here, and one to keep front of mind, is that you can learn employability skills.

Now ask yourself…

  • Have you taken any self assessment tools that measure your current transferable skill levels? Importantly, as suggested above, we’re not talking about personality quizzes. Instead, do you have the tools available to self-assess emotional intelligence, self management, active listening, time management, the ability to give and receive feedback well, and so on?
  • Do you possess the know how to realise goals? Setting SMART goals is the easy part. Instead, have you learned how to reach them?
  • Are you proactively learning to shift your transferable skills from weak, fair or good…. to great?
  • Do you believe change is possible? If not, compassionately probe what may be holding you back.
  • Would you benefit from non-judgemental, empathetic, personalised support to help move you forwards?
  • Do you have the proof that demonstrates these must-have transferable skills?
  • Have you checked out our applied self leadership course that addresses the above?

And let’s not forget, transferable skills don’t just help with employability, which we turn to next.

3. Emotional competences go beyond employability

The employability skills tabled above not only aid employability. Mastering emotional competencies, not to mention time management, planning and communication skills etc, also help with personal wellbeing, including happiness, as well as academic performance.

In other words, these skills – because they are transferable – will benefit and compound the results you already experience in life – your studies, dissertation research and personal relationships.

This is where universities are missing a trick. By sidelining employability skills to career services, they overlook their linkages with student wellbeing and academic performance. That’s why our applied self leadership course is well worth considering. It equally applies its teaching and learning to your studies, dissertation, wellbeing and employability. And uses proven active learning approaches to achieve intended results.

Now imagine the below. How would it feel if you are..?

  • Continuously improving and mastering these transferable skills.
  • Regularly experiencing progress and celebrating your wins.
  • Completing your degree feeling work-ready and optimistic.

And finally, in order to reap the rewards, please consider what CPD could do for you, discussed next.

4. Invest in Continuing Professional Development now

With the above in mind, why delay Continuing Professional Development when you can benefit now? CPD, including our applied self leadership course will help you now and in the future.

To be sure, undertaking the right kind of CPD will:

  • Increase your academic performance, including a dissertation.
  • Enhance your student experience. With excellent time management skills and procrastination a thing of the past, you’ll be able to enjoy more quality time with your friends while also getting your work done.
  • Enhance your CV. Your degree will be proudly stated under your resume’s qualifications. Similarly with CPD, you can also add a dedicated Certificate section, to show off your transferable skills. As our certificate will be accredited, make sure to include this to really stand out.
  • CPD skills are for life. Undertaking CPD involves life-long learning, but with the right skills at the start, you’ll get a brilliant head-start.

But as with universities, courses and classes, all things are not equal. When it comes to choosing CPD, make sure:

  • The CPD course you choose is accredited. For instance, DISSERTOLOGY is an accredited CPD training provider by The CPD Group. That means our course will be recognised here in the UK and around the world.
  • The course you undertake uses an effective mix of learning tools. A bunch of videos may sound easy, but it’s a recipe for passive learning. Instead, opt for an engaging, interactive course with bite-sized learning that mixes it up.
  • Harder to find, but if on offer, opt for a customised, tailored learning approach. Whether it’s a degree or CPD, a ‘one size fits all’ approach is rarely as effective as a tailored solution. That’s why we use customisation technologies and content to help our learners get the most out of our applied self leadership course.
  • We also provide a range of tools to prep yourself for those inevitable behavioural interview questions.

I hope you found this article useful. Please check out our upcoming applied self leadership course. Also, if you have any suggestions for upcoming employability articles, please comment below. Alternatively, feel free to contact us. We love nothing more than zooming or messaging with students.