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Employability and Employers: the missing piece of the jigsaw
Tamkin P, Hillage J
a study supported by the IES Research Networks
Employability is a concept that has joined the mainstream of individual, human resources and national policy vocabulary. It has been summoned as the means by which individuals can cope with changing employment conditions, organisations can maintain their ability to adapt and succeed and the nation can enhance its competitiveness. However, despite such grand hopes, pinning down the concept can be elusive and turning the rhetoric into anything that can serve as a firm basis for action can be frustrating.
The role of employers in enhancing the employability of their staff is unclear. Many commentators are either cynical about the motivations of employers or exhort employers to engage with employability as a ‘good thing’. Why do employers actually involve themselves and what do they do in practice to help employees?
In this report we offer a definition of the concept that provides a framework for action. We explore the rationale behind employers’ commitment and whether this makes sense in terms of the practical offering of assistance. Finally we suggest what a comprehensive response by employers should look like.
What is ‘employability’?
What does employability actually mean — what is it that helps make an individual employable? Our definition suggests that we can separate out four main elements: the first three are analogous to the concepts of production, marketing and sales, and the fourth the market place in which they operate.
Assets: These comprise an individual’s knowledge, skills and attitudes. We distinguish between:
Previous definitions of employability have tended to stop here. However, these are not enough; people also need the capability to exploit their assets, to market them and sell them. Thus they also need:
Marketing and deployment skills: These inter-related skills include career management, job search skills, and approach (ie being adaptable to labour market developments, realistic about labour market opportunities, and willing to be occupationally and locationally mobile).
Presentation: Another key aspect is being able to get a particular job, and centres around the ability to demonstrate assets. This includes: the presentation of CVs etc.; the qualifications individuals possess; interview technique; and work experience/track record.
The personal and labour market context: Finally, and crucially, the ability to realise or actualise employability assets depends on external factors, the individual’s personal circumstances and the inter-relationship between the two.
What are employers doing?
What do employers do about employability? What motivates them to do what they do? These were key questions for this research. We were able to identify four main approaches, with a fifth that appeared in specific environmental incidences:
The psychological contract: This approach evolves from an explicit recognition that there are no longer jobs for life, and the view that therefore individuals need to prepare themselves for career transitions throughout their working lives. In recognition of their side of this ‘contract’ employers offer to provide development and experiences that enhance individuals’ ability to find other work should their current employer no longer have need of them.
Softening the blow: This approach involves those employers looking to shed labour with the minimum of pain. The underlying rationale for this approach is to maintain the commitment of the surviving staff — but the immediate effect for those leaving is to increase their chances of finding another job.
Inplacement: the flexible friendship: The inplacement or redeployment perspective is the opposite of outplacement and could be seen as a response to changing economic pressures. The primary need is the same, to move staff whose existing skill sets are less in demand. But whereas the trend was to external displacement of affected individuals, there are organisations that are looking to maximise the use of internal placement opportunities.
Keeping with kindness: This is a counter-intuitive strategy whereby employers maximise retention by enhancing employability. Staff are offered training and development which is aimed at maintaining or enhancing their skills beyond that strictly necessary to fulfil the demands of the current job. In return, staff turnover is often lower than it might otherwise have been as employees are pleased to maintain the currency of their skills and appreciate their employers’ interest.
The community employer: The aim here is to enhance the potential employment prospects of their own employees, in situations of insecurity and recognising the impact on the community of high levels of unemployment.
What drives employers to act?
When employers act to enhance the employability of their employees they do so in response to the drivers acting on them at that point in time, including:
If these drivers are considered alongside the approaches to employability that employers adopt, we can begin to see a relationship between the drivers organisations experience, the time they have available for action, and the approaches that are sensible for them to adopt.
Putting policy into practice
On the basis of our research we conclude that while employers talk a lot about employability, relatively few go far beyond exhortation. Where they do, policies tend to: focus on a few staff groups and ignore the workforce as a whole; smack of opportunism rather than deliberate strategy; and re-package existing career or development practices, rather than address the emerging needs of their workforce.
Very few offer a comprehensive or bespoke approach covering their entire workforce. But it can be done and there are competitive advantages to employers so to do. In this report we outline a range of practices that employers could adopt to build the employability of their workforce. These include developing and/or addressing individuals’:
employability assets — eg skill development activities which seek to develop an individual’s technical and vocational skill set as well as softer skills such as leadership or communication. The more generic the skill, ie the wider its applicability, the more valuable it is in employability terms
marketing and deployment skills — eg a range of processes including appraisal (including 360 degree feedback), personal development planning and career counselling procedures designed to promote vocational self-awareness and attitudes towards skill development etc.
how people present their employability assets — eg processes to help people present their assets, accrediting skills, eg through NVQs, as well as being skilled in writing CVs, and application forms and undergoing selection interviews
personal circumstances and the labour market — here employer recruitment and selection policies are crucial.
In some ways employers are the missing piece of the employability jigsaw. Our research suggests that while some are taking this role seriously, many have still a long way to go.
Employability and Employers: the missing piece of the jigsaw, Tamkin P, Hillage J. Report 361, Institute for Employment Studies, 1999.
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