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Employability: developing a framework for policy analysis
Hillage J, Pollard E
This summary was published as the Department for Education and Employment’s Research Brief No. 85.
Employability is central to the current strategic direction of the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE). However, the term is used in a variety of contexts with a range of meanings and it can lack clarity and precision as an operational concept. In early 1998, the DfEE commissioned a review of the relevant literature, supplemented by discussions with DfEE officials and others, to come up with a definition and framework for employability to help inform future policy developments.
The Institute for Employment Studies was asked to carry out the project and the main findings are summarised below.
Origins of employability
The concept of employability has been in the literature for many years. Current interest has been driven by:
Employability: towards a definition
While there is no singular definition of employability, a review of the literature suggests that employability is about work and the ability to be employed; ie
It is also, ideally, about:
In simple terms, employability is about being capable of getting and keeping fulfilling work. More comprehensively, employability is the capability to move self-sufficiently within the labour market to realise potential through sustainable employment. For the individual, employability depends on the knowledge, skills and attitudes they possess, the way they use those assets and present them to employers and the context (eg personal circumstances and labour market environment) within which they seek work.
Four components of employability
This suggests that we can separate out four main elements in respect of individuals’ employability: the first three are analogous to the concepts of production, marketing and sales, and the fourth the market place in which they operate.
An individual’s ‘employability assets’ comprise their knowledge (ie what they know), skills (what they do with what they know) and attitudes (how they do it). There are a number of detailed categorisations in the literature which, for instance, distinguish between:
Further key points from the literature include the importance of the transferability of these skills from one occupational or business context to another for employability and the increased attention employers are paying to the softer attitudinal skills in selecting employees.
Merely being in possession of employer-relevant knowledge, skills and attitudes is not enough for an individual to either ‘move self-sufficiently’ in the modern labour market or ‘realise their potential’. People also need the capability to exploit their assets, to market them and sell them.
These are a linked set of abilities which include:
There is obviously an important inter-relationship between assets and deployment. The extent to which an individual is aware of what they posses in terms of knowledge, skills and attitudes and its relevance to the employment opportunities available may affect their willingness to undertake training and other activities designed to upgrade their skills etc.
Another key aspect of employability is being able to get a particular job, once identified – sometimes included under career management skills, but is given prominence as a separate element here due to its crucial importance to securing employment. It centres around the ability to demonstrate ‘employability’ assets and present them to the market in an accessible way. This includes:
4. In the context of personal circumstances and the labour market
Finally and crucially, the ability to realise or actualise ‘employability’ assets depends on the individual’s personal and external circumstances and the inter-relationship between the two. This includes:
Priorities for action
For the state, as well as raising the skill profile of the existing workforce, especially at lower levels to boost flexibility and competitiveness, there are a number of potential priority groups including:
where different policies may need to be targeted according to different circumstances.
For employers the priorities might be to help key groups of staff to develop both those assets which have explicit, immediate value to the organisation as well as those transferable ones which have a wider, longer term currency, thereby engendering a sense of security, encouraging commitment, risk-taking and flexibility among employees.
For the individual the need is to boost those aspects of their employability which will most enhance their opportunities in the light of their circumstances.
Issues for public policy
The above definition of employability provides a basis for analysing the policies affecting the employability of certain groups (eg 16 and 17 year old school leavers), or conversely how major policy initiatives (eg the New Deal) impact on employability. A brief review of government initiatives in this area suggests that policy is aimed:
This policy orientation may reflect a variety of factors such as difficulties in defining, assessing and verifying ‘soft skills’, and difficulties identifying and accessing specific groups of employees at which to target limited resources.
Thus some key questions for future policy interventions include:
Finally, whatever the interventions, they need to be evaluated so that lessons can be fed back into further improvements and to the decision to continue with, change or stop such interventions. Potential measures include those relating to input measures, eg possession of vocational qualifications, or the receipt of careers management training; perception measures, eg the views of employers and the workforce of their employability; and outcome measures, eg the speed at which people are able to get jobs or ‘measurements of failure’, eg the numbers or proportion of people with difficulty finding or keeping work, or the number of job changes, however defined. Obviously there is room for some combination of all three. Whatever route is chosen, it is important to take account of the overall state of the labour market and how it is changing, to take account of any dead-weight effect and assess true additionality.
Conclusions and further research
Employability is a two-sided equation and many individuals need various forms of support to overcome the physical and mental barriers to learning and development (ie updating their assets). Employability is not just about vocational and academic skills. Individuals need relevant and usable labour market information to help them make informed decisions about the labour market options available to them. They may also need support to realise when such information would be useful, and to interpret that information and turn it into intelligence. Finally, people also need the opportunities to do things differently, to access relevant training and, most crucially, employment.
The review of the literature and discussions raised a number of areas of potential interest for further research. These included:
Employability: developing a framework for policy analysis, Hillage J, Pollard E. Research Report RR85, Department for Education and Employment, 1998.
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