Last month I delivered a ‘grand challenge’ public lecture at Queensland University of Technology. The Institute for Future Environments hosts these lectures, which, as you’d expect, are all about the big challenges facing humanity, from feeding the world’s booming population to managing scarce natural resources and reducing our carbon footprint. Over the years they’ve hosted people like Professor Federico Rosei from the University of Quebec, who presented on new technologies for energy sustainability, and Professor Kevin Burrage from Oxford University, talking about personalised medicine.
My lecture was (of course!) about why, given disruptive changes to the world of work, society, and education, we all need to be future capable, what future capability means, and how we can all learn to be future capable.
Here’s the abstract:
This presentation asks what it means to be capable in the context of a world of work and society undergoing massive disruptive change under the influence of digital technologies. It engages with the key shifts that are occurring to the labour market, work and careers, and explores the 21st century capabilities and skills that research suggests will be important to graduates’ productive participation in the years to come, including capabilities for complex problem solving and innovation, enterprise and career self-management, social network capabilities, and digital making skills. It suggests some key ways that universities can foster 21st century capabilities, and some strategies for building agile and dynamic educational institutions that are as ‘future capable’ as the graduates they produce.
Recently, Australian universities have become highly concerned about graduate employability, and how to ensure that our graduates have positive career outcomes. It’s not that we didn’t care about this before — but recent graduate outcome statistics show that that chances of students gaining full-time employment after graduation are declining in all disciplines, and have been for a few years now. University education represents a signficant investment for students, both in terms of time and effort and course fees, and increasingly want to know that there will be a job for them at the end.
The chief metric that the higher education sector uses to demonstrate positive outcomes is full-time employment 4 months post course completion. This metric comes from graduate surveys known as the Graduate Destintation Surveys (GDS), until recently administered by Graduate Careers Australia.
Under the new QILT (Quality Indicators in Learning and Teaching) system, there are a range of other indicators as well — including a survey of graduate employers asking about graduate employees’ capabilities. There is also a ‘3-year out’ survey of graduate outcomes. The QILT website allows people to compare courses and universities using these indicators. However, the chief metric that is reported and used is still the short-term full-time employment metric, along with median graduate salary.
The short-term full-time employment metric can be useful as an indicator in some respects. For instance, Tom Karmel of the National Institute of Labour Studies, has recently used the GDS to show that more than 50% of the variance in declining graduate outcomes is due to a softening labour market and an oversupply of graduates, particularly in some fields. This has been exacerbated by the introduction of the ‘demand driven system’, and uncapping the number of university places that can be offered in Australia*. The sector is on track to meet its 40% university participation by 2020 target.
Another example of an interesting use of the graduate destination full-time employment metric comes from Denise Jackson from Edith Cowan University, who demonstrated the importance of social capital to initial graduate outcomes, also using statistical modelling of the GDS survey data (in her 2014 study, there was a 54% increase in the chances of full-time job attainment if social network strategies were used).
However, the full-time employment metric we use is problematic in important ways. I summarise these issues as: (i) full-time employment as an employee, (ii) employment is different from employability; and (iii) short-term, narrow outcomes.
1. Full-time employment as an employee. The metric has long been criticised by educators in the arts and creative industries, where the portfolio career (multiple job-holding, self-employment) is ubiquitous – as, of course, is underemployment. But in fields where self-employment and multiple job-holding are common, the ‘full-time employment as an employee’ metric does seem less relevant**. It also might be less relevant across the board in coming years as the traditional organisational career continues to decline, and more and more people are engaged in self-managed, portfolio careers. There is evidence that this is occurring already: while Australia’s overall unemployment rate is steady, the rate of part-time and short-term work overall, and casual jobs for young people 18-24, is increasing. Eighty-six per cent of the new jobs created in Australia last year were part-time. Across OECD nations, 20% of all jobs terminate within one year, and 33% terminate within 3 years. In the US, 40% of work is contingent.
There are also the phenomena of ‘uberisation’ of work, and the start-up economy. While self-employment is actually declining across Australia (according to ABS statistics), more and more people are engaged in informal, self-generated and distributed models of work and income earning through platforms such as Uber, Airtasker (Upwork in the US), and AirBnB. There is also much talk and policy about fostering a start-up economy, particularly in STEM fields, as a way to promote economic growth and social well-being in Australia. It seems that historically, an entrepreneurial career path has not often been chosen by recent graduates, and entrepreneurship is something that tends to be adopted with greater career experience – but it is something that is increasingly being encouraged.
My overall point is this: The national graduate outcomes data collection is the only one we have. If the survey doesn’t include measures of more complex job and career arrangements, we have no way of knowing exactly what’s going on for graduates across Australia. For disciplines where full-time employment is less relevant, and as full-time employment as an employee becomes less common across the economy, it seems less and less useful as a way of describing the outcomes of recent grads.
But of course the GDS (now the GOS in QILT) isn’t just used to describe outcomes — it’s used to benchmark universities and courses against one another. This brings me to my next reservation: employment is very different from employability.
2. Employment is different from employability.
In the last few years, graphs of our declining graduate outcomes like the one above have been used to argue that universities need to be doing more to enhance our students’ employability. However, there are actually a wide range of stronger influences on whether a graduate is employed or not, including (as Tom Karmel points out) the degree of competition for entry-level jobs, and the availability of roles. In 2005, McQuaid and Lindsay published a theoretical framework – one of many – of influences on employability and employment, which they summarise as ‘individual factors’, ‘personal factors’, and ‘external factors’. The traditional remit of universities has been just one element of these: skills and capabilities, and perhaps also some psycho-social factors that can be learned, such as confidence, proactiveness and resilience.
I’d argue that there are indeed things universities can do, and can do better, to enhance their students’ employability (and also, while we’re at it, their citizenship and sustainability capabilities). But using graduate outcomes as the benchmark is leading universities to do things that are outside the traditional capability remit, in seeking to compete for one another for students — such as direct interventions around graduate recruitment, and changing the range and types of courses that they deliver to choose those with better short-term full-time employment outcomes. Universities with regional campuses in areas where there is higher unemployment are at a disadvantage in the benchmarking– and I would hate to see them move out of regions and stop offering degrees to people from diverse backgrounds because the graduate employment outcomes might be lower in these regions.
3. Short term, narrow outcomes.
In a context where our KPI is short-term, full-time employment outcomes, universities are more and more ‘teaching to the test’ — which means we are paying close attention to employer surveys where desired graduate employabiliy skills are listed out (interpersonal skills, written communication etc), and we are paying close attention to the skills that professional accrediting and registering bodies say that they need. The idea is to make graduates as ‘oven ready’ as they can be – both in terms of specific technical and disciplinary skills for their professions, and their transferable / generic skills.
One problem here is that the world of work is in massive flux. In teaching to specific outcomes, the danger is that we start encouraging narrow, inflexible career identities, and overly specific, short-term skills. When students graduate in 3 or 4 years’ time, there may not be the demand for (for instance) print journalists, primary school teachers, or graphic designers, and we need our grads to be able to reinvent themselves and their skills to find and obtain other meaningful work. We don’t teach enough for disciplinary and professional agility.
The CEDA (2015) study into the automation of Australian work suggests that over the next decade, more than 40% of existing job roles will disappear anyway (goodbye taxi drivers and telemarketers!). Other entirely new roles will be created — and while it’s difficult to predict exactly what these roles will be, we’re seeing this already in statistics coming from the US around new jobs in information security, big data analytics, and social media. Further, the roles that will remain are changing, and will require different skill sets. Work roles will require more digital capabilities, emotional intelligence, creativity and complex problem solving, and complex manual dexterity (these kinds of skills are less likely to be automatable).
I also suggest that in this age of uncertainty and unprecedented social change and complexity, where we are confronted by more and more ‘super wicked problems’ — climate change, loss of biodiversity, antibiotic resistance, refugees and asylum seekers, widening gaps between the rich and the poor… and the list goes on — surely we need KPIs around capability development beyond employability skills. I read yet another article this morning about global catastrophic risk (nice reading to go with one’s cornflakes) that predicts our chances of destroying ourselves during the 21st century at about 50%. It’s hard to give exact probabilities on these kinds of things. However, the people who are graduating from our universities will lead our world in the coming decades — they need the capabilities to engage with and manage complex social, cultural, economic, and environmental challenges, as well as to find or create work and perform well in that work.
So, what should we be measuring?
Measurement and benchmarking is an inevitability in this space. It’s difficult to generate suitable, simple benchmarks for our graduate outcomes. I understand why full-time employment is used – it’s simple, and a good indicator of some things. However, we certainly need more nuanced, longer term outcome measures around employment, that embrace self-employment and the portfolio career as well as the metric of ‘short-term full-time work as an employee’.
We need to provide indicators around the actual capabilities that our graduates possess, and their behaviour (such as setting up their own enterprises, if that’s what we want). These indicators need to include capabilities beyond short-term employability skills, to encompass broader employment outcomes and the changing world of work. Finally, I think we need to include social, cultural, and environmental capability indicators, and those of critical thinking and learning, as well as employability skills.
In turn, we need the infrastructural, HR and policy supports in place so that our graduates are able to make the most of their capabilities. We need a labour market that can accommodate our skilled young people, and where they can make meaningful contributions.
*the solution doesn’t seem to be to re-cap the number of places offered. In fact, Andrew Norton offers some interesting commentary about how limiting the number of places in courses actually results in worse labour market mismtaches than we have at present. He provides the example of the 1990s Government restrictive caps on medical student places, and points out that this resulted in widespread shortages of doctors, something that was eventualy mitigated by inviting many more overseas-qualified doctors to practice in Australia.
** I should note here that the graduate outcomes survey does include a measure of ‘part-time employment – seeking full-time employment’ — but it isn’t detailed enough to describe employment patterns.
Some of the most interesting findings from my fellowship interviews are actually about university stakeholder engagement and networks (or lack thereof), rather than student professional connectedness.
University approaches to external and internal stakeholder engagement are underdeveloped across the sector. Universities are still mostly taking short-term, ad hoc and often transactional approaches to working with our industry and community partners. While some universities do have stakeholder engagement strategies, these are often focussed on research and knowledge transfer, and they aren’t optimised for the mass teaching partnerships we are starting to embark upon.
In my interviews I heard many stories of great attempts to partner with industry for teaching that were thwarted by university systems and processes, or that only worked because they involved ‘guerrilla teaching practice’ outside our systems (you know what I’m talking about), and that may therefore be limited in scale and sustainability.
I heard about the challenges of working productively with partners across multiple organisational areas with multiple contact points and multiple different organisational processes. I heard variously about the risk of one person having all the contacts, the risk of sharing contacts with those who may not treat them sensitively, and the risk of the ubiquitous generic ‘contact us’ email address.
Perhaps most commonly, I heard about how we need to learn to value our partners in building long-term professional relationships for learning and teaching.
Some key questions for educators, program and university leaders in thinking about fostering our connectedness:
– who do we want our key industry and community partners to be, and what are we offering them in the long term? What value do we add?
– how are we valuing partner input in co-creating learning experiences for and with students?
– how can we ‘get out of our own way’, reduce institutional barriers to connectedness and improve engagement?
– who are our key contact points in the university for industry and community engagement? What kinds of resourcing and support do they need?
– how do we join up our engagement strategies and points of contact to improve consistency and quality of engagement?
– How do we manage the risk of engaging external partnerships at scale?
Some questions for educators:
I’m keen to know what your experiences have been with building your program / organisational area’s professional networks.
1. what does your university do well / not do well in supporting the development of your industry contacts and relationships for learning and teaching?
2. what motivations do industry and community partners bring to their partnerships with you, and what types of value does your program / university offer them?
3. how are your intra-university connections? How well connected are you with others within your university that are doing similar work / might have similar partners? How often do you experience the ‘left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing’ phenomenon with partners or partnership processes in your unversity? How do you navigate these challenges?
Send me an email if you like, or comment below if you dare… also I encourage those interested to join the GE2.0 community of practice, where there’s more info and discussion about these topics.
July was a busy month for me. I interviewed 43 people in different roles from a total of 26 Australian universities, to build a national picture of higher education engagement with learning and teaching for professional connectedness. The team have also profiled a number of humanities, arts and social sciences graduates and industry / community representatives across Australia to explore how professional connections and networks are important for success in 21st century work and life (more on these findings later).
Key findings of the higher education interviews
Australia wide, universities are stepping up to the challenge of fostering graduate employability through industry and community engagement. There is a national movement towards the development of university-wide employability strategies and infusion of employability skills and career development learning into all levels of the curriculum and elements of the university experience.
We are using a range of broad pedagogic approaches that support support the university-wide strategies, including: new models of WIL, alumni engagement, direct industry teaching, co-curricular facilitation and recognition, social media and professional identity building online, and connected learning.
We continue to struggle with the resource-intensiveness of effective industry engagement, and the scalability of our programs. The ad hoc approaches that used to work with a small number of students across a few programs and a few industry partners are proving less effective as we move into an era where 100% of our students will experience learning that is integrated with, related to, and/or otherwise connected with the world of work.
Some specific thoughts about students’ professional connectedness capabilities
learning for professional connectedness remains tacit and undervalued. Students are increasingly working with industry and community within and outside the curriculum, but often do not realise the importance of the connections they are making, or how to value, foster and extend those connections for future employability
we need to go beyond Linkedin profiles. Development of student professional identities online is key to employability, but employers are looking for more than simple Linkedin profiles and ePortfolios. How are students actively engaged with their online professional networks? Do they have industry authentic blogs, portfolios, social media presences? Are they interacting with the professional community in meaningful ways?
how are we supporting student networking? Many of our industry-engaged pedagogic strategies build a few strong professional connections. On average, students know only 1 employer when they graduate (often a WIL employer). How are we supporting our students to ‘network’ and grow their wider professional connections?
professionals use their social networks to learn, but universities tend not to promote this type of learning. There are substantial opportunities for students, universities and industry in ‘connected learning’, building learning communities and communities of enquiry around mutual areas of interest and practice. How can we start to build these broader communities and networks and learn from each other?
If you want to know more about what I’ve been finding in my interviews, head on over to the Graduate Employability 2.0 community of practice.
Did you know that Linkedin now has 300 million users, which is about 1 in 3 professionals worldwide? And that 35% of those users log in every day?
And did you know that about 60% of jobs are estimated to be obtained through ‘who you know’ rather than direct application? Did you also know that between 80 and 90% of university graduates only apply for jobs using direct application methods?
70% of learning in the workplace happens informally, much of it problem-based and self-directed, and about 90% of that involves social interaction – either face to face, online or both.
One recent study found that 86% of professionals use online social networks for professional purposes in the workplace. What do they use them for? networking within and outside the organisation, research and learning, and sharing resources and project information with colleagues.
Graduate Employability 2.0 is about all of these things. It explores a different way of engaging with learning and teaching for life and career post-university. Graduate Employability 1.0 was about skills, knowledge, and attributes that individual students can learn in order to be able to obtain or create work and perform well in work situations. In the Graduate Employability 2.0 era, individual skills, knowledge and attributes are still important, but so are the individual’s professional relationships and networks, and what they do with them. The ‘2.0’ signifies the central importance of the social, digitally networked world in which we now all live.
My 2015-2016 Australian Office of Learning and Teaching National Senior Teaching Fellowship seeks to identify the best ways to develop students’ capabilities to build and use professional connections, both online and face-to-face, for career development, creativity and problem-solving, and professional learning, all of which are essential to employability in the digital age.
Professional relationships, networks and social capital are vital to career development:
by increasing access to career resources, information about opportunities, and career sponsorship
through the individual’s online presence – their personal ‘brand’, ePortfolio, use of social media as an advertising / recruitment screening tool
through distributed, networked options for employment generation e.g., Airtasker, Upwork, crowdsourcing resources
Innovation, creativity and problem solving
Innovation and problem solving thrive on complex collaborative contexts:
by fostering new ideas through exposure to new people and new ideas (especially trans-disciplinarity)
by ensuring that new ideas are integrated, implemented and brought to fruition through teamwork;
by finding opportunities for enterprise – for example, new markets, collaborators and resources
Social connections facilitate the reciprocal transmission of skills and knowledge for professional learning:
through communities of practice and informal social learning
Right now I am seeking cases of teaching practice, particularly in humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) disciplines, that engage with these kinds of learning, and also some examples of graduates who are making the most of their social connections for professional purposes. Chosen cases will be included in a graduate employability toolkit and promoted nationally. If you are interested in being a case study, please get in touch.
I will be surveying all of the universities in Australia to find out to what extent and how they are engaging with teaching for the development of students’ professional connections.
Later on this year I’ll be working with four universities to build graduate employability 2.0 capabilities into their undergraduate programs. We’ll be doing some experiments and seeing which are the best ways to build professional networks into the curriculum
There will be a national symposium hosted at QUT, and I will launch an online community of practice for sharing, discussion and updates very shortly. Watch this space for details!