3rd Newsletter.
    Enhancing the Employability of
    Non-Traditional Students in Higher Education

  • EDI

  • The employability of non-traditional students: a matter of equality
    Mainstream understanding of ‘employability’ seems to stress the responsibility of the individual graduate rather than that of the labour market. A number of social processes and institutions reproduce this dominant and enduring view which seems to say that if graduates ‘invest’ in making themselves ‘employable objects’ then the labour market will respond positively. So, quite often, this rhetoric around individual competences reinforces the core idea that during their tertiary studies, students should acquire the competences that employers value most if they want the doors of employment and professional careers to open-up for them. These ideas are as simplistic as they are worrying, because they ignore the simple fact that structural factors, that is to say factors beyond the individual graduate, do matter. What is more, it is clear that not all graduates benefit to the same extent from having a degree, especially when we consider women, mature students, minority ethnic groups, students with disabilities or working-class students. So, although there is a generally accepted notion around experience and the value of experience as an attribute of employability, it seems that after a certain age it becomes more difficult to get employed. Neither, it seems, does the labour market treat women and men equally. And to belong to a cultural minority can be a serious problem in securing graduate employment. In short, it seems that the new labour market is struggling to deal with issues of equality in a range of, often overlapping, contexts. The likelihood of a graduate getting a job that is relevant to their higher education seems to depend on the real procedures of recruitment and the processes that employers make available to career progression. What do employers value and validate throughout the processes of recruitment? And what does this mean for higher education and higher education policies?

    These are just two of the questions that we are trying to answer in the EMPLOY project. But we are also interested in interrogating simplistic notions of employability. It seems that employability is not merely the responsibility of individual graduates. Of course graduates can do things to enhance the likelihood of them securing meaningful and sustainable work after their studies. But they certainly can’t do that alone. The responsibility for graduate employability also lies with national and European policies, higher education institutions, and, crucially, employers. At the core of the responsibilities of these wider stakeholders for employability is the issues of equality. The EMPLOY project is tackling the crucial question of equality by taking a deep look at what happens to non-traditional students and graduates in their transitions to the labour market across Europe. The content of this third newsletter reveals the present state of our project.

  • 1
    Student interviews
    United Kingdom
  • The students we interviewed at Warwick were from working class backgrounds and were the first generation in their family to go to university. They were also ethnically diverse: white UK and black Asian and African. All were in their final year of undergraduate study and included both younger and adult students. The adult students all lived locally to the university. The stories told by them concerning their experiences, attitudes and perceptions in relation to employability and their job market prospects revolve around issues of class, gender and age. Both younger and adult students chose Warwick because of its elite reputation in the UK and were also quite aware that employers like to recruit Warwick students. As one adult student explained: ‘I can’t believe I’ve got into the top five universities from coming from nothing’. Although at times she, like other adult students, felt they did not belong there. One younger student was very instrumental about his choice of university as he knew that the top companies target Warwick graduates. He compared his situation to that of his brother who was at a different university: one that was not often visited by employers. He had a clear plan in relation to his employability as he was motivated to get a job with a top company and earn good money.

    The younger students were geographically more flexible than the adult students. The latter are tied to the locality as they have families. For the female adult students this was linked to issues of gender and childcare in particular. Warwick has regular Careers Fairs but these attract only the top national companies so the adult students felt that it does not cater for them. They wanted contact with local firms from the different employment sectors. Age was also a significant factor in other ways. The adult students in their forties and fifties felt that despite having life and work experiences employers would not want to employ them because of their age. One man in his mid-fifties stated that, although he will have a degree, his age will count against him with employers.

    Another adult commented: ‘I think a lot of employers must realise that non-traditional students bring different things to the table as we’ve got life experiences as well’. Class was also an issue for working class adult students in relation to their job prospects. Being in a very middle class university they were aware that the younger middle class students were able to use their family social networks to obtain not only internships but also jobs in top companies. However, they did not aspire to the top jobs for various reasons: they felt that they would not get them because of the visible aspects of their class such how they speak, express and present themselves. Despite the experienced barriers of class, gender and age, they felt that they had an advantage in the labour market compared to students at other universities because of the reputation of their university.

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    Student interviews
  • Out of 150 students of the final two semesters at the HRM programme at Stockholm University 19 students (mostly non-traditional) were interviewed in October-November 2015. In a recruitment questionnaire we asked them about age, gender, social and ethnic background, and consent to be interviewed. So far our conclusions have been that:
    There are differences between employability and employment. Students mostly are thinking about the transition between study and work as an employment issue:
    "So I have chosen additional job within recruitment on the side of my study, because I feel I have to have it to get a job. There are very many students in our group who have already found a relevant job alongside their studies. They have done it right from the third semester maybe, all feel a little bit to, oh employability must be increased, the need to ensure that their experience increases in order to get a job after graduation, which I feel a little pity also"
    (Amanda 3)

    At the same time the political discourse of employability is influencing students’ attitudes towards their understanding of career prospects.

    We can see an increasing contradiction between practical and theoretical knowledge and skills in relation to the discourse of employability:
    "…right, I had some spare time but no, I don’t have any mentor, then you can also get an internship course, you may as well get practice 15 credits after you finished the programme, it would feel exciting, it may be that I'm jumping on, in case I do not find any job well. I can still imagine to start working with e.g. administrative tasks to begin with and then maybe try to take on more responsibility on staff, I do not know"
    (Johanna, 9)

    "…for the most part, we have read much theory, so I still miss going into any kind of practice, they are enough ... and people mostly are working in some way with personnel matters despite their studies, in the class then the majority have part-time jobs in HR, as well as; they do it to gain experience, as it looks good on the CV, they want to get contacts I think. And this was the reason I applied to one of those jobs, it really was to make contacts and gain experience and that it looks good on my CV. "
    (Johanna, 9)
    The issue of employability is influencing identity formation as a student and as a future employee.

    Students feel they need to get a foot in the labour market during their studies. Consequently they often take an undemanding part-time job, with poor conditions, to secure their employment because they know that this looks good on their CVs.

  • 1
    Student interviews
  • The Irish research team have conducted interviews with students from a range of backgrounds in terms of age, class, gender, disability and, to a lesser extent, ethnicity. The students have been drawn from across the three faculties at the university: science; humanities; social science.

    The interviews have elicited rich stories of students’ diverse educational and working lives and we are very grateful for their participation in the research. From an initial analysis a number of themes seem to be emerging from these stories.

    All the students, in one way or another, regard a university education as both a valuable personal developmental experience and as something that has an extrinsic value in the labour market.

    That said, there was less assurance, as students come to the end of their degrees, that the value of the qualification will endure and some apprehension that they will make a successful transition into valued employment.
    Regardless of how these transitions are
    envisaged, students seem to be looking for graduate work that has a number of characteristics. Again, in varying ways, they are looking for work: that has a potential for self-development; that has some ethical value and social significance; and that will provide them with a greater degree of socio-economic stability:

    "I have to get something that, eh, will pay us, you know, a relatively decent salary, em, and… but I feel I’m too old now at this stage, eh, not to have some level of job satisfaction."(Phoebe)

    "[I’d like to be] Working in some area, maybe health policy you know what I mean, somewhere you can actually make a difference … "(James)

    "I don’t want to leave here and just go back to doing a manual labour job. That’s not my, I put my family and myself through three years of this … I want work, I want paid work. I volunteer enough. I need eventually … paid employment "

    The term ‘employability’ was something that most students were aware of vaguely but it wasn’t something that they felt was very meaningful to them. However, it was clear that a number of strategies and supports can be deployed to support students in their search for graduate work. For instance, the importance of familial and social networks in times of transition and development seems crucial. These networks may have been vital in facilitating a successful transition into university. Some further work needs to be done by us in identifying the type of networks and supports that will facilitate the transition out of university into meaningful graduate work. Some students also felt that institutions could provide a bit more clarity about occupational pathways which might emerge from their degree choices at the pre-university stage. Although a few students have been highly strategic in their career planning throughout, and even before, returning to education, many students have adopted a more organic approach and trust that the educational and personal growth that they experience at university will lead them somewhere more occupationally rewarding. Many of these students felt that they would benefit from career counselling which took an open and listening approach.

    Students also feel that a degree in itself may not be enough to guarantee the kind of graduate employment they aspire to and that ‘something extra’ such as work experience, internships or further study may be required to position them more favourably in their chosen career path.

  • 1
    Student interviews

  • In 2015 a Polish research team conducted 20 interviews with non-traditional students from the last year of degrees in the Faculty of Pedagogical Sciences, the Faculty of Social Sciences and Journalism, and the Faculty of Technical Sciences. In 2016 we met again with 15 of those students in order to discuss what had changed in their lives after their graduation and how they were managing in the labour market. We also explored how they were building their careers and employability. Most of them admitted that graduating with a degree did not have much impact on their professional lives – in their own words “nothing actually changed”. They have been employed in the same workplaces and have not made any attempts to seek new employment. The necessity to finish a second degree (MA) is what they explained influenced their decision to remain in “the old world”. According to them earning a master’s degree (with so called “full qualifications”) gives them an opportunity to find a job in one’s qualified profession. In two cases there has been a change of work which was consistent with the students’ field of study, but also there has been the change in place of residence (moving to another city) motivated by job seeking.

    Polish non-traditional students are simultaneously entangled in two worlds: the world of the university and the world of work. Their student identity and employee identity are entwined and learning becomes a bridge that allows them to reflect upon both worlds, their co–existence and tensions, in a more profound way.

    Their perception of the labour market is largely based on their experience and reveals low level of trust to a ‘fair and just’ system of employment that is solely based on people’s skills and qualification. Instead, they see it more as a network of connections of a private nature or, to put it another way, a system defined by nepotism – a place where personal competences, professional experiences and a diploma may not be relevant. However, this perception of the labour market makes them seek solutions and opportunities to advance their professional careers. One such way of them doing so is by gaining experience and building a net of relations through their participation in different kinds of apprenticeship. Planned and directed activities are another way to gain such experience, which can be useful in terms of self-employment.

    In women’s narratives, one may observe that next to the world of work and university, “a third dimension” emerges, which is connected with maternity. On the one hand, working students found maternity a barrier preventing them from finding a job, a reason for stopping their studies and a source of tension between social roles they served – (employee, student, mother). On the other hand, this experience turned out to be a turning point, a situation which required a new approach and ways of dealing with reality.

    The way Polish students understand employability is based on the category of “adjustment” of employee to the needs connected with the nature of work. According to them the fundamental elements building the ability to “adjust” are: adequate educational background and related expertise; experience gained during practice; and individual predisposition and abilities. One can, hence, say that Polish students perceive employability as the disposition facilitating adaptive behaviours, which can enhance the prospect of employment.

    Students’ narratives relate to different dimensions of the transitions in learning. There are many rich stories relating to experiencing and overcoming barriers and the resourceful ways of exploring what was learnt and achieved while studying/ and or working.

  • 1
    Student interviews

  • The Seville team has carried out, so far, 16 (out of 20) interviews with students and 31 interviews with graduates (15 planned in the EMPLOY proposal). In terms of final year students, we have interviewed eight women and eight men, each from a different knowledge area (Arts and Humanities, Sciences, Health Sciences, Engineering, Architecture, Social Sciences and Law). All of these students were in their final year of an undergraduate program and represented the different non-traditional situations (first generation students; students from low educational and economical background; students with a disability; students with children; students from other ethnical/cultural groups, etc.). With regards to graduates, most of the interviewees (22) have a degree in social sciences and fulfil one or several non-traditional profiles.

    The analysis of the content of the students’ interview is in process. A first exploration has been done emphasizing some ideas. Firstly, non-traditional students and graduates value their university education in relation to employability skills. Most of them state that their university education has given them the basic tools to solve problems autonomously. That is, although they consider that at this time they would not know how to play the different tasks or activities required in their professional field, they feel they know how to look for resources to find the right answers.

    As to their conceptions regarding employability, the participants’ opinions vary according to the field of knowledge to which they belong. Students who are doing a degree in pure science or health sciences underscore specific competences; while students who belong to the field of social sciences and humanities emphasise generic competences (communication, emotional and social skills, team work, etc.).

    In addition, participants describe employability in terms of the competences they have developed through work/volunteering and non-formal education. These are mainly general, core competences (responsibility, communication skills…) as well as some specific knowledge related to their degrees.

    Regarding career plans, surprisingly, students (or recent graduates) do not have specific or mature career plans in spite of the fact they are in the final year of their degree programme. They focus, instead, their next future in the simple idea of “continuing” their studies (a master programme, languages, ICT…). It is also shocking that they do not have experience or knowledge about career services, in spite of the existence of several of these support mechanisms.

    Finally, as to the factors that promote or hinder the transition to work, we find that the lack of opportunities in the Spanish labour market is perceived as the most significant obstacle. Additional obstacles include: not having the economic resources to broaden their education, to gain in knowledge of languages or to have experiences of mobility; and not having the contacts which facilitate the transition into work.

  • 1
    Student interviews

  • The Portuguese team interviewed 21 students (9 men and 12 women, with a mean age of 36 years old). Mature students think they are less employable than younger students. A number of different reasons for this emerged: mature students have, frequently, family responsibilities that diminish their readiness to work; younger students, in contrast to mature students, can afford to spend the initial years of their careers acquiring experience through voluntary work and internships; mature students have more difficulties in changing their professional path/career –after reaching 30 years, they think that they are considered "too old". When the issue turns to experience, the students believe that work experience is valued by employers. Some of them even stated that maturity and experience was an asset regarding employability.

    In terms of employment, precarity and professional instability, the structural factors are central in the narratives of the interviewees. The economic constraints in Portugal were pointed out as barriers, especially in some specific sectors. The majority of the students had already gained professional experience and about half of them worked in the same area of the degree discipline that they have chosen. However, there is also, amongst the students, a high level of precarity and professional instability (only three students have a stable contract). Precarity is a common and typical form of insertion into the labour market. Generally, there are insufficient qualified job offers in the region. Mature students frequently see HE as an investment. Yet, despite this positive view of education, more than half of them state that their work even after the graduation is not recognised by the employers, either through an appropriate salary, or simply by professional recognition.

    When asked about HEI and employability, the students considered that more collaboration between HEI and employers would increase employment opportunities. This would include a set of activities, organised both by the university services and the employers, that should provide opportunities for the students to know more about their potential employers. They also stated that individual activities (volunteer and mobility programmes, conferences, seminars and workshops, extracurricular activities, etc.) can develop skills (mostly soft skills such as communication, team working, proactivity, adaptability, or interpersonal relationship skills), and allows them to acquire knowledge that prepares them for professional challenges. However, these activities are much more accessible to traditional full-time students than to mature students.

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    Employers’ interviews
    United Kingdom

  • The employers interviewed highlighted the importance of establishing a presence on university campus in order to successfully target potential students for future recruitment. In this regard, the University of Warwick was singled out as a valuable institution for recruiters to visit, something indicative of its status as a Russell Group university and thus also of the two-tier system in UK Higher Education.

    Amongst private sector employers, effective recruitment practices for employing candidates were spoken of in terms of measuring success with reference to the student-voted ‘High Fliers Research’ and corresponding ‘Times Top Hundred Graduate Employers’ review, yielding a competitive environment with other recruiters in terms of presence and innovation particularly at top-tier universities. Employers also expressed an interest and increasing investment in reaching out and recruiting at other less recognised universities. However, this broader-based venture is still a fledgling consideration amongst elite companies.

    Avenues for employers raising awareness of their brand and engaging with students included careers fairs but also an emphasis on supporting societies within universities. Notably societies at some universities are more geared to promoting this relationship than others – particularly those at elite institutions. Through such societies, introductions and skills sessions relating to the recruitment process are offered. These encourage social networking and, via informal and formal introductions, internships with the relevant companies can arise. The latter provide experience that can serve as an advantage for future employment. These internships may be paid or unpaid depending on the sector of employment.

    The recommendations for students transitioning to employment were conveyed particularly in terms of honing soft skills. Successful candidates are advised to work hard with their academic studies but also to recognise that this is not the only or even necessarily the most significant element in achieving employment. Other key aspects for employers include: researching the institution relevant to the application and tailoring to that institution’s needs; showing self-awareness; communication and presentation skills; being able to provide clear examples of relevant abilities and framing them effectively; as well as showing dynamism and ambition.

    The capacity to present oneself and speak in a certain way is suggestive of features of cultural and social capital being a factor in the interview process. Nevertheless, there was an interest by employers to increase diversity within their recruitment practices, particularly insofar as it was noted that there are a few of the major companies that no longer refer directly to UCAS points in the recruitment process.

  • 2
    Employers’ interviews

  • Skills for employability
    From the employers’ perspectives students from HE should have advanced academic skills, practical skills, and communicative skills, as well as an awareness of their own level of knowledge and appropriate expectations. There are differences between employers in how important academic skills, soft or hard skills and practical skills are. For some it is crucial; for others they can learn it after HE.

    The match between HE graduates and the labour market
    When discussing the match between HE graduates and jobs, the employers claim on the one hand that it is more difficult for graduates to become employed due to changes in the Human Resource Management sector, with more specialized functions, the outsourcing of work tasks and the decrease of junior jobs. On the other hand, though, they find it hard to get enough applicants for jobs, especially when it comes to non-traditional groups. Some of the employers discussed the law against discrimination on the basis of ethnic background and age, which they try to follow. Nevertheless, they claim that the recruitment practices, especially when relating to non-traditional groups are discriminating or based on dilemmas concerning stereotypes and prejudice. Standard recruitment criteria (including personal traits and key competencies) for a certain position are matched with the candidates. This results in a more homogenous hiring that does not enhance diversity nor acts against discrimination - the criteria are too typified. Employers also have experiences of trying to convince others about a different candidate than expected based on age, ethnicity, disabilities or different sexual preferences. At the same time, they discuss good and bad examples from these initiatives.

    Enhancing the employability for non-traditional students after HE
    The employers have several pieces of advice for non-traditional students such as: get yourself a mentor; promote yourself and your abilities; learn as much as you can as a student and show it; create a good CV; create your own job; be active in social networking; get practical experiences; and try to manage your expectations.

    The employers’ view of the role of the university and the labour market is about enhancing the diversity on the labour market through: getting more research and knowledge; creating more diverse recruitment policies; demonstrate how diversity strategies could contribute to the company; create good examples of recruitment practices based on diversity and create a better dialogue between HE and the labour market. More specifically the employers have ideas for HE: to work with practical cases; have programmes with cooperating employers during the degrees; internships; more work representatives in the courses; CV coaching; and mentorship. Some of the employers also think that it is right to create special projects against discrimination on the labour market that emphasise non-traditional graduates’ employment after HE.

    These projects are a special type of cooperation between some universities and some organisations. Each student has contact with a special organisation during the course of their studies, and are able to take part in interviews, participate in different meetings in accordance with different student tasks. The advantages with it is that they get a deep picture of the organisational context and also a chance to apply theories in practice.

  • 2
    Employers’ interviews

  • The Irish research team facilitated a roundtable discussion with a range of employers in September 2015. Since then they have conducted in-depth interviews with employers across a range of sectors and size to establish their perspectives on graduate ‘employability’. Employer insights into this have been very helpful and much appreciated.

    It seems that employers place a high value on graduate skills and attributes such as ‘experience’, ‘worldliness’, ‘flexibility’, ‘potential’, ‘communication’ and ‘social skills’. The value of work experience directly related to occupational and discipline area is particularly important to the employers who were interviewed.

    There is some ambivalence about the importance of academic marks to employers. Or maybe more accurately it is the case now that a ‘good degree’ is the baseline for employers - something almost taken for granted, and that it is the added value of graduates’ skills, attributes and experiences that make them stand out or not in interviews.

    Interestingly, a minority of employers voiced the opinion that universities have become too vocational and are focusing too much on very specific, niche discipline areas. Some employers talked about the need for a more rounded education and, more than one, noted the liberal arts model which is associated with early undergraduate studies in the United States.

    There was also an acknowledgement from employers that they shouldn’t, and don’t expect, graduates to be ‘the finished article’ and, rather, that they expect that they will need to invest in post-recruitment training and development if they want to retain high-quality graduates. Meaningful and reflective placement and work-experience programmes were regarded as really important aspects of students’ learning which should be developed more. Employers put a high value on the work done in university careers and placement offices but suspect they are under-funded and, possibly, not highly valued by some within the academic community.

    A number of employers remarked on how competitive graduate recruitment has become over the last decade. This competition, though, seems to be targeted on a relatively small number of ‘highly desirable’ graduates. This evolving and increasingly competitive recruitment landscape has also, it seems, heralded the creation of new HR departments and titles such as ‘talent acquisition’ or ‘talent acquisition manager’.

    Increased competition has led to a shift towards more longitudinal recruitment strategies especially amongst large companies. Employers are now using events on campus to raise awareness amongst new undergraduates of their company as well as employer-run undergraduate competitions which start to identify what employers called ‘talented’ and ‘high quality’ students; through to highly sought after internships; and, finally, to rigorous, multi-staged graduate recruitment and post-recruitment development processes. In that sense, employers are working back and forward along both sides of the moment of graduation in their selection.

    However, it seems that this heavy investment in resources which is targeting a very small proportion of the graduate population can only be funded by larger organisations. Smaller and medium-sized employers (SME) do not have the capacity to engage in such low yield-selection processes – nor do they have the resources to commit fully to student placement programmes as they rarely have the capacity to provide comprehensive mentorship for students in the workplace.

  • 2
    Employers’ interviews

  • Analysis of the interviews with Polish employers confirms the trend of businesses emphasising soft skills as a key competence for success in the job market. Formal qualification, such as a degree, diploma which is adequate to a position one is applying for is a condition, of course, but it is not the ultimate factor, when it comes to the decision who will get the job and who won’t. Employers said:

    (..) we came to the point where the diploma is just a formality, a box that needs to be ticked.

    What are the expectations of the employers when it comes to graduates? Mainly, they are looking for an interesting personality, passionate people, and open-mindedness. They seek graduates who can engage and get involved and who understand that passion is core to team-building, creativity and/or can merge theory and practical skills while performing the job.

    I’m looking for an employee, who will enchant me (..) I need to see a passion in him/her, need to hear how does he/ she see their future job, what kind of concept of it he/she has thought through…

    Work experience matters as well, but employers are aware that young graduates, just out of college cannot have the same level of job experiences as someone who has been in the market for decades. That is why all extracurricular activities matter: summer jobs; voluntary work; and/or any kind of internship. These practical experiences in particular jobs often show evidence of soft skills, such as: building and keeping relationships; ability to cooperate; and dealing with conflicts and crisis.

    Employers are also looking for coherence and accuracy in what is written in a CV and how the candidate presents him/herself during the interview. Is he/she capable of pointing to his/her skills? Can he/she elaborate on the potential suggested in the content of the CV? The ability to cooperate with others, to organize his/her own work and a general curiosity of the world was also mentioned as important features of the prospective applicants.

  • 2
    Employers’ interviews

  • The Seville team has interviewed employers from the private and public sector. The analysis of the content is only at an early stage. Some ideas that come out from the employers engagement are:

    1. What the employers highlight in relation to the effective transition into the world of work by non-traditional graduates are general competences versus specific ones that are considered the best for the future employees. Some nuances have to be made according to the discourses of university lecturers: they point out to the need of specifying the general competences into the specific field of knowledge of each degree.

    2. For employers, motivation is much appreciated in the current context of the economic crisis. Nowadays it is not enough to do our work, new capacities, how “to sell” yourself to your boss or demonstrate that you have done good work are needed. In addition, flexibility, continuous training, social skills (capacity to integrate into the company and to work well in a team) as well as emotional skills are also key competences from the viewpoint of employers. Being competent is not enough, you have to be different, good at doing something that nobody else can do. All these soft skills are important both to be hired by a company and to keep the job.

    3. Concerning migrants, people with disabilities and people from other excluded ethnic groups, there is a significant exclusion of these groups from white-collar jobs. Usually people from Africa, Eastern Europe or Roma are not recruited because “they do not offer fit the image of the company. The Spanish employers are very classist”. At the same time, this group is not excluded for blue-collar positions.

    Finally, the employer interviews confirm one of the findings which also emerged in the analysis of the student interviews: the absence of career plans amongst students. It was suggested that when students finish their education and go to the career and guidance services they have no notions nor specific objectives for their transition into work.

  • 2
    Employers’ interviews

  • The Portuguese team interviewed employers from the private, public and third sectors which, in different ways, reflect the climate of a slow recovery from a severe period of crisis. We were interested mainly in non-traditional graduates’ employability and hence we selected the more relevant dimensions according to the employers’ perspectives. Disabilities, gender and migrant background were considered as important dimensions to analyse.

    Most of the workers over 40 had been in work before they entered into higher education and benefited from this fact in terms of career progression. Generally speaking, employers considered that age cannot be considered a factor constraining graduate employability. Nevertheless, employers also pointed-out that mature graduates often show less self-confidence and reduced autonomy. Employers also stated that the advantages that mature students possess (dedication, maturity, etc.) are potential advantages and no more than that. For example, younger graduates are seen as more easy to mould to the company culture. One private employer, in particular, pointed out the problem to be not on the side of mature graduates, but on the side of the employers’ management culture. In his perspective, mature graduates have more experience, are more critical and think more thoroughly on all issues, and this makes them a menace to most employers.

    The number of graduates with any type of disability working in the organisations of the employers we interviewed is surprisingly low, if we consider the incentives to recruitment given by the Portuguese state. Especially intriguing was the fact that all employers reported that for the vacancies for workers with disabilities, usually they receive no applications at all. It would be important to compare this statements against the numbers of Portuguese graduates with specific disabilities.

    The private sector seems to employ much more workers with a migrant background. There are very positive feelings regarding workers who obtained their degrees in Eastern Europe. A not so positive assessment is referred to graduates coming from African countries where the official language is Portuguese, mainly because of cultural habits and language problems. Although in these African countries Portuguese is the official language (a heritage of colonialism and/or neo-colonialism), the various local languages do differ significantly from Portuguese. Employers also report, however, important stories of success.

    Regarding gender, the discourses are politically correct and, in the public sector, there is an increasing percentage of women who are finally in the majority, even in management positions. However, there are still problems related to maternity rights. For example, some employers do resent, especially, young women in the beginning of their careers for taking their legal rights first and not counting with the organisation needs – it seems therefore the business needs are more important than rights or equality.

  • The ESREA Triennial Conference, Maynooth: A Roundtable discussion on students and employability

    The researchers in the EMPLOY network came together in early September 2016 to publicly discuss what they have learnt from speaking with students across Europe about employability. This roundtable discussion was part of the Triennial conference of the European Society for Research on the Education of Adults (ESREA) which was held in Maynooth University, Ireland. The event brought together hundreds of leading educational researchers from Europe, North America, Australia and Asia to explore contemporary trends and issues in adult education.

    The conference proved to be a vibrant and energetic event which featured a high number of presentations on employment, worked-based learning and issues of equality.
    The EMPLOY session which was entitled Building Critical Visions on Employability in European Higher Education: Listening to Student’s Voices presented some of the key findings from the interviews with students from Poland, Portugal, England, Sweden and Ireland.

    Barbara Merrill and Scott Revers from Warwick began with an overview of the project as a whole. They went on to say that that the issue that has emerged most clearly from their research is that social class strongly influences how students select a university and this choice also has a massive effect on career trajectories after college. They made the case that the highly differentiated nature of the higher education system has to be borne clearly in mind when addressing employability in relation to non-traditional students. They also discussed the changing culture of higher education and the issue of mobility for non-traditional students.

    This was followed by a presentation from Jerry O’Neill and Fergal Finnegan from Maynooth University who talked about how employability has become a new policy keyword in Ireland in a period of austerity and increased precarity. They outlined how the student interviews have led them to reconsider the meaning of employability. While employability may not be a term that is commonly used by these students they are certainly very concerned about finding ‘a proper job’ after college and are willing to put enormous effort to make this more likely to happen. They are looking for work that provides developmental opportunities and a stable income and many want a job that ‘makes a difference’. Initiatives aimed at enhancing employability should take due consideration of these desires and needs.

    Adrianna Nizinska and Ewa Kurantowicz from the University of Lower Silesia, Poland noted that the term employability has no purchase in Poland but that students are very aware of the challenges of finding work. Getting a qualification is important in the job market especially but in the current situation, both in terms of economic conditions and the rapid expansion of higher education, much more is required. Employability, the Polish students believe, requires resourcefulness, character and ‘soft skills’ and the development of the right dispositions as well as qualifications They then went on to outline the various orientations towards employability and the strategies used by the students they met.

    Following on from this António Fragoso from the University of the Algarve discussed the impact of crisis and austerity on Portuguese students. The depth of the crisis there has made employability a major concern for students and has, to varying degrees, become internalised. He also discussed how an extended period of socio-economic insecurity has meant precarity has, especially for younger students, become ‘normal’, even a way of life. On the other hand, mature students were more critical of the situation based on their previous experiences in employment during a more stable and prosperous period. Also, due to family and life commitments, they are less mobile than younger students.

    Agnieszka Bron and Camilla Thunborg from Stockholm University highlighted the way students they spoke with, who are aiming to get work in HR, have very clear notions of the ideal physical and character ‘type’ being looked for in this field and this raises questions about perceived barriers to employment linked to gender and ethnicity. The Swedish team also outlined how students see ‘college knowledge’ in relation to employability. Their participants believe that having practical knowledge and skills for an occupation is the key to gaining employment after college but that theoretical knowledge typically associated with university degrees is important in the medium term for career development.

    The session was very well attended and after the presentations there was a stimulating discussion between delegates from other European countries and North America. The shared themes across the teams were explored in more detail as well as the reasons behind the rise of the ‘employability agenda’ in policy, the marketisation of higher education institutions and, most sharply of all, a concern with worsening conditions in work and welfare internationally especially for young students.

    Student voices

    ‘It took nearly 20 years [Laugh] but I just said no, I’m just going to go and erm, I work two jobs…and I’m a fulltime student trying to get experience because erm, I don’t want to leave here and just go back to doing a manual labour job. That’s not my, I put my family and myself through three years of this […] I want work, I want paid work. I volunteer enough. I need eventually […] paid employment. […] I don’t want to go back to factory work, that’s, or on assembly lines, that’s not for me anymore, I’ve done that … coming here has allowed me to see that there is other things out there.’
    (Irish Student)

    ‘…but in the finance industry, as much as they say they can’t discriminate for age and all these things, like I know for a fact that they wouldn’t be looking for me. Like my accent as well, I put my sentences together, they don’t really like. They’re not going to have me sitting in a boardroom in Singapore. Do you know what I mean? I wouldn’t want to do that anyway…So when it comes to what employers are looking for, I don’t think I’m it for a lot of them.’
    (United Kingdom Student)

    ‘Well if you work hard at it and you stick at it, you can do it. But getting that motivation and getting that - being able to have the willpower to, to stick to it is a big, big problem. If I didn’t have my family saying go study, don’t end up like us. Don’t think you don’t need it because you do. Then I would have probably been like – oh, it’s grand, I don’t’ need to, you know. I’ll just get the dole or whatever.’
    (Irish Student)

    ‘The thing I realized quite recently, it got across to me through experience, was that all these different experiences which I had are somehow directing me towards opening my own company and so that I could work for myself. And to do what I want. I may open a foundation? I could write projects, well, this is the direction I want to follow. These experiences are directing me into that way’
    (Polish Student)

    ‘The situation then was that if there was a job advertisement and young girls applied for it and they were university graduates, there was no possibility for me to get this job - a mother of two children with only a secondary education. And when you talked to friends they had the same stories to tell. Those job interviews were also like: well, you have two children who are at the age when they get sick often, so who takes care of them when they get sick. It was so embarrassing for me. Was I to lie or to tell the truth? Also, to be honest, after a period of parental leave it was terribly sad to look for work. Very sad’
    (Polish Student)

    ‘I think that being a woman is more difficult to find a job, yes… even more as a woman of my age (34 years old), who can still be a mother. I have been on many interviews where they asked me if I want to be a mother. I think that such a question is forbidden, but they have asked me this many times. So, I think that to be employable, you have to be a man, pro-active, dynamic, go-head and all the keywords that are fashionable…’
    (Portuguese Student)

    ‘Some of the students I’ve spoken to their parents are partners in solicitors so obviously they’re going to walk into a job aren’t they? Definitely down the barrister route – it’s definitely about what private school you’ve been to. I think money definitely because if you haven’t got money you’re just not going to the Bar really are you. It costs too much money. Their course is £18,000 … It’s just not an option.’
    (United Kingdom Student)

    ‘Employers don't value a graduate. I do not care if I earn €500 working in a supermarket, but I care if I earn €500 in a graduate job. Employers do not pay for the level of responsibility needed for some jobs, and I felt this when I was working in the health sector. We have to take life and death decisions, we put our lives at risk when we drive speeding, or when we enter into the peoples’ houses, and I earn €600 a month. I have worked weekends, at night, in the rain… (…) In Portugal, I can get a job, but it is always on the basis of survival. And when we have work experience and we have invested many years and money in our training I think that this kind of situation is unfair…’
    (Portuguese Student)

    ‘Most of the graduate schemes that are available are for people without responsibilities. I can’t go travelling and leave my son at home…. There doesn’t seem to be any niche for graduate schemes that are solely based locally. The jobs I’ve looked at, they’re looking for people that are flexible and are willing to work all the hours god sends and I have commitments, But that isn’t taken into account for the mature student in the job market.’
    (United Kingdom Student)

    ‘In Spain I think there may be certain jobs related to my career: especially if you have the desire to find one. However, I see even more important to leave the country and get the necessary experience in new environments, because I think that being in adverse situations, new culture, new language, without your family without your friends... it is what impinges the most upon your career style’
    (Spanish Student)

    ‘Due to my illness, it also ... apart from having painful outbreaks and almost not being able to walk far, as leg dragged it; apart from the pain, the need to go to the bathroom, it’s not well regulated. Moreover, I usually always have many paraesthesia’s; and in these situations, of course, it costs me being attending [...] I am clumsy in my thinking and make more mistakes [...] things I cannot control’.
    (Spanish Student)

    ‘You can also get an internship course… it would feel exciting, it may be that I'm jumping on, in case I do not find any job …. I can still imagine to start working with e.g. administrative tasks to begin with and then maybe try to take on more responsibility on staff, I do not know’.
    (Swedish Student)

    ‘For the most part, we have read much theory, so I still miss going into any kind of practice, they are enough ... and people mostly are working somehow with personnel matters despite their full time studies, in my class the majority have part-time jobs in HR, as well; (Interviewer: Why are they doing that?) they do it to gain experience, as it looks good on the CV, they want to get contacts, I think. And this was the reason I applied to one of those jobs, it really was to make contacts and gain experience, and because it looks good on my CV’.
    (Swedish Student)

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