The employability contract

Feb 08, 2021
‘Employability’ refers to the skills, knowledge, experience and personal qualities needed to gain and maintain fulfilling work during an individual’s career. In this article, Dr Mary E. Collins discusses the importance of employability from an employer’s perspective and provides practical strategies to help organisations focus on the issue, whatever their size.

Over the past year, the employment market has experienced extreme volatility. Certain sectors have been hit particularly hard, with tens of thousands of jobs in the hospitality and tourism sector the first to feel the full impact of the COVID-19 restrictions. In other sectors, there has been a spike in job openings and, indeed, an employment boom due to the global pandemic. Research from Glassdoor has shown that coronavirus-related job postings have increased in recent months: government, pharma, healthcare and non-profit sectors in the US have all tripled their hiring efforts in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The trend is similar internationally. In Ireland, we have seen increased job vacancies in health, IT and communications, logistics, procurement and insurance. Professional services employment trends remain stable.

One certainty in this dynamic, volatile employment market is that talented people always have choices. In fact, the war for talent heated up in the past year with the explosion in remote working. Many roles that were once limited by geographical location can now be fulfilled from anywhere with decent broadband connectivity.

What is ‘employability’?

The Institute of Employment Studies in the UK defines employability as the “capacity to move self-sufficiently within the labour market to realise potential through sustainable employment… for the individual, it depends on the knowledge, skills and attributes they possess, the way they use those assets and present them to employers.”
Employability is the ability to be employed from three perspectives:

  • Gaining initial employment: the ability to get started in a career, leveraging education, careers advice and so on to ensure one has core, marketable skills.
  • Maintaining employment: the ability to keep a job and make transitions between new roles within the same organisation, adapting to new job requirements.
  • Obtaining new employment: the ability to succeed in the labour market and manage employment transitions between and within different organisations.

The business case

There is now a strong business case for employers to make explicit commitments to employees about supporting them in becoming, and remaining, employable; that working with the organisation will make them more employable for future roles.
We have seen a cultural shift whereby younger generations look to their employers for purpose and meaning in an increasingly unpredictable world. Employers who care about their people’s future employment opportunities demonstrate a commitment to the broader ‘covenant’ between employer and employee.

The younger generations in the workplace are generally known as Millennials or Gen Y, who were born between 1980 and 1998, and Centennials or Gen Z, who were born from 1999 onwards. These generations hold the balance of power in recruitment, so employers must be aware of their expectations. A new approach is required to attract, engage, and retain them. This includes the provision of:

  • Good work/life balance;
  • Work arrangements with flexible locations and hours;
  • Clear personal development routes;
  • Clear promotion opportunities;
  • Meaning and purpose in work (making a meaningful contribution to society);
  • Support around personal wellbeing; and
  • Commitment to their employability.
Some commentators on the future of work predict that Gen Z will change jobs 15 to 20 times in their careers. Regardless of age, the concept of ‘a job for life’ is practically redundant and most people will hold positions with a variety of employers over the course of their working lives. Increased flexibility in working patterns means people need to be prepared to change jobs. It also means better opportunities. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) will replace many roles, while new roles are emerging that never existed before.

Employability should be a core element of your employer brand, defined by CIPD as “a set of attributes and qualities – often intangible – that makes an organisation distinctive, promises a particular kind of employment experience, and appeals to those people who will thrive and perform best in its culture.”

The CareerEDGE Framework of Employability

Developed by Lorraine Dacre Pool and Peter Sewell in their 2007 article, The Key to Employability: Developing a Practical Model of Graduate Employability, the CareerEDGE Framework of Employability suggests that once individuals develop the essential EDGE components (experience, degree subject knowledge, generic skills, and emotional intelligence), this paves the way for the development of the “higher-order” areas of self-efficacy, self-confidence, and self-esteem that are critical in developing employability.

Investing in people’s employability

The challenge is for employers to focus on investing in the employability of individuals rather than maintaining roles that could eventually become redundant, thereby prioritising an inclusive and lifelong approach to skills development. Using the CareerEDGE Framework, here are some practical steps for employers to consider.

Career development

  • Provide access to mentors in the organisation, as this is an excellent way to support development at all stages of employees’ careers.
  • Have career development conversations at least once a year as part of the performance management process.
  • Seek external opportunities for coaching and mentoring from relevant government agencies, professional bodies, and initiatives (for example, the 30% Club Mentoring Programme to improve the female talent pipeline). 

Experience

  • A core part of supporting employability is providing appropriate work experience to support personal and career development.
  • Every role should include some ‘stretch’ assignments, which are work projects that provide growth opportunities and challenge in a supportive way.
  • Where possible, allow employees to work in different parts of the business to gain new and diverse work experience.

Degree subject knowledge, understanding and skills

  • In the CareerEDGE Framework, this refers to the knowledge and technical skills a graduate gains from their degree course(s) relevant to their career trajectory, and upon which they can continue to build their employability.
  • Employers must support their staff in their continuous professional development and ensure progression to higher levels of attainment.
  • Opportunities to sponsor and co-fund educational activities should be encouraged as a core element of supporting employability.

Generic skills

Dacre Pool and Sewell present a set of generic skills that employers expect to have been developed in graduates (see Figure 1). Employers should seek ways for employees to develop in all of these generic skills. It is important to note and record skills development as part of the performance planning process.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EQ) continues to grow in impact and importance. Daniel Goleman defines it as “the capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships”.
Employers can support EQ development in the workplace by ensuring that leaders are role models in terms of self-awareness, managing their emotions, showing empathy, flexibility, and – crucial in these times – demonstrating resilience and optimism. Most leadership development programmes incorporate some element of EQ skills development. Self-assessment profiles, such as the Emotional Capital Report (see www.rochemartin.com), can be useful when working with a coach or mentor to develop these core skills from an early career stage.

Dr David Foster, Director of Career Development and Skills at University College Dublin and Director of the UCD Careers Network, takes a holistic view of employability. “We’ve used the CareerEDGE Framework at Careers Network as a model for about five years now, and it’s been great as we aim to enhance students’ self-confidence and self-efficacy in all we do. We feel self-confident people can better unlock their mental energies and abilities to negotiate their personal and professional development, which we think leads to employability.”

In conclusion, employability is core to the contemporary covenant between employers and employees and has become an important facet in attracting, developing and retaining talent. Even in recessionary times, talented graduates and professionals have choices, especially in a world that has embraced remote working. Focusing on supporting the employability of employees at all stages of the career lifecycle will greatly add to a positive culture where people want to give their best and stay longer, even if it isn’t a job for life.
 
Dr Mary E. Collins is Senior Executive Development Specialist at the RCSI Institute of Leadership.