Universities must look at local employment markets when building their graduates' skills

This article by Teresa Crew, Lecturer in Social Policy, School of History, Philosophy & Social Sciences is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Students are often reminded that a degree is “not enough”, and that they will also need “employability skills” – a complex combination of personal attributes, discipline-specific knowledge and generic talents – to succeed after university. They are encouraged while studying to develop skills such as problem solving, self-management and the ability to work as part of a team.

All valid attributes yes, but this view is based on the idea that graduates are young and highly mobile. But the truth is that not all graduates will want to – or be able to – leave their university town or city, especially females and graduates from low-income backgrounds.

As Brexit looms, advocacy organisation Univerisites UK has suggested that increased local graduate retention could ease current and potentially upcoming skills shortages in the UK. Yet the research to date shows that cities across the UK face a big challenge when it comes to attracting and retaining graduate talent. In 2016, only 58% of that year’s graduates went on to work in the area in which they took their degree.

One major hurdle to graduate retention comes down to the skills that local employers actually need from prospective staff. Just like it is not enough to have a degree, it is not enough to teach all graduates a generic skillset and hope for the best. Required skills can vary greatly from region to region, with some – like the ability to drive – proving pointless in areas with, for example, good public transport links. In north Wales, where I conducted my own research into the issue of graduate retention, the most valuable skills for a graduate to have on top of their degree are access to local networks, having their own transport and Welsh language skills.

Staying local

Social contacts and contacts from former employment can help a graduate seeking to stay in their university town, but the close connections that come from going to school together and living in the same neighbourhoods are invaluable. When employers seek to fill vacancies, they can rely on who a candidate knows to infer the potential worker’s underlying ability.

That’s not to say “who you know” is always better than “what you know”. Not all members of a community will know the “right” people who can provide access to employment opportunities after all. And graduates from low income backgrounds often find their contacts are limited because their parents have no experience of the graduate labour market and the types of roles that they would be applying for.

This kind of social capital can be developed both as a student and a graduate. I have been working with Sociologists Outside Academia, a group within the British Sociological Association, to design an “applied sociology” curriculum. The aim of this curriculum is to equip students with the skills, knowledge and professional outlook required to improve workplaces, organisations and communities. One of our recommended assessments would see students working on a local community problem, with the opportunity to pitch a proposal to a client verbally and in writing.

After graduation from universities in Wales, there are schemes such as the Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarships (KESS 2), a project supported by European Social Funds (ESF) through the Welsh Government, led by Bangor University. KESS 2 provides opportunities for graduates to build professional networks, and for funded PhD and research masters study in collaboration with an active business or company partner.

Language skills

Another skill of particular importance to the graduates I spoke to in north Wales was the Welsh language. Over half of the population in some areas of north Wales speak Welsh. And there is concerted action by the Welsh government to double the number of Welsh speakers to one million by 2050.

On top of this, 71% of employers in Wales have stated that Welsh language skills (written and oral) were desirable for jobs in their companies. And that there is a shortage of bilingually skilled staff in graduate occupations such as nursing and in the tourism industry.

While current graduates who went to school in Wales will have had some form of Welsh language education, not all would regard themselves as speakers of the language. And even among bilinguals, proficiency in written and oral communication can vary widly. Research has suggested that while bilingualism is not the preserve of elites, disadvantaged households in Wales may believe that their form of bilingualism is inappropriate for professional environments.

Many of my interviewees felt a lack of confidence in their Welsh skills. They felt that the Welsh they spoke at home was not the same as the more formal Welsh needed for employment purposes. There may be further problems too for those graduates of Welsh universities who did not go to school in Wales, and have had no Welsh language education.

Clearly, universities need to support their graduates by not just focusing on generic employability skills, but by looking at the regional economy. By taking into account what local employers might want from graduates, institutions can start to address the financial, academic and social hurdles that modern graduates, particularly those who have reached university through a non-traditional route, have to face.

The Conversation

Publication date: 4 October 2018