The One Thing That Could Have A Big Impact On The Graduate Employability Problem


Do these worries sound or feel familiar to you, or regarding your students, or your son/daughter?

  • I don’t know where my passions lie, I don’t know what I want to ‘be’ OR I don’t know how what I most love to do can translate into a career.

  • How am I supposed to choose a university programme if I don’t know what careers it will lead to? Do people even get jobs from this degree?

  • I keep hearing that there are too many graduates and not enough jobs. Should I avoid certain programmes because of this and how do I know which ones?

  • I picked a programme based on what I thought it would be, but I can’t see any connection between what I am studying at uni and what I want to do in my career. Did I choose the wrong degree?

  • OR I like my uni subjects but I have no idea how this is going to lead to a career or how to make it happen. I keep getting offered help to write a resume or practice interview skills. This isn’t what I need. I need to know what jobs graduates have actually gotten from this degree so that I know where it could lead and properly decide what I might like.

  • So many universities offer similar programmes. How do I know if the ‘differences’ actually make a difference? How can I find out which one will actually get me to where I want to be in my career?

  • When I tell my professors that I am worried about what I will do after I graduate, they send me to the career centre. The career centre gives me general advice that doesn’t answer my questions. They have no more idea about job opportunities from my degree than I do. They don’t have any networks and can’t introduce me to anyone.

These are some of the concerns that are expressed by some prospective and future university students.

From 2014 through to 2016, Associate professor Linda Crane and I co-led Australian Government funded research about graduate employability and then the postgraduate student experience (wherein graduate employability emerged as an important theme).

Through this research we had the privilege of interviewing, surveying and videoing over 1200 people – students, graduates, employers, entrepreneurs, academics and career development professionals.

The seven dot-point worries presented above are not fictional. These are the big concerns that were expressed over and over again across the country. Unless we resolve these fundamental career guidance issues, no university strategies, projects or initiatives are going to make much of a difference.

The problem boils down to this. Future university students (for undergraduate and postgraduate programmes) express that they do not have access to information and advice they need to make career and thereby enrolment choices.

Two provisos are needed here.

First, employment outcomes are not the only reason for going to university, but for most students it is the main reason.

Second, this is not to say that the career a person chooses before they enrol is going to be the pathway they stick with once they are actually studying the degree.

However we also know that if students have no idea about the possible career outcome, they are far more likely to drop-out in their first year.

Students say that they want a concrete guidepost – direction that keeps them motivated during their studies.

Now we know the WHY that requires systems changes, but WHAT is it that is getting in the way?

While these systems barriers are not true for every university and every national context, our research shows that these problems are overwhelmingly common. The root problem is one of DISCONNECT.

Universities are businesses. Each one needs the revenue bought in by student enrolments. It is very unlikely that a university would refer a future student to a competitor even if that other university had a programme that better fit the particular future student’s career goals, i.e., universities are disconnected from one another.

There is disconnect between departments of marketing (recruitment, future students or whatever else they may be called), faculties and programmes, the career centre and the alumni office.

It is extremely rare that anyone who works across these departments knows the big picture and can navigate across them, thus making connections for future and current students.

A recruiter has a booth at high school. She shares brochures and basic information about the degrees that her university has on offer. She cannot truly listen to a student’s hopes, dreams, passions and hobbies in order to help that student conceptualize a career pathway and then advise which degree will be best to get that student on that pathway.

This is particularly the case if the student’s hopes and dreams don’t sound like any on-paper programmes that the university offers.

The recruiter does not have the skill-set to career council/advise. The recruiter also doesn’t have enough in-depth knowledge about the university programmes and career outcomes.

Academics in the faculties and programmes are usually focused on the subjects they teach and the research they are undertaking. There is often disconnect across the whole programme.

It often appears to students as if there is little relationship between subjects. There appears to be no one taking a holistic perspective across the programme to make sure students attain the knowledge, skills, attributes and identity they will need for future careers.

Assessment is often entirely disconnected from the tasks graduates will perform in their careers. Students, graduates and employers are separate entities so that important career-enabling connections/networks are not fostered.

Students often have no idea what these graduates and employers even ‘look like’.

The professionals in the career centre have important expertise in career advising, job search and application, personal marketing, networking, industry engagement and a myriad of other domains.

However, the current systems approach often puts them at a disadvantage and does not maximise their potential.

Few university career centres are positioned to advise future students before they enrol and, in any case, the staff in the career centres usually do not have the information they need to support the new student recruits through the entire connected process of examining oneself (values included), choosing a suitable degree and maximising the student experience in a discipline-specific manner, to successfully commence a graduate career.

Few career centre personnel have the advantage of longitudinally ‘case managing’ students from pre-enrolment through to career commencement and progression.

Furthermore, whereas teachers specialise in content areas (maths, science, humanities), career advisers are seldom discipline experts.

For example, many students in our research reported being told that they were unlikely to be lawyers upon completing law degrees, but few students could find anyone to answer the question of what the alternative careers might be.

Alumni offices often have the key to essential data and networks.

The staff in these offices have the best access to information about how many graduates are self-reportedly employed in what industries and positions.

Furthermore, they have the contact information that would enable networking and thereby connecting future and current students with graduates to advise and inspire them.

However, graduates’ experiences with alumni offices appears to frequently stop at surveying them for information and asking for donations to support their alma mater.

Reviewing where we have come to in this blog, there appears to be a harmful disconnect between:

  • Marketing/Student Recruitment/Enrolment

  • Faculties and Programmes

  • University Services

  • Alumni Offices

Up to this point in the blog, we have addressed:

  • Why this connection matters, and

  • What happens when there is disconnection

The answer to both is:

  • Un- or Under-Employment, and

  • Career Dissatisfaction

The final question is how do we fix this problem? Here are five recommendations:

  • Create a Position & Portfolio whereby it is one staff member’s responsibility to build connections and capacity between: Marketing/Student Recruitment/Enrolment, Faculties and Programmes, University Services, Alumni Offices

  • Provide regular (e.g., monthly) professional development/update sessions including the numerous staff from each of these areas

  • Host regular networking functions between graduated, current and future students, mapping and beginning with the degrees/disciplines where graduate career outcomes are most problematic

  • Create a digital repository of degree/discipline-specific career videos. Back to the example of law presented earlier, there could be a series of short videos featuring law graduates – “I graduated from Law in 20XX and here’s what my career looks like. My advice for Law students if you want to follow a similar path is…..’

  • Create a new position in the higher education sector for Career Learning Advisors (CLAs). CLAs would be key stakeholders in the previous four dot-points so that they are well-briefed and have access to continuous development. The CLAs’ primary responsibility would be to meet with future students to help them connect the dots of the career/study journey. Furthermore, they would have a case management function whereby they would check-in with current students and graduates and facilitate introductions and referrals to personalised further supports and services

It is no secret that one of the keys to employability is connections and networking. It is time for the higher education sector to improve this approach to career services.

In other words, the one thing that could make a big difference to the graduate employability problem is resolving disconnects.

About the Author

Shelley Kinash

Professor Shelley Kinash is University of Southern Queensland's Director, Advancement of Learning & Teaching. She is dedicated to research and action to nurture graduate employability and high quality student experience.

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