Employability: concepts and components

Will work for food

Flexibility - a key component of employability?

I am preparing material for an employability module, and I’ve been getting myself into it by exploring different definitions and concepts of employability.

What is employability?

Coming at that question from a careers adviser’s perspective, I tend, by default, to think about employability in terms of the awareness and attributes of the individual job seeker. So into my head come the career management skills of the classic DOTS model (although, why it’s called DOTS and not SODT escapes me).

  • Self awareness
  • Option awareness
  • Decision learning
  • Transition learning

However, that’s not the only way of looking at employability. I thought it might be useful to share some of the perspectives on this subject that I have found most interesting. This is not meant to be an exhaustive literature review on the subject of employability, just an idiosyncratic collection of things that have caught my attention.

USEM: the academic view

This model looks at what a graduate should obtain from a degree course and take into the world of employment.

  • Understanding — Appropriate subject knowledge, apprehension and applicability
  • Skills — Subject-specific and generic abilities
  • Efficacy beliefs — Awareness and understanding of one’s self and one’s abilities
  • Metacognition – The ability to reflect on and regulate one’s own learning and behaviour

Yorke & Knight (2004)

This approach, which links strongly to the various graduate attributes frameworks being developed by UK universities, assumes that the qualities that would enable an undergraduate to successfully complete a degree would also equip them to be successful in their subsequent careers. I’m tempted to say that this would be true if the career you are considering is one in academia. However, employers in many fields look for candidates who can take charge of their own development.

This theme of development is what I most like about this model of employability. The self-awareness aspect of DOTS can often be interpreted as something static — become more aware of yourself as you are, identifying fixed preferences and abilities. But an essential element of employability is learning how to develop yourself so that you can make progress.


Another model of employability attempts to incorporate elements from both DOTS and USEM:

  • Career development learning — This covers the DOTS elements.
  • Experience — Reflecting the fact that having some form of work or life experience is likely to help a graduate develop a wider range of skills and make them more attractive to prospective employers.
  • Degree subject knowledge, understanding and skills — A similar element to Understanding in USEM
  • Generic skills — Again, this is similar to the Skills element in USEM
  • Emotional intelligence — “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” (Goleman, 1998)

I particularly like the inclusion of Emotional Intelligence. If you are able to understand other people’s emotions and regulate your own, you are more likely to be successful in interview situations and in developing productive working relationships. (In fact, conceptualising work in terms of relationships rather than achievements may make you more successful.)

So far, so good, but these models don’t really take into account some of the factors that often have a significant impact on an individual’s real chances of getting a job: social class, age, gender and ethnic background.

And, more topically, what about dealing with fluctuations in the job market — where does that come in?

A psycho-social model

A model that goes some way to addressing these issues has been developed by Fugate et al. (2004).

The elements are:

  • Career identity — This includes the components of self-awareness and career decision making from DOTS, but goes much further. It relates to an individuals ability to reflect on their past experiences in order to determine who they are and who they want to be. This inclusion of past, present and future identity formation includes some aspects of the learning and development approach of USEM.
  • Personal adaptability— This theme of development is continued here. To stay employable an individual must be willing and able to transform themselves in response to changes in their environment. This could include the willingness to learn new skills, to adapt one’s job hunting strategy to prevailing job market conditions, or even to reconsider one’s goals in the face of barriers.
  • Social and human capital — This element incorporates the impact of an individual’s social background and access to supportive networks. It also encompasses one’s ability to successfully develop and utilise working relationships through factors such as emotional intelligence. In addition, the human capital element covers the various useful skills and knowledge that an individual has obtained from their experience and education.

The model emphasises the interactions between these three elements. For example, social capital will have an impact on career identity as your social network will shape and filter your career choices. At the same time changing your career identity will involve changing the social networks in which you operate.


  • What constructions of employability do you use?
  • Do your employability sessions cover enough different aspects of employability?
  • Which aspects of employability do we most often neglect?
  • Which are most relevant for our current economic climate?

Further reading

Related post: Is management the wrong word?

Photo credit: twicepix

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  1. #1 by Dan on 19 November 2010 - 21:24

    I’m confused by the focus on a description of the job-seeker’s psychology. Unless someone is freelancing, the hiring party wants to know if the company/firm will be more successful/prosperous with the addition of the job seeker.

    • #2 by David Winter on 20 November 2010 - 14:55

      That’s an interesting way of thinking about employability from the recruiter’s perspective. After all, one meaning of ‘to employ’ is ‘to use’. How easy to use will this candidate be? How useful?

      I guess the question I’m trying to explore is what makes someone more useful than someone else. Obviously, that will depend on the job. So, for example, if you are recruiting a quantitative analyst to spend all day modelling the behaviour of complex financial products, you are probably not too bothered about that person’s emotional intelligence.

      So we are probably talking about two concepts. There is specific employability – what makes one person the best candidate for a particular role. And there is general employability – what makes people more likely to be successful in getting jobs and progressing within their career in general. The first is something you apply when trying to increase the employability of one individual, the second is what you need to think about when trying to increase the employability of a whole cohort of people.

      Does that make any more sense?

  2. #3 by Bill Bell on 21 November 2010 - 22:25

    Thanks for such a useful article.

    I realise that there is not the space to mention all aspects of employability here. However, one informal assessment instrument that is commonly used in Ontario, Canada requests information from clients about possible addictions problems, need for daycare and legal issues. A recent study of undergraduates in the province of Québec indicates that about 20% of full-time students over the age of 24 have at least one child. So housing and family responsibilities are real issues, as I’m sure you’re aware. Unfortunately addiction could be another barrier to employability. I wonder where these fit?

    • #4 by David Winter on 22 November 2010 - 10:55

      Hi Bill

      That’s a good point. I guess in the psycho-social model these factors will have an influence on someone’s adaptability. If you have dependants or you are restricted to a particular location because of a partner, that will limit your employability by limiting your flexibility in terms of geography and time.

      A problem such as addiction may also have an impact on your social capital as it may limit your social networks.

      Just goes to show that employability is a highly complex issue and cannot easily be reduced to a few simple factors.

    • #5 by David Winter on 22 November 2010 - 15:17

      As an added thought I suspect most of these models try to concentrate on things that can be changed. You can’t change the fact that you have a child (or some other restriction on your employability). What you may have to change in that case is the range of employment options you are willing to consider (personal flexibility around your career identity).

      • #6 by Bill Bell on 22 November 2010 - 18:56

        I think this is an interesting dimension for exploration, both with clients and theoretically. Thanks for surfacing it, David.

  3. #7 by Andrea H on 22 November 2010 - 09:50

    Hi David
    Thanks for that article, some interesting things to think about 🙂 I’m looking at the latest from Paul Redmond (The Graduate Jobs Formula, 2010, Trotman) using the formula E= Q+WE+SxC (Employability=Qualifications+Work Experience+StrategiesxContacts). I’m wondering whether this could be used as a logical structure for a session? The only part I find a bit tricky within this is the Q=qualifications part, especially if you’re talking to finalists, however, this is where destinations stats could come in? Worth a glance though if you’ve got access to a copy of this book.

    I did an exercise (flipchart paper and pens needed) within a group session on ‘to be employable’ versus ‘to be employed’ and the groups worked well to explore what each means and came up with many of their own definitions and additional words – I also drew up a list of other words to throw in incase they hadn’t achieved what I was hoping for (driver/ proactive/ take control/ flexibility/ searching/ raise your game/ like physical fitness/ constant versus passenger/ dependent/ beyond your control/ comfort zone) and we explored as a group any questions and issues that arose. I like the analogy of are you a ‘driver’ or a ‘passenger’ and I’m going to use this in a session I’m doing this week and see how it goes.

  4. #8 by David Winter on 22 November 2010 - 15:58

    Well! If we’re going the equation route, how about this one?

    E = A \times \left( D + {M \over R - \nabla \left( Q+WE \right) } + S \times C \right)

    A = attitude (incorporating optimism, flexibility, etc.)
    D = decision status
    M = self-marketing skills
    R = employer/job requirements
    ∇(Q + WE) indicates what you have derived from your qualifications and work experience that is relevant to the employer requirements
    S = strategy
    C = contacts

    What I’m getting at is that Qualifications and Work Experience on their own do not make someone employable. It is what the individual has derived from them, how relevant they are and whether they have learnt how to learn. Notice that as the difference between R and ∇(Q + WE) gets smaller your employability rapidly increases, reaches a singularity if you ever exactly match what the employer needs and starts to decrease if you are over-qualified or over-experienced).

    Attitude and career decision status also have a measurable impact.

    I like your exercise to get them to think about the necessity of taking responsibility for their own continued employability.

    • #9 by Michael Clarke on 22 November 2010 - 17:36

      You left out the aforementioned social capital factors! The other factor which perhaps would need integrating more explicitly into all of these models is motivation.

      As a recruiter, it’s often the deciding factor between candidates for me. Thinking about it within my minimal careers advisory frame, I suppose one might see it as a specific concretising (sorry, probably not a word) of the careers identity you mention above.

      • #10 by David Winter on 22 November 2010 - 17:40

        I figured social capital was partly covered by C (contacts). Not an exact match, I admit. And I reckon motivation could be shoehorned into A (attitude) but it would also show up in D (decision status) and the complicated bit with the funny symbol…

  5. #11 by elenaphd on 25 November 2010 - 17:46

    Hello, David!
    Thanks a lot for the useful post. I personally don’t like the term employability anymore (although I am using it in my research 🙂 Every time I mention it people think about employment outcomes rather than skills, knowledge and attitudes that people should possess to increase their employment chances. I am personally doing research on employabiliity-related learning and how PhD candidates develop their employability skills during candidature. I quite like the CareerEDGE model. I agree that it does not consider a number of factors especially the state of the labour market. But we cannot control the state of labour market anyway. I think this model is suitable for HE purposes when we try to make students more aware of the key skills, knowledge and attitudes that they should possess in order to be competitive, and support them in their development.
    I think HEIs should focus not only employability but also career adaptability issues http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/glacier. Here are my Delicious bookmarks http://www.delicious.com/elena.golovushkina/employability. Hopefully you can find something useful there.

    • #12 by David Winter on 26 November 2010 - 12:33

      Thanks for commenting. I’d be interested in hearing more about your research.

      I agree that it is helpful to focus on the things that we can control. However, perhaps the danger of excluding such things as external labour market conditions is that you often end up with a model of employability which is quite static.

      There is also a danger that we concentrate on what we feel we can deliver rather than thinking about what students actually need to survive in an ever-changing job market. Focusing on external conditions forces us to keep questioning whether what we are doing to enhance employability is still appropriate.

      One of the reasons I quite like Fugate’s psycho-social model is that each element has a corresponding external correlate (my thoughts not Fugate’s). As the external factor changes it forces a re-evaluation of the individual component.

      Career identity can be linked to shifting cultural norms and stereotypes
      Personal adaptability can be linked to changes in the nature of employment and the economy
      Social & human capital can be linked to changing demographics and globalisation

      In the same way, I think that employment outcomes are an essential consideration when talking about employability. How else do you know whether your conception about how to improve employability is appropriate to the external conditions? Having said that, what annoys me are crude measures of employment outcomes – looking just at quantities rather than looking at quality of employment outcomes. Perhaps Mr Cameron’s wellbeing survey will help with that particular agenda…

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