Employability viewpoints

Gesu Novo facade

Your viewpoint is everything

In my last posting about the E word I focused on various models of employability (the fun bit in my geeky world!). In this post I wanted to look at some of the various definitions of employability and what those definitions say about the people who construct them.


The CBI defines employability as

…a set of attributes, skills and knowledge that all labour market participants should possess to ensure they have the capability of being effective in the workplace – to the benefit of themselves, their employer and the wider economy

An earlier definition was similar but narrower in scope:

Employability is the possession by an individual of the qualities and competencies required to meet the changing needs of employers and customers and thereby help to realise his or her aspirations and potential in work

Within this definition, employability could almost be exchanged with ‘usability’ or ‘usefulness’. How useful are the people being produced by the education system? Do they meet the needs of employers?

A lot of the material produced by employer organisations on employability seems to take the form of a lament that graduates just don’t have the skills they are looking for. This could lead one to a cynical view of the employers’ position which might be summed up in the question: ‘How much extra do I have to spend to get these people up to full usefulness and how is that going to affect shareholder value?’


Various government organisations have produced definitions of employability:

UK (1997)

the development of skills and adaptable workforces in which all those capable of work are encouraged to develop the skills, knowledge, technology and adaptability to enable them to enter and remain in employment throughout their working lives

Northern Ireland (2002)

the capability to move into and within labour markets and to realise potential through sustainable and accessible employment. For the individual, employability depends on: the knowledge and skills they possess, and their attitudes; the way personal attributes are presented in the labour market; the environmental and social context within which work is sought; and the economic context within which work is sought

Scotland (2004)

the combination of factors and processes which enable people to progress towards or get into employment, to stay in employment, and to move on in the workplace

These seem to have a ‘get in and stay in’ theme. Again, from a cynical perspective the government question seems to be: ‘How can we keep you from being an awkward unemployment statistic and get you paying taxes?’

Higher education

A definition produced by Peter Knight and Mantz Yorke and adopted by the UK’s Enhancing Student Employability Co-ordination Team describes employability as:

a set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that makes graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy.

Although this sounds very similar to many of the formulations above, it has one element which makes it distinctive — the words ‘chosen occupation’. My cynical head makes me wonder if the question here is something along the lines of: ‘How can we justify the money we get for our degree courses by showing that you have enhanced opportunities?’

Employability = choice?

Cynicism aside, though, I think that this element of choice is an important concept for the employability discussion. Is ’employability’ just something that gets people employed, or is it something that gives them more options within the employment market? Does it increase the options open to them and does it increase their ability to choose between those options?


Gesu Novo again

Here's what it looks like from a different perspective

Further reading

a set of attributes, skills and knowledge that all labour market participants should possess to ensure they have the capability of being effective in the workplace – to the benefit of themselves, their employer and the wider economy

McQuaid, R. & Lindsay, C. (2005). The concept of employability Urban Studies, 42 (2), 197-219. DOI: 10.1080/0042098042000316100

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  1. #1 by Dan on 9 February 2011 - 01:10

    These seem to be rather aspirational definitions of employability. I would suggest as a definition: the likelihood of a person finding and being hired for a position that s/he is willing to accept.

    • #2 by Vinny on 9 February 2011 - 09:22

      Hi Dan,
      I like your definition, but I see employability as mostly to do with the person (their skills, knowledge, confidence etc). For me, likelihood on it’s own seems too dependent on the environment.
      So how about:
      “The skills, attributes and knowledge of an individual which affect the likelihood of finding, obtaining and being retained in suitable employment.”

    • #3 by David Winter on 9 February 2011 - 09:33

      You’re right, it is about likelihood. The question remains, though, how do you measure that likelihood and, perhaps more importantly, how do you increase that likelihood?

      To answer that question, you do have to look at the characteristics of the individual and the socio-economic conditions – and try to work out what you can change. Maybe that is aspirational, but I’m not sure I want to apologise for that.

  2. #4 by David Winter on 10 February 2011 - 13:49

    Another resource on EU employers’ perception of employability

    Click to access fl_304_en.pdf

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