Employability: It's about so much more than academic skills

The festive season is traditionally a time to reflect on the year that was, and to turn your focus towards prospects for the future, writes Francis Petersen, rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State

The festive season is traditionally a time to reflect on the year that was, and to turn your focus towards prospects for the future, writes Francis Petersen, rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State

Published Dec 16, 2018


Bloemfontein - The festive season is traditionally a time to reflect on the year that was, and to turn your focus towards prospects for the future. For graduates from our higher-education institutions, the time has inevitably come to focus on entering the world of work. But getting suitable employment is not always easy and straightforward.

Our unemployment rate in South Africa still hovers dangerously high at around 26%. Statistics SA recently revealed that the vast majority of this figure is made up of young people. However, it is clear that academic qualifications make a considerable difference, as the graduate unemployment rate for those aged 25-34 drops to 10,2%, further decreasing to 4,7% for those aged 35-64.

But there’s admittedly still much that can be done to improve the employability of our graduates. The QS World University Rankings recently published its latest Graduate Employability Rankings, which showed the universities that produced the most effective and competent graduates.

Five factors were taken into account, namely:

Employer reputation:

Employers identify which universities have the most competent, innovative, and effective graduates. 

Alumni outcomes:

  An analysis of which universities are producing ‘world-changing individuals’. 

Employer/Faculty partnerships:

University collaboration with employers and work-placement partnerships. 

Employer/Student connections:

The number of employers who have been actively present on a university campus. 

Graduate employment rate:

The proportion of graduates in full-time work, 12 months after graduating.

It’s concerning to note that not one South African university has made it into the top 100. 

For the past couple of years, there has been an increased focus on efforts to improve the employability of graduates at our institutions of higher learning. 

At the University of the Free State, we introduced a compulsory module called UFS101 for all students a few years ago. In the first semester we focus on academic skills to be a successful student, while the second semester focuses on success beyond the university. Students learn about interview skills, CV writing, what employers are looking for, the effect of social media on employability, and more.

The university’s Department of Career Services offers further work readiness programmes and facilitates exposure to potential employers through company presentations, webinars, and career fairs.  Both the UFS 101 module and the Department of Career Services provide a means of sensitivity, relevant skills and exposure to entrepreneurship.

Through our Centre for Teaching and Learning, we make sure that students’ career aspirations line up with their study fields. Using academic advising, students are consistently briefed on the world of work, as well as fields where, for instance, a skills need exist, or fields where there is an over-supply of job-seeking graduates.

The Business School has identified the main drivers of not being workplace ready as a lack of life skills, managerial skills, and leadership skills. They have consequently started teaming up with specific sectors – such as the pharmaceutical industry – offering short learning programmes to specially recruited unemployed graduates. These graduates are placed at host companies for five months of practical work experience and are also provided with classroom-based training in subjects such as leadership, financial management, corporate ethics, etiquette, codes of conduct, and cultural sensitivity.

All these interventions and initiatives seem to be paying off. The university has just completed its first Graduate Exit Survey at the UFS.  Among the encouraging findings was that 74% of the 2017 graduate cohort who indicated that they will be working after graduation (as opposed to studying further, taking a break, etc.) were already working or had accepted a job offer within months of graduating.

The reality is that the world of work has changed dramatically over the past few years. All indications are that we’re in for even more drastic changes in the foreseeable future. One of the key elements that employers are constantly looking for, is adaptability. I believe the role of the university is not only to equip students with skills, but also to help them think independently and creatively. We have a vital role in developing entrepreneurial mindsets. But it goes even further than that.

In their recent book, Universities, Employability and Human Development, our SARCHi Chair for Higher Education and Human Development, Professor Melanie Walker, and her co-author Samuel Fongwa, raise an important point:  Employability should involve more than individuals’ entry into the workplace, or contributions to human capital and economic growth. It should also encompass public good values, such as concerns of social justice, inequality, and poverty reduction.

We should produce good employees who are also good citizens. There are different ways in which universities can do this. 

At the UFS, one of our efforts is mentorship training as part of our Gateway orientation programme. We get senior students to act as mentors for first-years, and at the same time they get better prepared for the world of work. We develop their communication and time-management skills, but also their relational skills in the form of empathy and team work. We also introduce an important community-engagement element – teaching them to give back to society. In the process they learn good stewardship, resourcefulness, and caring.

Ultimately, we have an educational responsibility that goes beyond the content of our academic curricula and our training modules. It’s also about introducing students to an environment on our campuses where values such as social justice, inclusivity, and care are actively demonstrated. These values must transpire in the way we talk to each other, listen to each other, interact with each other. We must show them what good citizenship is all about; not only teach it to them.

I truly believe that this will ultimately lead to universities producing graduates who are not only competent and employ-able, but also ami-able, adapt-able, and prefer-able. And able to make a difference in the world.

* Professor Francis Petersen is the Rector and Vice Chancellor at the University of Free State. 

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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