Reflections from further down the line

I thought I would look again at our Report and the idea of Employability as it is used in the FE and Skills Sector, now with the benefit longer hindsight.

It is usual to see how the discussion about the role of FE, particularly in higher circles always starts with the success rates argument as if the value of FE is to simply prepare students for work, rather than preparing people for the world of work, and there is a massive difference between these two approaches.
The former sees success in a student who moves from course to job in one simple movement. It is driven by political need for ‘easy catch’ statistics . FE is reduced to a placement service to put young people into a job as if it is some kind of extension of a careers service; it provides the advice but then goes on to prepare the student for the advice given.

FE needs to be much more than this and it was borne out in the conversations we had with employers and those looking to contract with the self-employed (as most FE students will be at several points in their working lives). It is why in our work we dropped the term employment and substituted employability.
We were well supported by employers in this. What they really wanted was the right people for the jobs and the ‘rightness’ didn’t mean only the qualification.
Employability recognises that the ‘rightness’ may not last in the longer term as the world of work is under constant redefinition requiring flexibility and agility on both sides. We all need to be adaptable to withstand a world in constant change. It wasn’t tested but I bet most FE students would not want to be trained for one job that would define their whole working lives. The modern world offers change and choices for those open to explore them.

Perhaps part of the employability problem is students who come through and out of FE who are not well prepared for the realities of what employers and customers want and expect. In part it is because demonstrating the hard skills, (the ‘this is what I can do’ part) is evidenced by qualifications but has a short shelf-life, whilst the the soft part (or the ‘this is who I am’) which is of more enduring importance through a working life was and still is only assessed in a short few minutes over an interview. Students are drilled in the hard skills but not formally supported in understanding the softer skills. All highly unsatisfactory. No wonder employers are frustrated at the lack of evidence to draw on in deciding who to ask to attend an interview when confronted by students with identical certificates.

The opportunity we found in the enabling role of technology has come about because of the revolution in technology in the last 10 years from shared and central software to personal applications; from ‘technology for the many’ to ‘technologies for the one’. Personal devices provide the platforms on which apps now orbit around each of us as we choose and customise them. We now have (students included) as a consequence a very good mechanism, usually some form of personal e-portfolio to be able to demonstrate the soft skills on an equal footing with the hard skills and it can be done en masse from the employer perspective. Critically portfolios can be published around the planet from the student perspective. Colleges really can prepare students to show who they are and what they can do (in that order maybe?) when searching for job opportunities and not just to those within physical interviewing distance. It renders the phrase ‘local employment’ redundant. In fact working with local employers might be considered to be under-striving for colleges.

What we need is a realisation of the value of technology not just help with the administration of courses and delivery, but to allow students to use it to develop the unique learning stories and outcomes and publish them to anyone anywhere who might value them. Paradoxically, for many, there isn’t even a need to travel, as technology allows a lot of businesses to trade from their front room. I have seen a student interview successfully in East Kent for a job in Washington USA using Skype for example. This is the vision part that managers have to explore. We need a vision that sees technology having value in the enterprise and personal celebration of learning (which is a student centric view). Both are important but the enterprise must lead the administration and not the other way around. For teachers it is to inspire students to think globally and redesign courses to allow this capture of education as a force for developing the person and not just seen as training in a skill. As for students, they need to broaden their horizons and wake up to the importance of their on-line reputation and aspire and see how technology allows them to better manage their learning activity and learning journey, because they all have great stories to tell.

What was equally exciting is how technology supports these new ways of learning that helps prepare students for this new world of work. Collaborative learning, sharing ideas and testing the value of them, synthesising new understanding and reflecting on it. Learning through project based and/or enquiry based activity on-line with classmates; all of these solid ‘world of work’ skills. These are all ways of learning in college made possible by technology, replicating how we learn in the workplace to the way we learn in the classroom.

Geoff Rebbeck – July 2016

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