Helena Knapton argues for a more holistic interpretation of ‘employability’ than the purely economic interpretation.

Employability has become something of a buzz-word in schools as well as in Higher Education – and is a regular topic in the ‘Teaching Business and Economics’ journal.  But what is ‘employability’?  Is it just an academic way of describing a person’s ability to get a job, preferably at a higher socio-economic level than their parents? Or is it something else?

Neo-liberal concepts of the value of education are rapidly becoming the norm.  This is particularly true where the value of education is measured in terms of the type of employment that a pupil or student goes on to achieve. We see this regularly in articles such as the BBC report “Biggest winners and losers from degrees” (Coughlan, 2019) which ranked the return in earnings of where students undertook their degrees.  Moreover, it is apparent in the way that Universities are ranked within the Teaching Excellence Framework – which now includes Student Outcomes as measured by the type of employment and the tax returns of their alumni 5 years after completion of the degree – with limited opportunity for contextualisation.  And the recent Augur Review (2019) refers to ‘low value degrees’, i.e. as ones that have ‘poor retention, poor graduate employment, and low earnings’ (Wolff, J. 2019)

We also see the reductionist approach to education in publications such as the Gatsby Report (2019) providing benchmarks for good career guidance in schools which are clearly linked to the labour market, employers as well as routes into FE and HE; and in the raft of research publications from the Education and Employers Organisation.  Moreover, the justification for the way that schools are assessed and checked for compliance through Progress 8 and the EBacc is the intention to link the success of education to the future prospects of students.  Inevitably, this includes their preparedness for a life of work together with notions of improved economic futures.  And there is nothing wrong with wanting our young people to be able to improve their life chances, including their economic wellbeing.  But their economic future is only one part of the picture and is something that we are not in a position to guarantee.

I’m not sure that education, employability and future employment were ever intended to be so narrowly aligned, and with such a strong focus on social mobility – which, by definition, requires those at the bottom to reject their upbringings and embrace the culture and social norms of those in higher socio-economic bands.  As much as we want our students to do well and to enjoy opportunity, there is a tension to be held between desiring social mobility and seeing education as a way of enabling young people to pursue their own choices.

So, what is employability?  A commonly accepted definition by Yorke & Knight (2006:8) describes employability as

‘A set of achievements – skills, understanding and personal attributes – that makes individuals more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workplace, the community and the economy’

This clearly sets out a view of employability which is more than just employment and recognises that individual socio-economic contexts will make a difference on the ability of someone to get a job.  Moreover, it is not defining what the ‘chosen occupation’ of individuals should be or what tax status is considered to be acceptable.  Finally, there is a recognition that employability is not just about the individual, or a collection of individuals.  Rather it is about the complex inter-relationships between that individual, where they work, where they live and their contribution to the economy – whether that is at a local or a national level.  On this basis, it could be argued that acting as a volunteer for the Samaritans, or the Citizens Advice Bureau fulfils the criteria for employability just as well as, if not more than, being employed as an investment banker. Pursuing this argument further, employability reinforces the Judaeo-Christian view of ‘work’ where someone delights in the benefits of using one’s skills and attributes well, whether or not this results in financial payment.

Employability, therefore, is not just about enabling our students to be ‘work-ready’ but enabling them to have purposeful lives which will continue whatever the nature of their future employment.  And given the continuing shift towards self-employment, the gig-economy, the constantly evolving range of jobs and careers together with the economic uncertainty of the country against a backdrop of Brexit – and notwithstanding the challenges to orthodox economics that continue to be taught at A level (see Davis, 2019 ‘What have economists being getting so wrong’) – there is an increasing necessity for us as teachers to see the bigger picture of what we are preparing our students for.

That may sound daunting and unrealistic to some.  And yet, this is what good economics and business teachers have always done.  As the numbers testify, Business and Economics entries continue to be strong (Butler, D. 2018).  This reflects the value that they hold despite not being EBacc subjects, core Progress 8 subjects, or being ‘facilitating subjects’ as recognised by the Russell Group (i.e.  those subjects which are most likely to give students the opportunity to successfully apply to study for degrees within Russell Group universities).  For many this is a recognition of the value of Business and/ or Economics subjects within the curriculum by students and their parents/ guardians, as well as the schools themselves, in creating a bridge between their lives outside of school and their lives within school.

That bridge includes the development of student awareness and understanding of their economic and business environments at both the macro and micro levels. And as the ‘Teaching Business and Economics’ journal testifies there is a rich pedagogy and subject knowledge within our subject community that supports many aspects of employability as well as developing skills for employment.  For instance, in the Autumn journal (2018) the Cotswold School case study included two inserts about their teachers and the ‘Jobs I’ve had’.  In both cases the examples provided included voluntary roles as well as paid roles and is evidence that employability within that school, at least, is more than just about the skills required for paid employment but also values contributions to local communities (White, P. 2018).

Yet that challenge to separate employability from the mechanistic view of developing skills for work still exists, both at a national level as well as within our schools. Even within the Ofsted publication ‘Getting Ready for Work’ (2016) there is a blurring between employability, enterprise and skills for employment. However, I would suggest, that the purpose of a good (business, economics or enterprise) education is one that enables a student to have both agency and autonomy to make ethical as well as economic choices regarding which sectors they work in, who they work for, and the types of returns they work for.

And it is worth making explicit that as teachers we have made our own ethical and economic decisions to pursue a career in education.  As graduates, the earnings from being teachers does not put us within a category that makes our undergraduate or post-graduate studies of ‘great value’ according to current political and financial rhetoric – yet we all know and believe in the wider economic and social value of what we do. (Although we do manage to be recognised for being in ‘Graduate Employment’).

Whilst the dominant political and economic voices are arguing that education should have a direct correlation to increased earnings for the individual there are other organisations that are dancing to a different tune.  One that seems to be on the side of employability is The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which works internationally with governments, policy makers and citizens to create “policies that foster prosperity, equality, opportunity and well-being for all” (www.oecd.org/about).  The 2019 edition of the OECD Employment Outlook ‘The Future of Work’ is a useful publication to have on one’s digital bookshelf, particularly for those who have the additional role of careers in school.  However, the recent publication The OECD Learning Compass 2030 (www.oecd.org/education/2030-project/teaching-and-learning/learning) is one that more clearly reflects the employability aims identified by Yorke and Knight (2006).

The intention of the OECD Learning Compass 2030 is to identify the ‘knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that learners need to fulfil their potential and contribute to the well-being of their communities and the planet’.  The way that it has been written has been to focus on student agency and responsibility within a world of changing possibilities when making life and career decisions.

Whilst retaining literacy and numeracy (Core Foundations 2030) as underpinning requirements to enable students to navigate a way to achieve their potential other concepts are identified as being necessary to turn their potential into something achievable.  In total there are 10 concepts, which go beyond the lists of ‘employment’ or ‘enterprise skills’ with which we are familiar but include ‘Well-being’, a reflective cycle (‘Anticipate – Action – Reflect’) and ‘Transformative Competencies’ within the list.  The OECD Learning Compass 2030 manages to be both optimistic and challenging in equal measure when we consider our own education system and our place within this.

As business and economics specialists it would be surprising to deliver in a way that actively prevents our students from developing skills that are appropriate for the working environment by being solely focused on developing exam knowledge and technique.  Adopting pedagogies that allow students to develop skills that encourage them to work with others effectively, resolve conflict, manage risk etc. all add to the richness of the subjects that they study. Furthermore, engaging with employers in a variety of ways makes the subject more stimulating and engaging not only for our students but for ourselves too.  Consequently, the debate is not about removing the link between education and employment.  Rather it is about viewing our role through the lens of employability we give ourselves – and our students – permission to have a more holistic understanding of their future than merely as an economic statistic.


Augur, P (2019) Review of Post-18 Education and Funding London. Crown Copyright Available from www.gov.uk/government/publications [Accessed 4th June 2019]

Butler, D. (2018) A level, AS and GCSE Entries and Results for Economics and Business 2018 Teaching Business and Economics 2018 (4) 17-19

Coughlan, S. (2018) Biggest winners and losers from degrees  BBC. Available from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46345527. [Accessed 29th May 2019]

Davis, E (2019) What have economists being getting so wrong BBC. Available from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-48350211 [Accessed 30th May 2019]

Education and Employers Organisation https://www.educationandemployers.org/

Lyons, A (2016) Getting ready for work Manchester. Ofsted Available from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/577236/Getting_ready_for_work.pdf [Accessed 4th June 2019]

SCHLEICHER Andreas (2019) The OECD Learning Compass 2030, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD. Available from http://www.oecd.org/education/2030-project/teaching-and-learning/learning/ [Accessed 31st May 2019]

The Gatsby Charitable Foundation (2018) The Gatsby Report Gatsby.org.uk. Available from https://www.goodcareerguidance.org.uk/ [Accessed 31st May 2019]

White, P. (2018) Case Study: Improving Careers & Employability Skills Education at The Cotswold School Teaching Economics and Business 2018 (4) 7-8

Wolff, J. (2019) The Augar report on higher education has a sting in its tail Guardian Available from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/jun/04/the-augar-report-on-higher-education-has-a-sting-in-its-tail [Accessed 4th June 2019]

Yorke, M. & Knight, P. (2006) Employability in higher education: What it is – what it is not. (Learning and employability series 1). York. Higher Education Academy

Helena Knapton, Faculty of Education Learning and Teaching Lead, Edge Hill University.  Co-author of ‘Teaching Business, Economics and Enterprise Education’ (Autumn 2019).  A text for beginner and newly qualified teachers.