2 Introduction to Employability

The future depends on what you do today

Mahatma Gandhi


Icon of a magnifying glass with an arrow intersecting it Learning Objectives

On completion of this chapter you should be able to:

  • Understand what employability is and how and why this is a contested concept.
  • Appraise the current challenges around work, especially in relation to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
  • Analyse the labour market challenges and evaluate the impact on individual employment outcomes.
  • Integrate the wider socio-cultural environment and its impacts on individual employability outcomes.
  • Translate the theoretical knowledge provided into a set of strategies for improving your employability on graduation.



Some people know what work or career they want when they graduate – maybe not for the rest of their lives – but after completing school, college or university. Individuals who are attracted to more vocational work such as IT, accountancy, medicine, nursing, law, engineering and so on, have vocational and higher education courses they can enrol in, that provide them with the required level of training and knowledge to pursue their ambitions. Other people have a passion – think about those who want to be actors, musicians, dancers, or filmmakers, they too have vocational and higher education courses that speak directly to them, to prepare them as artists and for (self)employment. Then, there are many others who at 16, 17, or 18 do not know what they want to do – and why should they? Enrolling in further study is always a benefit to future earnings; higher wages bring benefits beyond salary to individuals throughout the lifecourse. Is there something more though that educators can be doing to help prepare all students, regardless of their chosen path, for employment? Before we think about what this preparation might look like, let’s find out a little bit more about the job market, or as it is often known, the labour market.


The Labour Market for Young People in the Early 21st Century

Research shows that most (86%) undergraduate students would prefer traditional employment, that is employment in which an individual is engaged in ongoing full-time work for a single employer at a time. This has been the cultural norm in most global north societies and clearly still holds value for young people entering the job market. However, government figures from various countries note that casual work now accounts for a significant proportion of work. For example, in Australia in 2020, 20% of all work was casualised, and in the US that figure is higher at around 30%. These figures are likely an under-estimate as they often exclude seasonal workers, second jobs and undeclared income (Caza, 2020). This means that the labour market has changed to such a degree that people’s individual needs for secure employment do not match the offerings of the labour market.


The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) noted that engagement of young people in the labour market was crucial for their own personal wellbeing and economic growth as well as the overall health of the economic system. However, the current climate of economic instability had led to greater hardship in finding secure and appropriate employment, maintaining employment, and the inexorable rise of casual work including the gig economy (on-demand work obtained through digital platforms); this means it is a highly turbulent time to be entering the labour market. However, it should be noted that in Australia graduate employment improved significantly in 2022, with overall employment for domestic undergraduates increasing from 84.8 per cent in 2021 to 88.3 per cent in 2022. The full-time employment rate also increased from 68.9 per cent to 78.5 per cent (QILT, 2022).


Clapperboard type icon with a forward facing arrow Watch this YouTube video to understand why the gig economy is often problematic.


A report by PWC in 2022 (when unemployment was low) showed that globally young people (between 15 and 24 years of age) were more likely to be unemployed, although there was a large disparity from country to country, with Australia showing that youth unemployment was 2.5 times that of adults (Woodhouse and Thorpe, n.d.). The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA, 2020) also found that young people were disproportionately represented in flexible work and that from 2016 there had been a 340% growth in the number of people engaging in gig work with people aged between 18–24 years making up more than half of this number. Underemployment is also widespread for young people (15–24-year-olds), which has increased in the past 10 years. There has been an increase in underemployment and involuntary part-time work since 2014, possibly due to the greater time taken for graduates to move from part-time to full-time employment (Chambers et al., 2021). Due to rapid technological changes, we can infer that changes in graduate employment will continue to occur and that educational institutions will have to revise both curriculum and employment preparation at a more rapid rate.


The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Continued change in the labour market is guaranteed, with many of the technologies indicated as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (or 4IR) having already arrived such as 5G, fully autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, and narrow AI (artificial intelligence). 4IR is the next phase in the digitisation of work, driven by disruptive trends including the rise of data and connectivity, analytics, human-machine interaction, and improvements in robotics. It is named the fourth industrial revolution building on previous leaps in technological innovation. The first industrial revolution used water and steam to mechanise production. The second industrial revolution used electric power to provide mass production technologies. The third industrial revolution used electronics and information technology to automate production. The argument for a fourth industrial revolution is the exponential rate of change and disruption happening in every industry, country and in our daily lives. As we continue to progress towards a new paradigm that includes quantum computing, advanced robotics, augmented reality, human/computer interfaces and regeneration of body parts (McKinsey & Company, 2022), over the next 10 years, we must acknowledge that not only do we not know how our lives will be altered, we also do not know what work and jobs will look like.


Open book icon Read this article from McKinsey for an introduction to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


Early in 2023 OpenAI’s ChatGPT rocketed narrow AI onto the radar of the general public. This chatbot uses machine learning to undertake tasks such as write resumes, cover letters, to generate art and policy and much, much more. One of ChatGPT’s main abilities is that, given a prompt, it generates text to give you an accessible and readable response. Along with providing information and answers, it can also aid knowledge workers to analyse and expand their work. For many users it is used to help generate and to supplement ideas, to process lots of information and to provide summaries. Narrow AI is already in the workplace, and will continue to expand into new areas, so it is critical to understand how to use the tool, so you don’t fall behind.


Even the professions are not immune to the impacts of the fourth industrial revolution. Susskind and Susskind (2015) posit that professions such as medicine, law, teaching, accountancy, architecture, journalism and so on, will undergo significant and irreversible change as a result of the fourth industrial revolution. These authors argue that all professions will undergo two sets of changes. First, the professions will start to be dominated by automation and the current ways of working will be optimised through the application of technology. This incremental change is obvious and has happened throughout history; think for example the way that personal PCs changed ways of working seemingly overnight. Second, the professions will be dominated by innovation. Increasingly capable technological systems will transform the work of professionals and in the long run this second type of change will prevail, and the professions will be dismantled incrementally.


Open book icon To get an idea of how ubiquitous artificial intelligence is, read one or more of these articles on Wired.


With the reduction in current types of jobs, jobs that we can’t currently imagine will be created (Wilson et al., 2017). There are many consequences of this and the World Economic Forum (WEF) reports that by 2025, 50% of employees will need re-skilling (Whiting, 2020). The WEF lists the top 10 skills that will be in demand from employers in 2025: analytical thinking and innovation; active learning and learning strategies; complex problem-solving and ideation; critical thinking and analysis; creativity, originality and initiative; leadership and social influence; technology use, monitoring and control; technology design and programming; resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility; reasoning (Whiting, 2020). As can be seen, the top six skills are very difficult to currently automate. These mostly soft, or transferable skills, therefore, need to be embedded into vocational and higher education courses (V&HEIs) alongside more technical, disciplinary skills development.


The Fifth Industrial Revolution

The 4th IR is not without its limitations, however, and does not, for example, incorporate environmental sustainability, including the circular economy, human preferences, or worker welfare into its raison d’etre. To resolve those issues, Industry 5.0 will be powered by purpose, not profit. Industry 5.0 will harness its power to achieve societal goals beyond just jobs and constant economic growth. It promises to respect the environment and the well-being of workers. Leading up to this tipping point, some scholars are discussing the ‘age of augmentation’ where humans embed technology in their bodies – perhaps an ‘internet of bodies’. It will also see humans and robots working together in the same space, known as collaborative robots or co-bots. This may all seem far-fetched, but some countries have already announced 5 IR strategies. For example, the European Commission has announced that industry will be based on the concepts of sustainability, human-centredness and resilience. Germany has announced a 2030 Vision for Industry 5.0, and Japan announced Society 5.0. Society 5.0 aims to balance economic development with social and environmental concerns (Xu et al., 2021).


The Employability Agenda

Many governments are becoming increasingly concerned about upskilling young people to have ‘work-ready’ skills including the critical ability for lifelong learning. This context has led governments in many countries, including in Australia and the UK, to drive the behaviours of V&HEIs to do more to ensure that graduates have the skills and competencies to be ‘work-ready’. This type of activity has become known as the employability agenda. V&HEIs traditionally have taken a skills-based approach to the employability agenda, based on increasing human capital through upskilling in transferable skills, either directly through certain units of study such as communication or project management, or indirectly by embedding skills in units of study, for example, teamwork is taught through the use of group assignment activities. Work-integrated learning topics (a sort of internship) have also become popular and have often been made compulsory in degrees.


Clapperboard type icon with a forward facing arrow Watch our industry expert, Nicole Deacon, discuss the benefit of their degree and skill development.


However, when UK students were asked to assess the development of career skills in their university programs, only 49% said they were actively developed (a figure which has been stable over the last four years; Daubney, 2020). The Chartered Management Institute (CMI, 2018) noted the importance of universities in helping students reflect on and maximise the skills they have acquired through their courses, part-time work, and other activities, but it is clear from the statistics above that many students have often not been able to identify the core employability skills being taught or have not been able to adequately express them to potential employers (Daubney, 2020). Students report finding it difficult to translate skills taught within their courses, into an employment pitch with only 27% of students reporting they were confident demonstrating their work readiness (CMI, 2018). This is at odds with evidence over multiple decades, that higher education transforms students into highly employable individuals. What is does indicate is that students need support from their V&HEIs to help them articulate what their transformation has been, particularly in non-professional courses (Daubney, 2020).


What is Employability?

Employability in general can be defined as ‘the capacity to be self-reliant in navigating the labour market, utilising knowledge, individual skills and attributes, and adapting them to the employment context, showcasing them to employers, while taking into account external and other constraints’ (Small et al., 2018). The scholarly literature, however, suggests that employability can be defined in four ways.


Human capital development

Some scholars emphasise employability is mainly related to the capabilities of individuals, including personal assets and characteristics. This individual agency view of employability is that investment in education, training or other skills development (human capital development) is primarily an individual investment. The individual then becomes responsible for their own employability, dependent on how well the labour market values the human capital developed (Delva et al., 2021; Tholen, 2015). This view of employability, and one that is the focus of much contemporary research, is that employability describes the individual content that makes a person successful in the labour market.


The approach above aligns to the view taken in the contemporary career literature which foregrounds individual agency and which argues that with the ongoing reduction in organisational careers offering job security and long-term prospects, individuals need to act to be employable or marketable. This shift has been driven through the concomitant rise in the portfolio career, the boundaryless career, precarious work, and the gig economy. Proponents of human capital development theory argue that individuals need to show career self-management behaviours, increase their human capital, and compete for work and careers as if the wider context has no impact on individual outcomes. The emphasis is on how well the person acquires and maintains ‘employability’ in a changing labour market. However, the effectiveness of these individualised approaches has been questioned (Holmes, 2013). Although research shows that there are better or worse employability profiles, and that some individuals ‘win’ and some ‘lose’, there has been little progress made in understanding how this eventuates (Wilton 2011). Research has not been able to identify a generic set of personal strengths and actions aimed at enhancing human capital (Wilton, 2011) and Marginson (2019) argues that human capital theory lacks real-world complexity, partially based on the lack of context.


Labour market conditions

Other scholars suggest that the emphasis should be on the labour market as the driving force behind graduate employability and that it is these objective structural realities that have the biggest impact on graduate employability outcomes. Recently, however, in many employment sectors, there has been a weakening of the link between credentials and the recruitment requirements for early career roles. In the UK for instance, it has been shown that employers value ‘job readiness’ over a qualification so a CV with a history of work experience and behavioural competencies, is starting to be increasingly valued over a credential (Brown and Souto-Otero, 2020).


These two arguments, that individual factors and individual circumstances can be seen as separate, continues to represent employability strictly as a product rather than a reflection of the complex and integrated process of being (Brown and Souto-Otero, 2020). More recently, scholars have called for a more structure-related understanding of employability, including graduate employability (Akkermans & Kubasch, 2017), as individuals, even if possessing human capital, may face obstacles to successful employment outcomes.



Another viewpoint regards employability as relational, contextual, and conflictual and structured by inequalities (Clarke, 2018; Delva et al., 2021; Tholen, 2015). Opportunities for individuals competing in the labour market depend not only on their own skills, experiences, and abilities but on how other individuals perform and that different social groups are in competition for access to elite positions. Those that are successful are not there purely due to greater human capital but due to their ability to access positions, and employers do not make solely merit-based decisions (Woodard, 2005).


Combined approach

Still other scholars recognise that it is a combined approach which is important, that the external requirement for specific discipline knowledge, the need for individual self-efficacy and an understanding of inequities is paramount (Cheng et al., 2022). Tomlinson (2017) developed a graduate capital model incorporating multiple factors that moved closer to a holistic understanding of graduate employability, but still did not address dis/advantage on entering and exiting higher education. Behle (2020) presented an employability framework for higher education consisting of individual factors (e.g., age, gender and ethnicity), individual circumstances (e.g., capitals accumulation), enabling support systems, and the labour market.


Although the third and fourth perspectives suggest that both agency and structure matter in shaping employability, there has been little progress made in understanding how some individuals ‘win’ and some ‘lose’. Employability, then, is better conceptualised as an integrated agency and structure issue. Some scholars have tried to integrate the agency-structure dichotomy, notably through Bourdieu’s habitus (Bourdieu, 1977) although the majority of graduate employability scholarship has centred around individual agency by way of human capital development (Abelha et al., 2020). This agency-structure argument can be seen writ large in the employment patterns of Indigenous Australians.


Indigenous Employment

Indigenous Australians remain significantly under-represented in the workforce. In 2018, less than half (49%) of working age Indigenous Australians were in employment, compared with 76% for non-Indigenous Australians. The Indigenous Employment Index 2022 is the first comprehensive snapshot of Indigenous workplace representation, practices and employee experiences. The key findings of this research are:


  • Just 5% of participating employers (40 organisations) fall into the highest performing category in terms of Indigenous employment practices and outcomes, however, almost a third fall into the lowest performing group.
  • The mean Indigenous employment rate across surveyed employers is 2.2%.
  • Employers often prioritise recruitment over retention and development.
  • 76% of employers have Indigenous employment targets, of which 67% report regularly on progress. Organisations that report regularly had more than double the numbers of Indigenous staff than those that did not report regularly.
  • Indigenous employees are almost entirely absent from senior management and executive leadership levels.
  • Racism against Indigenous employees is common, with over 50% reporting direct or indirect racism.


Indigenous employment parity will only be achieved when Indigenous employees are present in the workforce in the same proportion as they are in the national population, at approximately 3.3%. This Indigenous employment research found that one-off measures to create Indigenous employment must give way to a more comprehensive and systematic approach.


No different from the organisations participating in the above research, universities also have under-representation of Indigenous people from commencing undergraduates, through to PhD students, and on to staff and senior leaders. Behrendt et al. (2012, paragraph 1) reports:


According to the Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, Indigenous people comprise 2.2 per cent of the overall population, but only 1.4 per cent of student enrolments at university in 2010, including only 1.1 per cent of higher degree by research enrolments. Staffing levels are also low, with 0.8 per cent of all full- time equivalent academic staff and 1.2 per cent of general university staff in 2010 being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


Universities Australia (the peak body for the higher education sector) and the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council (IHEAC) have collaborated to produce two documents: the Best Practice Framework for Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities (2011a) and the accompanying Guiding Principles for Developing Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities (2011b). Universities are currently implementing the key principles of the Best Practice Framework, which includes developing Reconciliation Action Plans to formalise their commitment to developing mutually beneficial partnerships that work towards closing the employment, health and education gaps for Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


The 2012 Behrendt Report (2012) recommended universities use the Best Practice Framework in all spheres of a university connected to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including in discussions about graduate attributes. Two key principles that universities are working towards are:


  • All graduates of Australian universities will have the knowledge and skills necessary to interact in a culturally competent way with Indigenous communities.
  • Universities will operate in partnership with their Indigenous communities and will help disseminate culturally competent practices to the wider community.


A report on Indigenous graduate employability (Knight et al. 2015) has the following advice and guidance for students:


  • Look for internships / work-integrated learning opportunities.
  • Seek positive mentoring.
  • Understand and highlight your transferrable skills.


Individual Strategies for Improving Employability

Taking all that we have covered above, and noting that employability as an outcome is not solely dependent on an individual’s human capital, what are some strategies that have been proven to have a positive effect on an individual’s chance of securing a graduate job? A systematic literature review reported that although technical or discipline competencies were important so were transferable competencies or soft skills (Abelha, 2020). The most important of the soft skills identified for graduate employability were communication, teamwork, and digital skills.


If these competencies above are important, then how can students take opportunities to improve them? V&HEIs provide a range of opportunities for students to develop and utilise skills. The scholarly literature agrees that the following 11 strategies provide opportunities for increasing individual human capital (listed here in alphabetical order):


Capstone project: A capstone project can take many forms but it is a unique opportunity to carry out independent group research on a real-world problem. It provides a vital role in preparing students for the world of work as it deals with complex problem-solving, requires teamwork, good time management and communication skills. Some courses will embed this as core in your course but if not, and there is an option topic, you should take the opportunity as it will provide a good way to talk to potential employers about how you combine discipline knowledge with soft skills to solve problems to achieve a good final outcome.


Careers advice and employment skill development: All V&HEIs have areas that offer careers advice and employability skill development so students should take advantage of all the resources at your disposal. Many universities offer opportunities to be involved with peer mentoring, leadership awards and so on. Although these extra-curricula activities are time consuming, they can help provide evidence of your work-related skills to employers.


International exchange: Study abroad programs are an excellent opportunity to boost your employability skills. In an increasingly globalised world, having in-depth experiences of another culture can be a useful way of standing out. Couple this with some language study and you will be even better situated.


Mentoring: Mentoring has been shown to be highly effective in preparing students for future employment. Many universities run industry or alumni mentoring programs whereby they match students with graduates and/or industry experts who can help students find out more about that industry, introduce them to professional networks and provide industry-based career advice and guidance.


Networking or industry information events: V&HEIs will offer career fairs and it is worth exploring multiple opportunities throughout your study period. Institutions may also offer other opportunities to meet prospective employers often through course industry panels.


Part-time employment: Securing some form of paid employment, even if not in an area that you want to eventually work in is highly valuable for graduate employment later, and keeping this work for a length of time provides evidence that you are a reliable and valued employee, and you then have access to work-related referees.


Professional association membership: For some students who develop an interest in a particular area, joining a professional association may be helpful in developing your career identity. These associations often have heavily discounted student membership rates and opportunities for professional development and networking.


Professional development: Although we generally think about professional development when we have secured a job, this can also be done alongside your studies. For example, at Flinders University we have the Horizon Professional Development Award that allows students to gain formal recognition for extra-curricular professional activities; other institutions would have similar schemes. Professional development would also include building a portfolio of work if relevant, gaining records of achievement or undertaking additional study through free online learning providers to upskill in particular areas. These massive open online courses (MOOC) providers such as FutureLearn and edX have hundreds of employment-related short courses including with the potential to gain micro-credentials.


Social media: A professional social media presence is invaluable. Employers will Google people when they have applied for a job and a LinkedIn profile and/or a professional website would be useful for ensuring your professional presence.


Volunteering/community engagement: If you cannot secure relevant part-time work through your studies, you can also undertake voluntary or community work in an area of interest. This is invaluable in proving to employers you understand a particular job or industry and that you not only have your qualifications but hands-on experience.


Work experience/internships/placements: This is one of the most important activities you can undertake whilst studying. A good placement opportunity not only provides you with an insight into that particular job and industry and work-related experience, it also links you in with relevant people and networks. The number of students that gain jobs where they have undertaken a placement is very high and this activity should be non-negotiable. Some courses will have these embedded as a course component but if not, try and make sure you do this as one of your option topics.


One thing that everyone can do is be prepared for any opportunities that come our way. Is there an opportunity to use your skills to get work experience in some other way, as an active member of your student guild for example? When you have a job, are you ready if an opportunity arises in a different role or project? Being prepared and ready to step up when an opportunity arises is a critically important aspect of your career management strategy.


Clapperboard type icon with a forward facing arrow Watch our industry experts, Sean Tierney and Nicole Deacon, discuss the benefits of taking opportunities.


In Summary

We have covered a lot of important context in this chapter, critical for understanding the broader factors in determining employability; complete exercise 2.1 now to help think through these issues. It is important to recognise that employability isn’t just about your own set of skills and experiences, your human capital, but is embedded more widely in the society in which you live, your background, and the labour market factors on graduation. The fact that the labour market is changing rapidly in terms of moving from secure employment to casual work and the gig economy, as well as the impact of the fourth industrial revolution, means that higher-order and soft skills are becoming increasingly important to secure a good job. That is not to say that increasing your human capital is not important, it is, and there are a number of activities that you can undertake alongside your studies. This chapter summarises 11 of these activities, some of which will be covered in further chapters in this book.


Exercise 2.1

Think about the following questions and prompts:

  • Thinking about your own career interests, what impact do you think 4IR and AI will have on related jobs?
  • Can you explain why securing a graduate job isn’t just about individual human capital? What other groups of people do you think may be impacted on more structural-related issues?
  • What are your thoughts on the 11 activities outlined to help secure a graduate job? Are you motivated to undertake some or all of these? How can you plan and set goals to achieve these?
  • Reflect on your current skills and appraise which areas you need to gain more experience in, especially related to soft skills development.


Icon showing bullet points with a key above itKey Takeaways

  • The job market is competitive, so you need to have work experience as well as qualifications.
  • Plan what activities you can do whilst at college/university to enhance your own employability.
  • Concentrate on enhancing your soft skills, as well as your discipline knowledge, as employers are increasingly focused on these competencies.



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