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Focus on ‘employability’

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WITH unemployment rates at a record high, questions are being asked about why university-trained job-seekers are joining the jobless queues.

Educational institutions are not keeping their curricula relevant to the job market.

RECENTLY, Statistics SA revealed the unemployment rate in the country had hit the highest level in more than 11 years, reaching 29%.

Since the beginning of the economic recession in South Africa, an increasing number of graduates have been unable to find permanent positions in their chosen fields.

Statistics SA’s results for the first quarter of 2019 showed an unemployment rate of 31% among graduates compared with 19.5% in the fourth quarter of 2018 – an increase of 11.4 percentage points quarter-on-quarter.

One of the most aggravating factors for unemployment is that educational institutions are not keeping their curricula relevant to the job market.

There is growing pressure on higher education to develop the relationship between the academy and employment. However, this does not mean that in producing “work-ready” graduates, higher education should change its focus to training.

Since the late 1980s, there has, in many countries, been increasing pressure on higher education to contribute directly to national economic regeneration and growth.

Increasingly, national and international assessments of the role and purposes of education indicate a need for higher education to contribute significantly to meeting the needs of the economy.

A major factor behind this pressure has been the growing concern within individual economies as a whole about future competitiveness.

Within this context, it is argued that the output of education and training systems in terms of both quantity and quality of skills at all levels, is the prime determinant of a country’s level of industrial productivity and hence competitiveness.

The term “employability” has gained prominence in recent years and has become a new buzzword in education. Higher education institutions have a responsibility to help students be successful and prepare for the world beyond the classroom.

Employability is much more than just skills or simply getting a job. In order to be effective, a combined approach is required to support students in piecing together opportunities and achievements in the curriculum and in particular beyond.

Whatever the course, employability is relevant to all students – and at all levels of study. It is about providing the opportunities for students to develop the essential knowledge, attitudes, behaviours, competencies and skills that they will require throughout their working lives.

Employability skills, therefore, refer to those skills required to acquire and retain a job.

In the past, employability skills were considered to be primarily of a vocational or job-specific nature; they were not thought to include the academic skills most commonly taught in schools.

Current thinking, however, has broadened the definition of employability skills to include not only many foundational academic skills, but also a variety of attitudes and habits.

These transferable skills include the ability to solve complex, multidisciplinary problems, work successfully in teams, exhibit effective oral and written communication skills, and practise good interpersonal skills.

In fact, in contemporary usage, the term “employability skills” is often used to describe the preparation or foundational skills upon which a person must build job-specific skills.

Among these foundational skills are those which relate to communication, personal and interpersonal relationships, problem-solving, and management of organisational processes. Employability can be defined as “a set of achievements – skills, understandings, and personal attributes that make graduates more likely to gain employability and be successful in their chosen occupations. It refers to the additional skills and competencies that an individual gains as they progress through higher education, which improves and enhances their employment and career.

Furthermore, employability means having the following attributes, skills and knowledge: self-management, team-work, business and customer awareness, problem-solving, communication, application of numeracy and application of information technology.

Employers are demanding skills that are outside the subject area of study in higher education.

Indeed, some employers have placed less importance on graduates’ actual degree discipline in favour of the more generic skills which they have acquired.

As the expectations of students and employers evolve, higher education institutions will have to adjust and provide support for employability. Indeed there is a global widespread skills gap and the onus is on higher education institutions to distil the needs of the employer and ensure that they are clearly communicated to students.

By Ahmed Shaikh, Ridwaan Asvat, Nadeem Cassim & Dhiru Soni​

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