In our increasingly competitive world, it is critical that college graduates enter the workplace with the appropriate skills to not only survive but also grow their career. Current college graduates have not consistently acquired the skills needed for success in the workplace to learn and thrive continuously in our rapidly changing world. The Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Science must identify the specific strategies that develop best the needed skills for the success of the graduate and society The purpose of the study was to identify a land grant college of agriculture and life sciencesâ (LGCALS) current programmatic and classroom strategies for developing studentsâ ability to learn and thrive continuously in our rapidly changing world and a (1) explore programmatic strategies for developing studentsâ ability to continuously learn and thrive; (2) explore innovative instructors classroom strategies for developing studentsâ ability to learn and thrive continuously; (3) describe graduates perceptions of career readiness as measured through the bases of competence inventory, and finally; (4) compare programmatic strategies, classroom strategies and graduatesâ perceptions for career readiness. A mixed methods convergent parallel design guided the research. Qualitative interviews were employed for exploring experiences using an interpretive, constructivist, and naturalistic approach for research objectives 1 and 2. A cross sectional survey design and questionnaire, Making the Match, was used to conduct the quantitative research for objective 3. The mixed methods portion of the convergent parallel design was used to frame and explore research objective 4. Findings of the study detail need for curriculum improvement in problem solving, learning, time management, creativity and change, and personal strengths.
The inter-relationship between HE and the labour market has been considerably reshaped over time. This has been driven mainly by a number of key structural changes both to higher education institutions (HEIs) and in the nature of the economy. The most discernable changes in HE have been its gradual massification over the past three decades and, in more recent times, the move towards greater individual expenditure towards HE in the form of student fees. In the United Kingdom, for example, state commitment to public financing of HE has declined; although paradoxically, state continues to exert pressures on the system to enhance its outputs, quality and overall market responsiveness (DFE, 2010). Such changes have coincided with what has typically been seen as a shift towards a more flexible, post-industrialised knowledge-driven economy that places increasing demands on the workforce and necessitates new forms of work-related skills (Hassard et al., 2008). The more recent policy in the United Kingdom towards raising fee levels has coincided with an economic downturn, generating concerns over the value and returns of a university degree. Questions continued to be posed over the specific role of HE in regulating skilled labour, and the overall matching of the supply of graduates leaving HE to their actual economic demand and utility (Bowers-Brown and Harvey, 2004).
The relationship between HE and the labour market has traditionally been a closely corresponding one, although in sometimes loose and intangible ways (Brennan et al., 1996; Johnston, 2003). HE has traditionally helped regulate the flow of skilled, professional and managerial workers. Furthermore, this relationship was marked by a relatively stable flow of highly qualified young people into well-paid and rewarding employment. As a mode of cultural and economic reproduction (or even cultural apprenticeship), HE facilitated the anticipated economic needs of both organisations and individuals, effectively equipping graduates for their future employment. Thus, HE has been traditionally viewed as providing a positive platform from which graduates could integrate successfully into economic life, as well as servicing the economy effectively.
The correspondence between HE and the labour market rests largely around three main dimensions: (i) in terms of the knowledge and skills that HE transfers to graduates and which then feeds back into the labour market, (ii) the legitimatisation of credentials that serve as signifiers to employers and enable them to ‘screen’ prospective future employees and (iii) the enrichment of personal and cultural attributes, or what might be seen as ‘personality’. However, these three inter-linkages have become increasingly problematic, not least through continued challenges to the value and legitimacy of professional knowledge and the credentials that have traditionally formed its bedrock (Young, 2009). A more specific set of issues have arisen concerning the types of individuals organisations want to recruit, and the extent to which HEIs can serve to produce them.
Traditionally, linkages between the knowledge and skills produced through universities and those necessitated by employers have tended to be quite flexible and open-ended. While some graduates have acquired and drawn upon specialised skill-sets, many have undertaken employment pathways that are only tangential to what they have studied. As Little and Archer (2010) argue, the relative looseness in the relationship between HE and the labour market has traditionally not presented problems for either graduates or employers, particularly in more flexible economies such as the United Kingdom. This may be largely due to the fact that employers have been reasonably responsive to generic academic profiles, providing that graduates fulfil various other technical and job-specific demands.
Over time, however, this traditional link between HE and the labour market has been ruptured. The expansion of HE, and the creation of new forms of HEIs and degree provision, has resulted in a more heterogeneous mix of graduates leaving universities (Scott, 2005). This has coincided with the movement towards more flexible labour markets, the overall contraction of management forms of employment, an increasing intensification in global competition for skilled labour and increased state-driven attempts to maximise the outputs of the university system (Harvey, 2000; Brown and Lauder, 2009).
Such changes have inevitably led to questions over HE's role in meeting the needs of both the wider labour market and graduates, concerns that have largely emanated from the corporate world (Morley and Aynsley, 2007; Boden and Nedeva, 2010). While at one level the correspondence between HE and the labour market has become blurred by these various structural changes, there has also been something of a tightening of the relationship. As Teichler (1999) points out, the increasing alignment of universities to the labour market in part reflects continued pressures to develop forms of innovation that will add value to the economy, be that through research or graduates. Both policymakers and employers have looked to exert a stronger influence on the HE agenda, particularly around its formal provisions, in order to ensure that graduates leaving HE are fit-for-purpose (Teichler, 1999, 2007; Harvey, 2000). Furthermore, HEIs have increasingly become wedded to a range of internal and external market forces, with their activities becoming more attuned to the demands of both employers and the new student ‘consumer’ (Naidoo and Jamieson, 2005; Marginson, 2007). Various stakeholders involved in HE — be they policymakers, employers and paying students — all appear to be demanding clear and tangible outcomes in response to increasing economic stakes. A number of tensions and potential contradictions may arise from this, resulting mainly from competing agendas and interpretations over the ultimate purpose of a university education and how its provision should best be arranged.
The changing HE–economy dynamic feeds into a range of further significant issues, not least those relating to equity and access in the labour market. The decline of the established graduate career trajectory has somewhat disrupted the traditional link between HE, graduate credentials and occupational rewards (Ainley, 1994; Brown and Hesketh, 2004). However, there are concerns that the shift towards mass HE and, more recently, more whole-scale market-driven reforms may be intensifying class-cultural divisions in both access to specific forms of HE experience and subsequent economic outcomes in the labour market (Reay et al., 2006; Strathdee, 2011). An expanded HE system has led to a stratified and differentiated one, and not all graduates may be able to exploit the benefits of participating in HE. Mass HE may therefore be perpetuating the types of structural inequalities it was intended to alleviate. In the United Kingdom, as in other countries, clear differences have been reported on the class-cultural and academic profiles of graduates from different HEIs, along with different rates of graduate return (Archer et al., 2003; Furlong and Cartmel, 2005; Power and Whitty, 2006). For some graduates, HE continues to be a clear route towards traditional middle-class employment and lifestyle; yet for others it may amount to little more than an opportunity cost.
Perhaps increasingly central to the changing dynamic between HE and the labour market has been the issue of graduate employability. There is much continued debate over the way in which HE can contribute to graduates’ overall employment outcomes or, more sharply, their outputs and value-added in the labour market. What has perhaps been characteristic of more recent policy discourses has been the strong emphasis on harnessing HE's activities to meet changing economic demands. Policy responses have tended to be supply-side focused, emphasising the role of HEIs for better equipping graduates for the challenges of the labour market. For much of the past decade, governments have shown a commitment towards increasing the supply of graduates entering the economy, based on the technocratic principle that economic changes necessitates a more highly educated and flexible workforce (DFES, 2003) This rationale is largely predicated on increased economic demand for higher qualified individuals resulting from occupational changes, and whereby the majority of new job growth areas are at graduate level.
The new UK coalition government, working within a framework of budgetary constraints, have been less committed to expansion and have begun capping student numbers (HEFCE, 2010). They nevertheless remain committed to HE as a key economic driver, although with a new emphasis on further rationalising the system through cutting-back university services, stricter prioritisation of funding allocation and higher levels of student financial contribution towards HE through the lifting of the threshold of university fee contribution (DFE, 2010). There has been perhaps an increasing government realisation that future job growth is likely to be halted for the immediate future, no longer warranting the programme of expansion intended by the previous government.
A further policy response towards graduate employability has been around the enhancement of graduates’ skills, following the influential Dearing Report (1997). The past decade has witnessed a strong emphasis on ‘employability skills’, with the rationale that universities equip students with the skills demanded by employers. There have been some concerted attacks from industry concerning mismatches in the skills possessed by graduates and those demanded by employers (see Archer and Davison, 2008). Universities have typically been charged with failing to instil in graduates the appropriate skills and dispositions that enable them to add value to the labour market. The problem has been largely attributable to universities focusing too rigidly on academically orientated provision and pedagogy, and not enough on applied learning and functional skills.
The past decade in the United Kingdom has therefore seen a strong focus on ‘employability’ skills, including communication, teamworking, ICT and self-management being built into formal curricula. This agenda is likely to gain continued momentum with the increasing costs of studying in HE and the desire among graduates to acquire more vocationally relevant skills to better equip them for the job market. However, while notions of graduate ‘skills’, ‘competencies’ and ‘attributes’ are used inter-changeably, they often convey different things to different people and definitions are not always likely to be shared among employers, university teachers and graduates themselves (Knight and Yorke, 2004; Barrie, 2006).
Critically inclined commentators have also gone as far as to argue that the skills agenda is somewhat token and that ‘skills’ built into formal HE curricula are a poor relation to the real and embodied depositions that traditional academic, middle-class graduates have acquired through their education and wider lifestyles (Ainley, 1994). Wider critiques of skills policy (Wolf, 2007) have tended to challenge naive conceptualisations of ‘skills’, bringing into question both their actual relationship to employee practices and the extent to which they are likely to be genuinely ‘demand-led’. Such issues may be compounded by a policy climate of heavy central planning and target-setting around the coordination of skills-based education and training.
In relation to the more specific graduate ‘attributes’ agenda, Barrie (2006) has called for a much more fine-grained conceptualisation of attributes and the potential work-related outcomes they may engender. This should be ultimately responsive to the different ways in which students themselves personally construct such attributes and their integration within, rather than separation from, disciplinary knowledge and practices. Furthermore, as Bridgstock (2009) has highlighted, generic skills discourses often fail to engage with more germane understandings of the actual career-salient skills graduates genuinely need to navigate through early career stages. Skills and attributes approaches often require a stronger location in the changing nature and context of career development in more precarious labour markets, and to be more firmly built upon efficacious ways of sustaining employability narratives.
Graduate employability and debates over the future of work
At another level, changes in the HE and labour market relationship map on to wider debates on the changing nature of employment more generally, and the effects this may have on the highly qualified. Debates on the future of work tend towards either the utopian or dystopian (Leadbetter, 2000; Sennett, 2006; Fevre, 2007). Perhaps one consensus uniting discussion on the effects of labour market change is that the new ‘knowledge-based’ economy entails significant challenges for individuals, including those who are well educated. Individuals have to flexibly adapt to a job market that places increasing expectation and demands on them; in short, they need to continually maintain their employability. As Clarke (2008) illustrates, the employability discourse reflects the increasing onus on individual employees to continually build up their repositories of knowledge and skills in an era when their career progression is less anchored around single organisations and specific job types. In effect, individuals can no longer rely on their existing educational and labour market profiles for shaping their longer-term career progression.
At one level, there has been an optimistic vision of the economy as being fluid and knowledge-intensive (Leadbetter, 2000), readily absorbing the skills and intellectual capital that graduates possess. The increasingly flexible and skills-rich nature of contemporary employment means that the highly educated are empowered in an economy demanding the creativity and abstract knowledge of those who have graduated from HE. Increasingly, individual graduates are no longer constrained by the old corporate structures that may have traditionally limited their occupational agility. Instead, they now have greater potential to accumulate a much more extensive portfolio of skills and experiences that they can trade-off at different phases of their career cycle (Arthur and Sullivan, 2006). Such notions of economic change tend to be allied to human capital conceptualisations of education and economic growth (Becker, 1993). If individuals are able to capitalise upon their education and training, and adopt relatively flexible and proactive approaches to their working lives, then they will experience favourable labour market returns and conditions. Moreover, they will be more productive, have higher earning potential and be able to access a range of labour market goods including better working conditions, higher status and more fulfilling work.
On the other hand, less optimistic perspectives tend to portray contemporary employment as being both more intensive and precarious (Sennett, 2006). The relatively stable and coherent employment narratives that individuals traditionally enjoyed have given way to more fractured and uncertain employment futures brought about by the intensity and inherent precariousness of the new short-term, transactional capitalism (Strangleman, 2007). Rather than being insulated from these new challenges, highly educated graduates are likely to be at the sharp end of the increasing intensification of work, and its associated pressures around continual career management. Consequently, they will have to embark upon increasingly uncertain employment futures, continually having to respond to the changing demands of internal and external labour markets. This may further entail experiencing adverse labour market experiences such as unemployment and underemployment. The challenge for graduate employees is to develop strategies that militate against such likelihoods. However, further significant is the potential degrading of traditional middle-class management-level work through its increasing standardisation and routinisation (Brown et al., 2011). As Brown et al. starkly illustrate, there is growing evidence that old-style scientific management principles are being adapted to the new digital era in the form of a ‘Digital Taylorism’. Moreover, in the context of flexible and competitive globalisation, the highly educated may find themselves forming part of an increasingly disenfranchised new middle class, continually at the mercy of agile, cost-driven flows in skilled labour, and in competition with contemporaries from newly emerging economies.
Critical approaches to labour market change have also tended to point to the structural inequalities within the labour market, reflected and reinforced through the ways in which different social groups approach both the educational and labour market fields. This tends to manifest itself in the form of positional conflict and competition between different groups of graduates competing for highly sought-after forms of employment (Brown and Hesketh, 2004). The expansion of HE and changing economic demands is seen to engender new forms of social conflict and class-related tensions in the pursuit for rewarding and well-paid employment. The neo-Weberian theorising of Collins (2000) has been influential here, particularly in examining the ways in which dominant social groups attempt to monopolise access to desired economic goods, including the best jobs. In light of HE expansion and the declining value of degree-level qualifications, the ever-anxious middle classes have to embark upon new strategies to achieve positional advantages for securing sought-after employment.
Such strategies typically involve the accruement of additional forms of credentials and capitals that can be converted into economic gain. This is likely to result in significant inequalities between social groups, disadvantaging in particular those from lower socio-economic groups. Non-traditional graduates or ‘new recruits’ to the middle classes may be less skilled at reading the changing demands of employers (Savage, 2003; Reay et al., 2006). Conversely, traditional middle-class graduates are more able to add value to their credentials and more adept at exploiting their pre-existing levels of cultural capital, social contacts and connections (Ball, 2003; Power and Whitty, 2006). Most significantly, they may be better able to demonstrate the appropriate ‘personality package’ increasingly valued in the more elite organisations (Brown and Hesketh, 2004; Brown and Lauder, 2009).
The simultaneous decoupling and tightening in the HE–labour market relationship therefore appears to have affected the regulation of graduates into specific labour market positions and their transitions more generally. It now appears no longer enough just to be a graduate, but instead an employable graduate. This may have a strong bearing upon how both graduates and employers socially construct the problem of graduate employability. Thus, a significant feature of research over the past decade has been the ways in which these changes have entered the collective and personal consciousnesses of students and graduates leaving HE. What this has shown is that graduates see the link between participation in HE and future returns to have been disrupted through mass HE. This tends to be reflected in the perception among graduates that, while graduating from HE facilitates access to desired employment, it also increasingly has a limited role (Tomlinson, 2007; Brooks and Everett, 2009; Little and Archer, 2010). Yet at a time when stakes within the labour market have risen, graduates are likely to demand that this link becomes a more tangible one. These concerns may further feed into students’ approaches to HE more generally, increasingly characterised by more instrumental, consumer-driven and acquisitive learning approaches (Naidoo and Jamieson, 2005). Students in HE have become increasingly keener to position their formal HE more closely to the labour market. With increased individual expenditure, HE has literally become an ‘investment’ and, as such, students may look to it for raising their absolute level of employability.