You know that feeling when you hear a song played and you can’t get it out of your head? That happened to me this week with Sisters are doing it for themselves  (Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin – if you clicked on the link, you won’t be able to stop either). It resonated with something that a speaker said at a student conference on employability I attended recently:

Employability is not about doing it to students. It’s about empowering them to do it for themselves – Simon Reichwald, Bright Futures

How bright is the future?

Bright Futures is a fantastic organisation dedicated to helping university students do it for themselves. Run by students for students, it has societies in over 50 UK universities (several with over 1000 members) and is now expanding into schools. The conference was attended by society members from across the UK, employers, and supporters.

Themes arising included an increasing focus on strengths and values for recruiting graduates, professional identity, discovering who you are, and learning from failure. I was really pleased to hear from speakers a significant shift away from the rhetoric of employability as an entry-level job to lifelong learning to leap.

I picked up that students were feeling the pressures of a ‘doing’ mentality – in their studies and in the tick box approach of playing the recruitment game. They wanted more help on self-awareness while at university – a more fundamental exploration of who they want to be rather than being repeatedly asked what they want to do.Shape your world

There is still some surprise among students at the statistics. More graduates are being recruited than ever before – graduate vacancies are up 17% on last year – but employers are not filling enough of those vacancies.

What does good look like?

Stephen Isherwood, CEO of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, outlined what employers are looking for in terms of what good looks like:

  • Getting things done with and through others (teamwork)
  • Practically intelligent problem solving
  • Real interest and enthusiasm to do the job (passion, doing your research on the employer)
  • Ability to deal with change and difficult situations well (resilient)
  • Flexible about what we do, how we work and how we learn

What works?

He went on to highlight:

  • Applied study – the ability to reflect on what you’ve done and will do next
  • Work experience – understanding how the world of work operates
  • A group project at university is not teamwork (that led to student murmurs about the mixed messages from academics)
  • Commercial awareness

Student life v employee life

Lastly, Stephen talked about the differences between student life and employee life and what that might mean for transitioning to work:

Student Life Employee Life
Student as consumer Employer as consumer (paying salary)
Clear tasks Ambiguous tasks (outcome changes)
Flexitime Fixed terms and conditions
Quest for perfection (grade pursuit) Quest for efficiency (time/money/resources)
Peers Hierarchies

For me, this paints a somewhat transactional and traditional perspective of organisational life which is changing rapidly. Opportunities exist outside the large corporates, particularly in small businesses and start-ups, where engagement, flexible working, a quest for effectiveness, flatter, and more agile structures are thriving. More needs to be done to expose young people to the breadth and diversity of opportunities and potential paths to pursue.

How can students do more for themselves?

Here are 4 ways to increase ownership of your personal and professional development to be more employable:

  1. Enrol on a MOOC (mass online open course). The Careers Group at University College London recently ran the world’s first Careers and Employability MOOC with impressive results. It involved a series of topics over 8 weeks, up to 6 hours study a week via web and mobile applications, video teaching, discussion forums. It was free (unless you wanted assessment and certification). 89,000 people engaged with the material globally including over 20,000 forum contributions. As a result of the course, 93% of people said their confidence had increased in identifying career values and prioritising to make decisions, followed by identifying skills they could offer and develop. Keep an eye on when the next course runs through Coursera.
  2. Subscribe to online learning communities and resource portals. LinkedIn groups are a great resource for learning about people, companies/organisations, sectors, work areas, both explicit and tacit knowledge and the wisdom of the crowd. I would recommend
  3. Network and learn at live events. Professional bodies and networking groups for active young professionals like the Junior Chamber International (JCI), have a programme of events throughout the year with interesting speakers. Leeds Beckett University run a series of public seminars with well-known sports people on a regular basis. These are places to meet like-minded professionals, employers and peers to learn and stimulate your thinking about current issues and different ways of doing things.
  4. Watch TEDx videos. Perfect for our attention deficit times at 20 minutes each. Some of the most inspiring speakers talking about the most innovative and engaging topics you could ever wish for your personal and professional development. Here are the top 20 most watched (for good reason). If you’ve got something to say, and want to develop your confidence and presentation skills, why not perform at a local or university TEDx like these guys – Blessing Maregare and Keshav Bhatt.

Carpe diem for a brighter future.