Employability v Individuality: A bitter pill to swallow?

First off this isn’t a rant against the employability agenda sweeping through higher education in the pursuit of making graduates more employable graduates. In principle that’s a good thing and is hard to argue against. In fact since the rise in tuition fees in England many institutions have received an increase in complaints from students regarding value for money which is a very commodity driven, market reaction.

So if students quite rightly pay (or shift debt) into their name they can quite legitimately expect or hope for a return on their investment. So does this represent a cultural shift amongst students, staff and institutions? I think so but I wanted to focus on one particular aspect. This is the drive to creating the employable graduate or super grad. Employers can quite easily and rightly reel off a list of attributes and attitudes they require of a graduate in order to A) pass their ATS systems and assessments and B) perform in the organisation and role. This list is fairly homogeneous and covers most sectors and careers.  If you take a look at the CBI skills survey report from 2011 on page 23 those skills are listed and broken down.

Crucially these attributes and attitudes should be assessed and evidenced/articulated by the graduate which is why careers services have so much demand for help with paper based (CVs, cover letters) and online (Linkedin, personal statements, applications) methods of application and assessment. So students and universities logically want to do well in this process  – as we are all benchmarked one way or another – and so we have the employability agenda driving change through the curriculum. The purpose of what is education for isn’t new. There has always been the long standing argument that tends to polarise opinion towards the purpose of education as being either the predict and provide solution for industrialised nations or a representation of the civilised world we are incumbent to supply in order to explore self-expression, self-actualisation  and knowledge growth of the human race.

This got me thinking of a rather outlandish idea (and pays reference to the blog title) that if there was a pill that students could swallow that instantly and permanently enhanced desirable traits that employers valued would they take it? Let’s assume this is the year 2100 and this pill has got through all its efficacy trials! Perhaps this isn’t so outlandish after all given our preoccupation in film  – think Gattaca as an example – of seeing progress of the human race as a removal of weakness whilst accentuating strengths.

If so, would some traits such as eccentricity, introversion and narcissism be excluded? (You may wonder why I included narcissism but this is often considered a trait prevalent in leaders.  It is also a trait that creates divide and ambivalence. Whilst on the surface domineering and egotistical qualities  aren’t revered they do seem to aid one’s career by helping certain individuals rise to the top and even lead to better interview performance).

The notion of a pill as a way to correct and enhance is really just an extreme variance of how society at large attempts to normalise and encourage selected behaviours. But I would like to think there is a place in the world for everyone’s uniqueness and individuality to thrive.

The world needs behaviours such as risk taking, introversion, narcissism and many other traits that never seem to end up in job descriptions, person specs and assessment centres. Wouldn’t life and the workplace be boring if we were all the same and good at the same things? There is a conformity to fit into the employablity agenda and become malleable to the needs of employers and society. This raises important questions.

In the pursuit of trying to create more employable graduates is it possible within the gains of this agenda there are also losses?

Specifically within the value of certain traits and how useful they are deemed and therefore valued.

Is there also a risk the individuality and uniqueness of the human spirit is lost within assessments, benchmarks, performance measures, employer wish lists and all the other terminology used in recruitment?

So where does the individual fit into this and have we now got a system that means doing well in the recruitment process can be compared to whom can best paint by numbers?

In the ever increasing competition for roles there is seemingly more investment and science placed in methods such as application tracking systems and an increased assessment inventory (psychometrics, group exercises).  In essence it feels like these are just reductionist attempts to standardise and measure very narrow fields of a complex being which creates the potential for talent to fall through the gaps.

If you enjoy TED talks take a look at this one from Ken Robinson, it’s a heady mix of humour, enlightenment and perception but it also raises important questions on what education should be which relates to some of what I am trying to get at in this post.

Ted Talks videos and text are embedded on this blog under the Ted creative commons license]

So from cradle to grave we are assessed and probed and fairly soon it becomes ingrained into culture and the individual psyche.  But if we stop and standstill just for one minute and think about what the hell terms like “talent acquisition” actually mean I’m fairly certain the process doesn’t fit the intention.

I’ll leave you with a quote that I think sums up what I am trying to say – some might say I could have just read the quote and not wasted my time with the preceding 800 words – it was attributed to Albert Einstein.

You did great at our assessment centre so you must be very talented!

You did great at our assessment centre so you must be very talented!



5 thoughts on “Employability v Individuality: A bitter pill to swallow?

  1. Good points. (Someone should show that Ken Roberts TED talk to Michael Gove!). This kind of standardisation is a worrying trend in some areas of education and recruitment. However I think it’s worth remembering that not all recruitment takes place through somewhat mechanised process of ATSs, tests and assessment centres – there are many SMEs, for example, who recruit on a less scientific and more individual basis which could be a lot more based around individual personality, character and unique skills and talents that someone could bring to a team. But – as usual – it’s the big graduate recruiters (and more specifically their HR teams) who tend to dominate the discussion around graduate recruitment and therefore often end up driving the agenda in universities as well. But I would like to think there is still a place for students to get hired because of their individual skills – but perhaps not in the ‘cookie-cutter’ culture of some large organisations?

  2. Leigh, this is always going to be something of a vexed question. One of the facets that bothers me is that notion of the qualities required by employers is necessarily going to vary a little with time as technology changes and working practises change.
    But the act of codifying those requirements and then assessing against them makes that necessary and rolling process of adaptation to new circumstances difficult.
    All these processes you cite, such as assessment centres and psychometrics, are under constant scrutiny as employers try to squeeze every last drop of advantage, and if we spend too much time perfecting the approach to the status quo, we are in danger of missing the boat when it evolves.
    It’s thorny, that’s what it is.

  3. Appreciate the comments. Chris (ADBE) you make a very valid point about SMEs not always taking the cookie cutter approach. I think I subconsciously gravitated this article towards large corporates but certainly practices vary considerably.
    What I’m really worried about Charlie is that employers are sometimes playing a zero sum game. They get the best of the bunch as per assessed against their person spec but actually lose some fine candidates because what they are being assessed against does not always reflect the diversity and strength of graduates out there. For example, many group exercises favour the extrovert of the introvert. Certainly a vexed question but it sometimes feels like students are being asked to take part in some form of interview/assessment/checklist arms race!

    • I agree there.
      I shied away a little from the introvert/extrovert thing because it’s a subject close to my heart and I mean to write out about it myself. There is no doubt in my mind that graduates are encouraged to show extrovert qualities as part of employability (not purposely, but that’s the end result), and that this is not to the advantage of many able graduates.

  4. Reblogged this on #GraduateDressCode and commented:
    As we’re looking at individuality vs. ‘fitting in’ in our project, this is relevant to us. The article states: “The notion of a pill as a way to correct and enhance is really just an extreme variance of how society at large attempts to normalise and encourage selected behaviours. But I would like to think there is a place in the world for everyone’s uniqueness and individuality to thrive.” Couldn’t agree more.

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