15 December 2017

Professor John Dewar Vice-Chancellor, La Trobe University

John Dewar HSAnother academic year over. Another 333,000 university students who have completed their studies and are headed into the world of work. And what does their future hold?

Media coverage of a recent Productivity Commission report focused on the challenges. It cited a growing rate of under-employment among graduates (at a time when under-employment is an economy-wide issue) and slower growth in graduate starting salaries compared to the broader economy.

Yet other important statistics didn’t make it into the reports. The fact, for example, that nine out of ten graduates in Australia are employed full-time within three years of finishing their studies. Or that – at last count – median graduate salaries grew by 23 per cent over the first three years of a graduate’s career.

While Australian universities do a good job in preparing their students for work, there is always more to be done. This mission is especially important when we know that digital disruption and other factors are drastically changing the world of work.

Universities respond constantly to changes in the nature of work and the expectations of employers. Automation is making some current occupations obsolete. Pathways into and through a working life are changing dramatically, with many of the traditional ladders into the workforce disappearing. The shelf life of skills and qualifications acquired through formal education is diminishing.

Employability is a critical priority – certainly for those individuals who are studying at university and preparing to embark on a career, but also for the future success of the Australian economy.

A 2015 Foundation for Young Australians report, The New Basics, analysed 4.2 million job advertisements for the previous three years. It showed the changes some have been predicting are already here. More employers are demanding their young employees have ‘enterprise skills’: demand for digital skills went up 212 per cent, while critical thinking increased 158 per cent and creativity increased by 65 per cent. However, the report also suggested that not all young people are equipped with these skills.

Similarly, a recent analysis by LinkedIn showed a mismatch between the skills claimed by their members and the skills sought by employers. The top ten skills in the LinkedIn Tech Demand Index – abilities in areas such as machine learning and software revision control systems – would not have even existed a decade ago.

Different universities can and are responding to this challenge in different ways. One approach is the University of Melbourne model that equips students with broad skills and knowledge in a traditional three-year undergraduate degree before later graduate specialisation. Another is a ‘just in time’ model that allows students to stack credentials when needed. A third is a ‘trusted talent advisor’ model where universities accept a much greater responsibility for preparing and supporting students to transition into the workplace, and support them throughout their careers with continuing education and skills development.

At La Trobe University, we’ve made student employability one of our highest priorities. It is one of four key objectives in our new Strategic Plan that will guide our work over the next five years.

We start from the premise that students and employers alike are looking for more than the technical skill acquired in any degree – that’s a given. What they are seeking are proven capabilities in a wider range of ‘enterprise skills’. Resilience, passion, curiosity and empathy are the attributes that will help students not only stand out in a crowd to get that first job – but also to succeed in the years beyond.

The centrepiece of our employability initiative is our Career Ready Advantage program, which is already recognised as one of the best employability programs in the Australian higher education sector. Working closely with employers, we developed a Capability Framework that identifies the skills employers are looking for. We then designed a sequence of activities that allow students to gain the skills and knowledge relevant to each aspect of the framework.

In addition to traditional work placements and internships, we also provide our students with access to LinkedIn learning short courses and to our Unitemps employment service. We then ‘gamify’ the experience using our My La Trobe student app that builds in opportunities to reflect and unlock digital badges and rewards as students develop their capabilities.

All of this activity generates a digital Career Ready portfolio for each student. It is a record of achievement that also helps them to develop a powerful narrative about their unique value to potential employers.

While there is clear evidence that graduates do better in the workplace than non-graduates, there is always scope for universities to do more to help students find their own path to employment.

Just as the workplace is constantly changing, universities are too. We are alive to this challenge. And we are tackling it with the same attributes that we apply in our Career Ready model – a mixture of tenacity, curiosity, passion and an eye for what’s going to best help our students succeed in life.