Employability skills for the future of work

In this episode you will learn from Paul Kearney about the importance of employability skills and how to develop them in your people. Paul has a deep, rich understanding of how people learn, and has been exploring how to develop these types of skills for close to 30 years.

The term 'employability skills' is often seen as a bit of jargon. Paul has a great description: high value skills. The skills he refers to are problem solving, taking initiative, planning and organising work and cooperating.

As well as being a manger of a RTO for sixteen years, Paul has a background is in education and pre-employment training, but what he is talking about can be applied to help your people become self directed, continuous learners who are prepared for the future of work.

During the podcast Paul talks about his framework for developing these high value skills. Broadly, the framework is about:

  • Increasing learner responsibility
  • Increasing experience and practice for learners
  • increasing reflective thinking in learners
  • Increasing collaboration between learners

This can be applied to leadership development, onboarding and trainees. He also introduces a nice model of learning: 'Caught, taught, and bought'.

One of the other key takeaways from this conversation is that practice need to be diverse.

For more information about Paul's work, check out his website at http://www.enterprisingeducation.com


Subscribe using your favourite podcast player or RSS

Subscribe: Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts | Amazon MusicAndroid | Stitcher | RSS

Sign up to our email newsletter to get podcast updates

Links from the podcast

Transcript - Employability skills for the future of work

Paul, welcome to the Learning While Working podcast.

Thank you, Robin. I'm pleased to be here.

Why are employability skills so important?

So Paul, I think about you as an employability skills guru. Why are employability skills so important?

I don't know about the guru business, but I have been interested in these generic skills probably now for 30 years. One of the reasons why is because they are so important, and they don't seem to go away whether we call them enterprise skills, key competency skills, essential skills, and so on.

But I hopefully think that people who we're talking to will understand their value and don't need too much convincing. They've always been important and they've always been about. In fact, without these types of skills such as problem solving, initiative, planning, organising, and cooperating, etc - what I call those high-value skills; we might call, at the moment, employability skills - we would not survive. They help define actually what we are as human beings, but it's worth having a quick look at the modern context from both the point of view of the individual and the organisation. And it probably helps to think of passports. I don't mean portfolios, but ways that we get from school or into the workforce.

Back in the - probably up to the 70s, all someone really needed was good academic results to move to work, or bad ones - whatever. That was general education. That's what we can call the first passport. The second passport came about in the early 80s, for various reasons. When all of a sudden we needed technical, vocational skills to make a successful transition into work and to operate well in the workplace. Then as things really ramped up in terms of change in the mid-90s, we needed what we might call the third passport: those generic, transferable skills, those high-value skills, key competencies, the enterprise-employability skills, which I'm talking about at the moment. I suppose you could summarise it as we need the employability skills, those types of skills, to get a job, to keep a job, to do a good job. And perhaps to make a job, if we can't actually get one. In fact 47%, thereabouts, of the Australian population is employed by small business. That is a large amount and the smaller the business, generally, the more important employability skills become, which sounds counter intuitive but it's true.

Now, one of the less mentioned areas of why they're important is the importance of the employability skills to learning. We're in a state at the moment - I could go on and on about this - where you learn, or you perish. You're marginalised in society in general or in the workplace. We could go on and on about change but we know what it's like. Change is no change because it's common, it's relentless, it's rampant. Now, we're on our own largely in that situation. We no longer in many cases, if this new software comes into the office, or machinery into the factory - we no longer can go offline to a workshop or whatever, and learn about new software for instance. You are expected to be able to do that on your own. Now, the employability skills such as planning, organising, initiative, problem solving, and so on are the actual guts of learning to learn. We talk a lot about it, but we need those skills to actually learn.

So Paul, in some ways these are some of the core topics of Learning While Working and what I talk quite often on the podcast about. You use a different terms of high-value skills instead of employability as well. To me, employability feels really bureaucratic. And then 'soft skills' doesn't quite put it as well, but the way you've done that wrap around the self-directed skills and needing for it is really nice. I'm interested just to divert for a moment. Why did we end up with this word 'employability' rather than something that's a little bit more accessible?

The history of employability skills

That's an interesting one. We could look historically. It actually came from universities, mainly in Canada in terms of we were pumping out graduates who industry professions were saying weren't actually work-ready. I mean that's where it technically comes from. But it also is a movement from an enterprising view, which was dominant for quite a while, which was more about self-employment in a empowerment point of view whereas employability is more about an employer culture. So particularly when it started moving to things such as the key competencies and got into the training packages, and so on. But I think, Robin, you're right. One of the real difficulties is finding a term that everyone understands, which is broad enough to allow lots of different perspectives. But at the same time to create a sort of a language with which we can have a critical dialogue, or a practical communication about. And I think we're stuck with employability skills at the moment. There'll probably be something else in five years.

The real issue is: regardless of what we call these things - these generic, transferable, universal skills, whatever - they don't go away. 'Enterprise' died, 'key competencies' died, but then America still calls them the SCANS skills. We've still got the core skills in the UK, essential skills in New Zealand. The names will probably change sooner or later, but I think the things are the same. We need those, a good, highly developed set of those skills to work well, to succeed in our private lives, and to look after other people as well in terms of the society. An interesting thing is that we know that a lot of what you might call the welfare, the social service system, has been sort of outsourced to the community sector. And I would argue that you need those employability skills, whatever we call them: problem solving, communication, planning, persistence, etc, to be able to access those services successfully these days. So the range of the need for these skills is as strong as it's ever been even though the context is changed, and the names change.

And the way you sort of positioned it around actually being in the core skills of being human is really interesting as well. The thing that's interesting about these skills is they're high-order skills. They are also passports to ways and means of increasing capacity in people, increasing capacity in organisations. But they're actually really hard to develop, and facilitate, and build in practice. I've heard a couple of times, you've talked about some frameworks around helping people develop these types of skills.

Yes. I think what one of the things is that people say, particularly in the literature, people say these things are important. They call them generic, transferable skills, and they list them, and that's often where the conversation ends; or they make sometimes vague comments in terms of how to do it. Like learning by doing, facilitation, etc. But I think it needs to be a little bit more rigorous than this, and go a little bit deeper. The theory can be quite sophisticated, but the practice, it doesn't necessarily follow that the practice has to be sophisticated. In practice it can be quite simple. I'll just give you a brief account of that one. So stripping back, this'll probably make me a lot of enemies in terms of academics, but if we strip back some of that sophisticated theory, we could probably start with Kurt Lewin who said the best theory was a practical one.

Some starting points are: we've already got these things. So I said if we weren't human beings - I mean, if we didn't have them, we wouldn't be human beings. We have to problem-solve every day. So we've got these things to different degrees and different ways. And we could have some interesting discussions about that. The difference is that these skills tend to be stuck in particular situations or contexts. Sometimes a fancy word is situationally specific, textually bound, etc. Think of it like this. That they are generic and they are transferable.

Now, by this we mean - an example might help. We can all sing in the shower. But we won't necessarily be able to sing in the training room or on the factory floor. It is stuck in the shower, that particular situation. I remember seeing a young man once at a trade fair. And he was exhibiting toys. It was one of those exhibition things. When someone said to him, "Oh, where did you get that die cast model of that milk carton or whatever from wherever?" He went into this extremely long, well-informed, erudite, cogent description which involved all this problem solving, this risk taking, etc in getting that particular toy. Now, that was quite fantastic, but I saw the same young man at the lunch break at the canteen. People kept pushing in front of him, and he just sat back, and let them do it. He hadn't had the same confidence, the same communication skills in a different context. So in many ways we've been talking about generic and transferability, it's about singing the same song in different places. Sometimes it might be a slightly different song, and don't misunderstand that there is a sort of a metaphor called, I forget the person who popularised it, called 'near and far'.

Now, say, in terms of automotive: a young apprentice, she may be able to fix a car which was made in 2007, and use her problem solving skills in terms of the diagnostics, etc. But in 2008 being able to transfer those problem solving skills, she could probably still do it. But move on, say, another five years, and it'll be very questionable whether she will still be able to transfer her problem solving skills as it gets further away. So you've got near and you've got far. The further it gets away, the difference in the context, the less confident that we are at applying some of these generic, transferable skills. Now, in sort of the guts, I suppose, of transference of these generic skills is practice. I know that sounds probably heretical.

So Paul, practice is really important to building the transfer of skills across time. How can learning experiences be built to help build more practice into them?

Okay. Well, practice is god, Robin, there is no doubt about that, but diversity is god too, if we're thinking about transference. Probably there are two concepts which may help us see the way that, say, facilitators and trainers, we can improve our practices to help people develop these sorts of skills. The first one I call enterprising learning, or we might now call employability learning, right. Where you actually use those skills in the very way that you learn every day or in all learning situations. And the second one is the what I call 'caught, taught, and bought bottle', which is quite a simple one, and it's very handy really.

But, if we look at this first one in terms of how do you do it all the time, Robin, I'm assuming that you are asking. If you think of a Venn diagram: three intertwined circles, spheres. Either one, we've got the standards, we've got the curriculum; the 'What'. In another one we've got the 'How do you do it'. Now, my argument would be, and we've got one at the bottom called, perhaps, 'Why'. But we'll leave that one at the moment. So, if you learn the 'What' through using more of the employability skills,there's more problem solving, the learner is expected to plan more, the learner is expected to cooperate more, use more enterprise initiative, and so on. If you do that you're actually practising those skills as you go. You are developing those skills as the way you learn. It's almost like the double whammy. You're learning the technical stuff through using the non-technical skills. And you get more opportunities to learn this way if the learning is characterised by what I call four properties. If the learner has got more responsibility, ownership, if you want to call it that. It's more experience based, experiential, if you want to call it that, more reflective and more cooperative.

How to developing employability skills in learners - ownership or learner responsibility, experience, reflection, cooperation

Now, just very briefly each one of those; I've written quite a lot about this. The first one: ownership or learner responsibility. I remember many, many years ago my son was at that dreadful time of the year where you had to learn how to tie your shoes to go to school. He couldn't get them done quick enough. We were all wanting to out the door to go to work, and so he's getting flustered, and so are we. And I said, "Out of the way, Tom, let me do it." So I did it for him. In fact, what I did was rob that child of the opportunity to learn. This regularly happens. Teachers do it all the time. Trainers do it all the time.

In fact, there's some good research from Marilyn Kourilsky going back to 1990 where she identified at five years old, 23% of students who exhibited problem solving, initiative, lots of the employability skills in the classroom. Ten years later when they were fifteen, guess what, it was reduced to 4%. So there is almost like a de-enterprising effect; that we wear these out, these things we drain it out of young people. They don't get rewarded for using those skills, in fact they can often be punished. Young people are schooled into passivity and not using those things, and we know that this can be the very situation in the workplace as well. Initiative is not always rewarded nor is creativity and innovation. It could be the opposite. At the same time we over-teach, we do things for people too much. Basic question is who would learn the most from getting the YouTube video on conflict resolution this year? Who should pick that? I'd suggest that the trainee or the worker should if it's OHS and so on. Because they're using the employability skills in doing so.

Then there's the idea - as I said, the second property would be experience. And we've got vagaries like learning by doing. It's not that simple. It's sort of learning by reflecting on the doing. And there's some good examples. Just one simple one would be videoing a production process or a performance in the form of a simulation, if you can't actually do the task. Another one would be a project: I would challenge any trainer not to be able to find an action based project or a major experiential undertaking, to teach, to train any particular part of any training package simply by asking the candidate, the learner to produce a learning resource based on that unit or whatever. So if it's more experiential, they're using employability skills.

Now, there's an area that both of us share an interest in, and that's reflective. Now, you don't just get, as I said, deep meaningful transferable learning by just doing. We have to reflect on that, and it has to be done in a planned and a structured way. And it can be extremely simple. If we think of just someone digging a hole. By organising an observer, one of the other trainees, to actually watch the person dig a hole with the copy of the standards in their hand and so on. They are rehearsing that process. When it comes their turn to do it, they should be able to do it quicker and probably better. And then you reverse the role. The first person was doing it, then reviews what the other candidate's doing or the other trainee is doing it now. We can look at reflection in terms of video diaries. They can become far more sophisticated than just writing journals and so on. Once again, through reflection people are using the employability skills.

Now, the last property, in which people practice employability skills given the nature of the learning is cooperation. To get beyond pooling ignorance we really do have to sort this one out in terms of making that planned instruction. I don't know if you know or if the listeners know, there's research which points out that 23% of adults who experience training and various forms of learning do not like cooperative group learning. So we have to get beyond that a bit. The communication, there's an immense amount of employability skills used through cooperative ways of learning.

That's a really interesting stat. I actually heard the number of people would sit there and actually I don't like group learning, it's too slow, I don't like the dynamics. If someone is faced with that problem of a piece of content, or group of learners that don't want to do group learning, what's a good solution?

Well, there are probably two, really. The first is have alternatives and the second one is that group learning in itself has inherently got weaknesses. It needs to be structured, it needs to be disciplined, it needs to be planned, but it doesn't need to be sophisticated. For instance, a group of learners may be sitting around a table; let's just say that they're job seekers. And they need to write cover letters to go with their resume. Now, you split the piece of paper into three. The cover letter goes in the middle, on one side of the piece of paper. You've got suggestions on the other side; you've got questions, So once they've finished their letter, they pass it to the next person. Now, it goes around. Each person in the group in turn writes down suggestions and asked questions etc. Okay, when it gets back to the owner, they've got all this material, suggestions, questions about how to improve, what's this mean? and so on. Now, that's good in itself, but that's not the point. The point is that every single person has seen that letter and critically analysed that letter and have seen what everyone else has said and so on. So a lot of the learning comes out of helping other people, but you don't get good cooperative learning just by sticking people in groups. You run the risk of pooling ignorance and alienating people as well.

But all these areas, these four areas, Robin, the more cooperation or cooperative learning, more reflective learning, more experiential learning, the more responsible learning or owner-directed learning, the more the individual has to engage in the employability skills in the very way they learn and because they're doing it in different parts of the training packages or the curriculum, they're practising now seems not only constantly but they're practising against the diversity of context, one of the gods of transferability of generic skills and the development and so on.

Caught, taught, and bought learning model

We've talked about two models. There's another one that was 'caught, bought, and taught model'. Was that it?

Caught, taught, and bought model really, Robin, is just sort of a summary of things that we probably need to keep our eye on all the time. It simply means - people argue for instance - is that learning caught by doing it, and it sounds a bit more sophisticated than that. Or is it taught by people, inculcating it in people. And there is the other question, why will people do it? Why will they learn it, and then why will they use it? So then I call that caught, bought, and taught. And it doesn't matter the actual way it goes. You can teach it first or train it first and then practise. You can get people to buy in first with the 'bought' first. There are lots of different ways you can put these together. And they can actually determine the difference between discovery learning, applied learning, and so on. Where and how you mix these things.

But, one of the things I'd like to just touch on which is really important and needs to be understood with some sensitivity, and that is the importance of knowledge. By that, in terms of training some of the problem solving skills, techniques and so on and same with planning. Now, I don't mean that we stand up and we teach it in the traditional way. What I do mean is that we need to make sure that those things become explicit. It's not good to say to someone in their training package, and so on, that people need to learn problem solving skills and use brainstorming for it. Yes, we all know that. But it's more than that. We need to know good brainstorming techniques, we need to know other techniques like the why's that you know about; the four why's, someone called them the five why's. Techniques like lend a problem process to a fellow worker and so on. Then we need to help people get a good handle on things in terms of planning. The simple ones like the now, soon, and later. We don't necessarily makes these things explicit. There are dozens of different sorts of to-do lists. In fact I wrote one at the beginning of the year, when I was procrastinating a lot, called 'My Don't-do List', which was very helpful, by the way. The bought business is really buying people into doing it, into learning it, and into using it.

I remember one of your colleagues, Graham Kirkwood, would make the very clear point about the fact that these skills, we need to help people understand the relevance, not only to the training public world, but also to their private world. So there's a whole series of techniques under that.

Why don't organisations address employability skills in the workplace

So, these are core workplace skills, but they are often taught in workplaces. But they are so critical now to the future of organisations and the futures of people's careers. Why do you think they don't sort of get addressed well enough in workplaces?

That's the super-question. They are rarely addressed as you said, and I think there is a whole range of small 'p' political reasons within organisations why they don't get addressed. I think it's a lack of courage by some management. It's a lack of insight by, say, it might be Human Resources, so it's a lot of short-term thinking, and there is a lot of ignorance about what these things are and how to do it. That's not critical but that is the reality of being on the job all the time, being pressured to produce quality and so on and so on. In itself, it's just a recognition of the reality, but I think that we can do a number of things to make sure that these things are addressed to some degree. I think there's lots of really good ways to do it.

First of all, I think that the employer for the handover, of any money or anything which is an investment, must insist that off-the-job training seriously, maturely treats employability skills, and they are not overwhelmed by their technical skills. The next thing is, that they need to ensure that all in-house training, whether it's coaching, whether it's off the actual job, in the training room and so on, does the same thing. It addresses those skills and employability skills in a serious, mature fashion.

Now, there are other techniques, like action learning projects, where you work on a real problem, and it's a whole area in itself. Solution teams they tend to be called today. You've got another thing is, that people who can be involved in quality measurement techniques, the classic sort of fishbone process analysis and so on. Evaluating training, involving people in evaluation. These things encourage people to become involved. Not only should they have concrete production outcomes, but they are in itself practising in the real context, constantly using problem-solving, constantly communicating to their fellow workers within that context, and so on.

There are sophisticated approaches, like intrapreneurship as opposed to entrepreneurship, where people create an income stream within the organisation, using the organisation's resources, sharing the risks and rewards. Some simple examples, for instance: some organisations and particularly IT ones, use hackathons. Now, Facebook, the Like button on that used to be called the Awesome button, which one of their workers through a hackathon, decided it would be better operating in a particular way. Now, post-it notes, the same thing. Post-it notes came about by an internal process of giving groups of workers resources, opportunity, particularly time, to develop ideas that may be taken to the commercial level. The Sony PlayStation came around in a similar way.

Other approaches are doing things like involving more people in leadership, whether that's involving them in training, whether it's involving them in entrepreneurship, leading those teams, whatever. And it's about sharing those around, not just one or two people, and double up. Have two leaders of a group, not just one. In mentoring, have two mentors, not just one. Have two mentorees. Two peers who are mentored by a mature member of the organisation, and there are lots of interesting approaches and lots of subtleties involved in that.

Tips on developing employability skills in learners

What's your final tips on developing these types of skills, Paul. I'm avoiding calling them employability skills, as well.

That's probably the best point, is to realise that employability skills are just the current version of something extremely important, which empowers us as individuals, makes us productive in the workplace, and helps us help other people in the community. The second thing I would say, is to understand that they are accumulative. That they don't just happen, and that's why I am saying the constant practice in the diversity of contexts, and it must happen in school. It must happen in the training room. It must happen in many places with the family, and so on. So that's the important thing: it's constant and it's diverse. If it was easy, the world would be a different place, if everyone could do this. If everyone had enterprise initiatives, and could problem-solve to a high degree, but unfortunately, it's not easy.

And that brings me to a very important point. Particularly as training bodies and RTOs and in Human Resources, I think we have got to be very, very careful of not over-promising something, which is difficult to deliver. That doesn't mean don't do it, but be very careful about over-promising. Know what you can do, and plan it and do it well. The other thing is: don't overthink it. I hope that I've tried to strip it back. I know we've had to do this quickly, but to strip it back to some of the basics. So, don't overdo it. Constant diversity. Maybe write a note on your hand, to remind you that everyday, look for an opportunity to give another worker, someone else in the team, somebody in the training room the opportunity to use their initiative, their resourcefulness, and so on.

But the other thing is: do it yourself. It's easy to talk about these things. Use more enterprise and initiative, for example, in your own workplace. Cross the grey lines every now and again. I think we self-censor too much in those areas. Sometimes, the employers and management in particular, are saying, "People do not use their initiative, their enterprise, their problem-solving skills enough, and so on," but we think we self-censor in many ways about that. So, cross the line sometimes. Paint your own staff room, your own training room without asking. I don't think you would get in too much trouble if you do it at the weekend. Play music at lunchtime.

What I am actually trying to say is, even in a flippant way, we have been schooled into being passive, pro-passivity almost, where these things haven't been rewarded. We must ourselves, as trainers, as Human Resource people, etc, as consultants, we have to break free a little bit and practise these things ourselves, and model them ourselves.

A couple of great tips, and in actual fact, just to think it through, one of my big takeaways is that thing of practise in diverse situations, and give people diverse possibilities to practise in, and that alone is a really powerful one. Being the change you want to see in the world, is just a fantastic sentiment.

So, Paul, if people want to hunt out more about your thinking, and more about what you do, where should they look?

I think the easiest place, you'll see our website enterprisingeducation.com, there is a lot of material on that website. A fair bit of it is free. There are a lot of examples and so on.

Thank you for being on the Learning While Working podcast, Paul.

Pleasure, Robin.