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What does “employability” look like?

By Dr Jeff Landine

Let me introduce you to my friend – I’ll call him Bert. Bert is in Grade 12 and has the optimism and enthusiasm of someone who has the whole world ahead of him. His parents have supported him in many ways growing up, including making it possible for him to be involved in a variety of activities at school and be as successful as possible. As a result, he looks at his life going forward as an adventure and he is getting ready to embark. They have also tried to teach him some life skills, including being responsible for his schedule and his own money. Bert started his first part-time job this year and was telling me the story of his first week at work.

He is working at a fast-food franchise, along with a collection of managers, university students and two high school students. Bert enjoys the work, especially the opportunity to work the front, taking and filling orders because he gets to interact with the customers. When he isn’t busy he looks for things to occupy him. There is always garbage to be gathered and disposed of and tables to be wiped. Keeping the establishment looking clean is a full-time task. When a co-worker is gathering a large order he offers to get the drinks together and help gather the customer’s food as quickly as possible. He pays attention and is already learning the “language” of this particular workplace.

A recent survey of Ontario HR professionals indicated that the entry-level workers in the province are missing important skills for the workplace. Problem-solving skills, attention to detail and interpersonal/teamwork were cited as the most lacking in young people coming out of secondary school but the list of employability or “soft skills” that may be in deficit is as long as the list of employers asked. Bert has learned these skills and numerous others and, as a result, when he recently received his first workplace evaluation, his manager gave him top marks in all areas. But this isn’t the case with all of Bert’s co-workers. A number appear to need direction from their supervisors to do things before they spring into action. Others will stand and talk while he struggles to get six soft drinks loaded up on a tray with the rest of the food. The teamwork and initiative that many employers seek aren’t seen in all potential employees resulting in slower work pace and more demand for managers to supervise.

So, what does Bert’s story tell us about employment and youth? It appears that some of the generation moving into the workforce in the coming years will be bringing solid work skills, not only the technical skills that they will learn in high school and post-secondary education but the soft skills that make them employable, into their new jobs. But many won’t and this deficit will make the process of hiring, training and retain employees increasingly difficult.

The process of learning employability skills

What can we do to help these young people (and some older ones also) to experience more success with finding and keeping meaningful employment? To start, career development professionals need to help young people determine the purpose of their work – what Eric Termuende refers to in his book Rethink Work “as the how, who and why of work.” In keeping with this thought, I also acknowledge that the work Bert is doing would not be considered meaningful nor would it match the values or long-term purposes of many workers. The sort of experience that Bert is receiving, however, is integral to the process of learning employability skills.

These skills – the ones that make someone a valuable employee and one that fellow employees enjoy working with – are learned through experience. Experience is only useful to the extent that it informs one about self and skills, which means that, to be useful in skill development, experiences must be accompanied by feedback and reflection. Futureworx, a Canadian company committed to responding to employment and skills development needs, has been doing some cutting-edge work in the area of formative assessment of employability skills. The Employability Skills Assessment Tool (ESAT) they have developed allow individuals to assess their employability and use the information from this assessment in the process of developing skills further.

Career development professionals working with young people have a role to play in this process and that role is to encourage young jobseekers to actively seek feedback, to be open to receiving this feedback and to be committed to change, based on the feedback. A good example is the area of workplace relations. Work relationships between employees can make or break the work experience for the employee and they have a significant impact on workplace productivity. Often employees with poor interpersonal skills are allowed to persist in these behaviours, while fellow employees complain behind their backs and supervisors avoid involvement, hoping that the problem will be resolved. What would be most helpful, to all involved, is the provision of feedback about specific interpersonal skills and the opportunity to improve performance in this key area of employability.

Dr Jeff Landine is the Co-President of the New Brunswick Association of Counselling Therapists (NBACT) and an Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick. Dr Landine holds a PhD in Counselling Psychology from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto and a MEd in Counselling and Human Development from the University of New Brunswick.

Join Jeff for his pre-conference workshop “Employability as a Strategy for Seeking Meaningful Employment” on Sunday, January 21, 2018, at the Cannexus National Career Development Conference in Ottawa.

Lucie Morillon
Lucie Morillon is the Bilingual Content & Communications Co-ordinator for CERIC. With a passion for quality content, she connects with her online communities and provides strong resources to engage members – and always encourages new ones to get involved. She identifies, creates and curates the content destined for the ContactPoint website, the weekly CareerWise newsletter and Careering magazine.

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