Skills and Employability of University Graduates: A Discussion of the Problems with Employer Survey

The 4th HEA Forward-Look Forum, which will be held on November 11, looks closely at the relationships between skills and employability of university graduates. This topic, no doubt, is of great importance for any country, including Ireland, which is recovering itself from the hard-hit economic crisis in 2008. In Ireland, the Government is keen to focus on the labour market, especially the employment and unemployment rates. Creating more jobs and reducing the unemployment rate have become one of the main tasks of a large number of Government Departments and Agencies. For instance, the Action Plan for Jobs, the Government’s key instrument to support job creation, was introduced in 2012 and labelled as a whole-of-Government initiative.

Within this context, the Forum is timely to bring up discussion and debate about the role of higher education in meeting the demand of the labour market for educated and skilled graduates. It is obviously crucial to understand what kinds of skills are required in the labour market for graduates to be better prepared and trained to be competent in what they will work on. The landscape of higher education has been changing dramatically during the last few decades, with expectations from them shifting, activities by them adding, and missions for them expanding. In 2009, John Goddard argued that now is the time to re-invent the notion of broadly based civic university, and claimed that civic engagement has to be an institution wide-commitment. To engage with the employers is an important part of this process.

A commonly used way to gather information about the importance of different types of skills is through questionnaires sent to employers themselves. In most OECD countries, there are national surveys on employers’ perception of graduate employability, in which employers are in general asked to indicate whether the sector-specific skills of graduates are those that they want. Although it seems sensible to gather such information directly from employers, there are some potential problems with this approach which are worth explaining. An example explaining the risk of relying on employers’ views is given in a recently published OECD paper entitled ‘Higher education labour market relevance and outcomes: Elements of an analytical framework’.

The example given in the OECD paper is based on two surveys in Norway: one is the Business Survey (which is carried out twice a year and asks more than 12000 enterprises about their labour needs) and the other one is the Graduate Survey (which collects data from fresh graduates in the May-June session and asks about their labour market situation in November around 5-6 months). These two surveys in 2011 showed great differences between the claimed demand for certain graduates and the labour market outcome of those graduates.

On the one hand, the 2011 Business Survey indicated that “16000 additional engineers and ICT workers were needed and in May 2012, the category of engineers and ICT-workers was the single largest unmet demand for labour, with 8000 places that could not be filled”. On the other hand, the November 2011 Graduate Survey for those with Masters degree showed good transitions to the labour market overall, “but extremely poor outcomes for ICT graduates, of whom 13% were unemployed six months after graduation”.

The OECD paper continues to state that: “This coexistence of employer claims of significant skills shortages and graduates with qualifications in the same field facing significant difficulty in finding jobs is difficult to explains, but at the very least it suggests that employer surveys should be interpreted with caution.”

Although the example is based on data from Norway, it has useful implications for countries such as Ireland to consider a better way to come up with a framework of measuring graduate skills.