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Employability and the Competition for Jobs in the Knowledge Economy

Introduction

This was an ESRC funded project conducted by Professor Phil Brown and Dr Anthony Hesketh from the School of Management, Lancaster University. It was a two year study of graduate employability, recruitment and the competition for jobs in the knowledge-based economy. It led to the publication a major book The Mismanagement of Talent (Oxford University Press, 2004). It was judged to be an ‘outstanding’ piece of work by the ESRC and was the subject of major media coverage including the lead story in The Times newspaper.

Summary of Findings

  • The policy framework for the study of graduate employability needs to be re-framed. The evolving system of mass higher education in the UK has intensified the mismatch between the skills required to secure a good job and the skills required to do a good job. Many graduates may be employable in the latter sense but fail to find employment due to the ‘over supply’ of suitably qualified candidates.
  • A major aim of the study was to explore how graduates socially construct and manage their employability. Our findings support those theories that highlight the importance of human agency and social identity, understood within a wider institutional context. In short, graduates construct and manage their employability but not in circumstances of their own choosing. Our empirical data reveal a number of shared assumptions, such as the expectation of finding a well-paid and rewarding job. This suggests that the management of graduate expectations will become an increasingly important issue as young adults are encouraged to see the costs of university education as a worthwhile investment in their occupational futures. Indeed, our analysis of occupational trends in Britain and the United States challenge policy assumptions about the growth in the demand for ‘knowledge’ workers in the new economy. 
  • Policies aimed at improving the employability of graduates have had little impact on the social and educational biographies of those recruited at the elite end of the graduate labour market, although the nature of recruitment has significantly changed. Whereas academic credentials served a key role in the past, assessment centres were introduced to evaluate the ‘personal’ qualities of candidates. These have been given an aura of scientific objectivity through the formal assessment of behavioural competencies, but this has not relieved recruitment staff of ultimately having to make subjective judgements about who to recruit. A key role of the assessment centres is to legitimate the rejection as well as the hiring of individual candidates.
  • The discourse of employability highlights a growing gulf between how organisations in the new economy typify their human resource requirements and how graduates seek to convey their suitability in line with these changing demands. This gulf necessitates important policy questions about the product of today’s mass HE and the evolving commercial requirements of today’s blue chip organisations.
  • This relates to the significant variations we found in the ways graduates understood and, crucially, managed their employability. To capture these differences we identified two ‘ideal types’ – Purists and Players. While many of those we interviewed gravitate towards one or other ‘type’, they are best understood as two poles at the end of a continuum.
  • Purists viewed employability as winning a competitive advantage in a meritocratic race, where differences in individual achievement reflected innate capabilities, effort and ambition. Work is viewed as an expression of the self. Securing the ‘right’ job involved developing good self-presentation skills so that employers could see the ‘genuine article’. Hence, individual employability amounted to a ‘technical puzzle’ of finding employment that offered the right ‘fit’ with their knowledge, skills and aspirations.
  • Players understood employability as a positional game. There is a recognition of other, well-qualified competitors looking for the same jobs leading to the adoption of strategies to give themselves a competitive edge. In the job market this involved marketing themselves in ways that conformed to the requirements of employers. They used careers information and social contacts to ‘decode’ the winning formula, attended workshops that simulated group exercises at assessment centres, read books on how to answer difficult interview questions and ‘practiced’ psychometric tests. In some respects they saw through the veneer of objectivity espoused in the recruitment literature. They were sceptical of employer claims that they could identify people who tried to ‘fake it’ rather than ‘be themselves’. They understood the task as learning to be competent at being competent.
  • This ‘corrosion of character’ strikes at the very heart of middle class sensibilities and the meritocratic creed that it has enunciated over several decades. This is an internal class struggle that is not only being fought in the abstract, but in the way graduates are coming to understand who they are, where they are heading and what are legitimate ways of achieving their ambitions. Whatever employability policies are adopted to prepare students for the labour market, including job search techniques and self-promotion, will need to take these issues into consideration. Our findings also suggest that the players enjoyed a competitive advantage in the recruitment process.
  • Our analysis suggests that increasing congestion in the elite labour market will lead more graduates to adopt player tactics. This congestion is starkly illustrated by one leading employer in our research receiving over 14,000 applications for 400 places. Candidates applying from Oxford University were found to be 29 times more likely to get appointed than someone applying from a ‘new’ (post-1992) university. It is inevitable that with so many similarly qualified candidates applying for limited places that individuals will seek to differentiate themselves in any way they know how. Against this background, the use of ‘fast track’ graduate recruitment looks increasingly anachronistic. Leading employers have been slow to come to terms with the rapid increase in graduates entering the labour market.
  • Little short of a cultural revolution is required in the way organisations utilise the talents and capability of graduates and to meet the expectations of the latter for interesting and meaningful work. But the reluctance of employers to move away from fast track recruitment is not simply a matter of ignorance. There are risks attached to broadening ‘diversity’ such as issues of cost, social fit, the legitimation of income differentials, and the need for managers to be acceptable to customers and clients. Nevertheless, organisations should be encouraged to shift from the ‘fast track’, based on a ‘sponsorship’ model of career promotion, to a ‘contest’ model where a broader range of graduates are recruited and subsequent progression is based on workplace performance.

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Media Coverage

This book received considerable media coverage and was discussed in a Westminster Parliamentary debate about the reform of higher education in 2004. 

Graduate glut devalues price of a degree (Lead story in The Times)

Is a degree still worth having? BBC Online

Labour and Tories 'wrong on fees' The Guardian

Why graduates need extra degrees in charisma to survive the job jungle The Telegraph

Graduates face two-tier jobs market (Lead story in the Times Higher Education Supplement)

http://www.thes.co.uk/search/story.aspx?story_id=2013817 (need to subscribe to The Times Higher Education Supplement.

 

Related Links

Professor Phillip Brown

‘When Merit Counts for Nothing’, Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), 20 July, 2007.

short article ‘a wealth warning about the value of higher education’ 

 

Reviews

 ‘The Mismanagement of Talent breaks new ground and has the potential to be a classic. Rarely do social science ethnographies focus up, peering into the top echelons of the corporate world to expose the underbelly of unequal hiring practices. In many ways, the book is reminiscent of Rosabeth Kanter’s Men and Women of the Corporation, written three decades ago. Its conclusions are similar to those she came to about employability: in the 1970s, employers recruited new candidates in their likeness. As the title suggests, The Mismanagement of Talent finds these practices continuing despite government policies to the contrary.’ American Sciences Quarterly, 50,2, 306-8.

Talent Mismanagement

 

Publications

The MisManagement of Talent: Employability and Jobs in the Knowledge Economy  [http://www.oup.co.uk/isbn/0-19-926954-8#desc]  , Oxford: Oxford University Press, P.Brown and A.Hesketh with S.Williams (2004). 

The Opportunity Trap: Education and Employment in a Global Economy, Keynote Address, European Education Research Journal, 2,1, 142-78. 2003. 

Globalisation and the Knowledge Economy: Some Observations on Recent Trends in Employment, Education and the Labour Market’ P.Brown and H.Lauder, 2003, Cardiff School of Social Science, Working Paper No.43.

‘Employability in a Knowledge-Driven Economy’, Journal of Education and Work, 16, 2, 107-26. 2003, P.Brown; A.Hesketh, and S.Williams.