Employability is a set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that makes graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy.

Knight and Yorke (2003)

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that most students’ primary reason for entering higher education is to improve their employability. The recent Wakeham Review of Graduate Employability found that

  • soft skills are highly valued by employers: these include skills relating to delivering presentations, project management, commercial awareness, entrepreneurial skills and attitudes, report-writing and team-working, as well as adaptability, personal resilience and a commitment to continuing professional development;
  • work experience improves employability: it is highly valued by employers and provides graduates with clear benefits, such as developing soft skills and getting an insight into the workplace; research shows that relevant work experience is rated by two-thirds of employers as being a critical or significant factor looked for in candidates;
  • graduates need the ability to adapt their knowledge and skills, and be prepared for a lifetime of learning to keep pace with changes in society and industry;
  • graduates often have the requisite skills and knowledge, but lack the ability to articulate these adequately in applications, at interviews and in assessment centres;
  • students are often not sufficiently engaged in career planning, and fail to take up opportunities that are likely to help them develop soft skills that would help secure positive outcomes.

Subject-specific skills

Mathematics is rooted in the systematic development of methods to solve practical problems in areas such as surveying, mechanical construction and commerce. Such methods have a wide range of application. Thus generalisation and abstraction became important features and mathematics became a science involving strict logical deduction with conclusions that follow with certainty and confidence from clear starting points. Mathematics is fundamental to almost all situations that require an analytical model-building approach.

Higher Education Academy (2006)

The QAA benchmark statement for mathematics, statistics and operational research (MSOR) asserts that graduates in these subjects should possess the following broad subject-specific skills:

  • intellectual rigour and reasoning skills,
  • familiarity with numerical and symbolic thinking,
  • an analytic approach to problem solving,
  • abstraction and modelling skills.

Generic skills

The QAA benchmark statement for MSOR also asserts that graduates should possess a range of generic skills, such as effective time management and organisational skills, and the ability to

  • learn independently and work with patience and persistence,
  • transfer knowledge from one context to another,
  • assess problems logically and approach them analytically,
  • work in teams and contribute to discussions,
  • write coherently and communicate results clearly.

There are several important skills that are frequently sought by employers but which you may not develop sufficiently by studying mathematics alone, including leadership, teamwork, commercial awareness, report writing and presentation skills. These can be developed elsewhere, for example by taking positions of responsibility in student societies, participating in student mentoring schemes, contributing to outreach programmes and undertaking periods of work experience including voluntary work, summer internships and work placements.

Employability skills

According to the Future fit: Preparing graduates for the world of work report, published by the Confederation of British Industry and Universities UK in 2009, all students should aim to develop the following employability skills.

Positive attitude A can-do approach, a readiness to take part and contribute, openness to new ideas and a drive to make these happen.
Self-management Readiness to accept responsibility, flexibility, resilience, self-starting, appropriate assertiveness, time management, readiness to improve own performance based on feedback and reflective learning.
Team-working Respecting others, co-operating, negotiating and persuading, contributing to discussions, and awareness of interdependence with others.
Business awareness Basic understanding of the key drivers for business success – including the importance of innovation and taking calculated risks – and the need to provide customer satisfaction and build customer loyalty.
Problem solving Analysing facts and situations and applying creative thinking to develop appropriate solutions.
Communication and literacy Application of literacy, ability to produce clear, structured written work and oral literacy including listening and questioning.
Application of numeracy Manipulation of numbers, general mathematical awareness and its application in practical contexts.
Application of IT Basic IT skills, including familiarity with word processing, spreadsheets, file management and use of the internet.

Practical Advice

The Working towards your future: Making the most of your time in higher education report, published by the Confederation of British Industry and National Union of Students in 2011, contains the following practical advice.

  • Spend a few moments thinking about why you’re taking a higher education course. Your future job opportunities are likely to be among your main reasons.
  • Whatever line of work you eventually take up, there’s a range of skills and capabilities – employability skills – that virtually every employer is looking for. Use this guide and your careers service to check out what these are.
  • Your course can help you develop lots of the right skills, from time management to communication and team-working, but it can only do that if you take an active part in the process. Don’t just sit back and wait to be taught.
  • Your university or college careers service can be a great resource. Make contact and start exploring what’s available early on.
  • There are lots of opportunities outside your course to gain skills in ways that are enjoyable and worthwhile. Options include getting involved in the students’ union, helping run a club or society, volunteering in the community, taking part in university life and gaining workplace experience – have a think about what might appeal to you and find out what’s available.
  • Don’t try to pack all the activities that might interest you into one or two semesters or terms. You can spread them over your time in higher education. But don’t wait too long to make a start.
  • When you come to apply for jobs at graduation, it’s going to be much easier if you’ve thought about and recorded your activities and evidence of developing your skills as you go along. You’ll also learn much more along the way.