8 January 2020

Students’ Career Readiness and Employability

by Dr Rodney Lim Thiam Hock and Dr Symeon Mandrinos

Am I employable? Am I ready to work? Do I have what it takes for a successful career? These are some of the most important questions that should be asked by university graduates as they plan their careers. 

According to the Ministry of Education (MOE) Malaysia, over 290,000 students graduate from institutions of higher learning in the country every year. Nearly 20 percent of this number are unable to find a job six months after graduation. One of the main reasons is that many graduates simply lack the skills, knowledge and attitudes that employees look for. This problem is becoming acute, considering that professional work in the 21st century is characterised by increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. 

Clearly, preparing for a successful career involves more than having head knowledge. To be employable, graduating students also need a range of key competencies, skills and attitudes that assure employers that they are ready to make contributions at work. In addition to having an ability to apply knowledge in specific discipline areas or a particular job, MOE has identified eight categories of such skills comprising critical thinking, problem solving, communication, teamwork, continuous learning, information technology, entrepreneurship, professional ethics, and morals. Other skills that have also been emphasised include leadership, career management and intercultural interactions.

Attaining these skills requires a holistic development of intellectual, psychological and emotional aspects of the individual. Also known as generic skills, they are highly transferable and cut across industries, organisations and job contexts, from entry-level to senior-level positions. 

University students need to be aware of their career readiness and understand how to properly cultivate skills valued by employers. While university students tend to believe that they are ready for a job, employers beg to differ.

In a recent major survey involving over 4,200 graduating students and over 200 employers in the US, a high percentage of student respondents consistently rated themselves as proficient in most career competency categories. In sharp contrast, a lower percentage of employers rated them as proficient in the same categories. The gap in perceptions occurs across many competency categories, such as professionalism/work ethic, critical thinking/problem solving, and communications. 

Similar findings are seen in Malaysia, where employers’ expectations are found to be higher than that of graduates’, especially in relation to areas such as problem solving, adaptability, English proficiencies, personal management, leadership and communication. Furthermore, employers prefer individuals who are responsible, self-confident, well-rounded, with positive personalities and attitudes towards work. 

They also seek fresh graduates that are trainable and adaptable to their jobs. Meanwhile, the problem of communication and language proficiency, especially English, has often been highlighted in the popular media, as many fresh graduates have been found to lack oral and writing skills needed for employment. In fact, in one study, about 80 percent of unemployed Malaysian graduates acknowledged that they are in dire need of additional training.  

These concerns should alert university students to constantly assess their own career readiness skills and competencies. In most university curricula, these career readiness competencies are articulated as a set of graduate attributes, or graduate capabilities that students are expected to develop throughout the course of their university studies. Thus, apart from building knowledge related to a specific area of study, focus should be placed on achieving these graduate attributes to ensure career readiness. 

To better understand and prepare for the skill demands of their preferred careers, students should constantly assess their strengths and weaknesses in relation to these attributes, and actively address specific weaknesses. It is also a mistake to assume that successfully completing an assessment or a subject is proof of attainment of career readiness competencies. Since attaining proficiency is a long process that requires consistent effort and diligence, it is not uncommon to find a lack of confidence with some of these skills even among many final-year students. 

Students should therefore take advantage of all opportunities to improve themselves during their university years. Participating in various co-curricular activities on campus provides valuable opportunities to enhance diverse skills such as communication, team-working, problem-solving and decision-making. Where available, practical training or internship programmes are useful in gaining exposure to professional work cultures. 

Equally valuable are project-based learning courses that allow students to work on solving real world problems over an extended period of time. Engaging with authentic scenarios helps students to curate meaningful experiences and skills that are translatable to real world careers. Project-based learning such as the business capstone programme at Swinburne University is designed to enable systematic acquisition, synthesis and practice of a range of career readiness skills to ensure students’ confidence and employability.

As the professional workplace becomes more demanding, it is these career readiness skills and competencies that assures employability and a sustainable career. Being well-rounded is no longer a luxury but a necessity.

Dr Rodney Lim Thiam Hock and Dr Symeon Mandrinos are from the Faculty of Business, Design and Arts at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. They can be reached via email at rlim@swinburne.edu.my or SMandrinos@swinburne.edu.my.