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The employability of first class graduates

Claire Smetherham
Cardiff University School of Social Sciences, email: SmetherhamC1@Cardiff.ac.uk

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh,
11-13th September 2003

Working Paper: Draft Copy
Please do not quote without the author's permission.

Abstract

This paper stems from on-going PhD research exploring how graduates with first-class honours degrees construct, understand and manage their 'employability' within the labour market, and whether differences exist according to the gender, social background or educational biographies of students. The research is also concerned with sociologically exploring differences in the labour market behaviour, aspirations, expectations and experiences of a group of high achieving university graduates. A central concern throughout is the extent to which the hierarchy of achievement within university corresponds with and is reflected in the opportunity structure of the labour market, and in terms of graduates' labour market outcomes and rewards, particularly within the context of a massified and increasingly marketized system. The collection and analysis of quantitative survey data is supplemented by a detailed qualitative investigation of the social construction of employability by graduates with first-class honours degrees.

The belief that we are living in a globally competitive 'knowledge-driven economy' has led the government to place more emphasis on the 'employability' of graduates. Within this knowledge-driven economy it is commonly assumed that graduates with firsts will constitute archetypal 'knowledge workers', receive 'the best' employment opportunities, be better rewarded in the labour market and have better overall 'life chances', regardless of factors such as social background, gender or educational biography. This research critically evaluates such assumptions and problematizes the idea that a focus on graduate employability will necessarily lead to social justice and increase equality of opportunity among graduates in the labour market.

Far-reaching changes in both higher education and the labour market have fundamentally altered graduates' relationships with the labour market and the structure of opportunities available to them. Within this context this study offers a unique opportunity to look at the role and 'value' of the first class credential, focusing on the decisions, experiences, aspirations and labour market outcomes of first class graduates themselves. The research both draws on and develops existing sociological theories of social, cultural, human and personal capital, centrally addressing theories of social inclusion and exclusion within a knowledge-driven economy. It opens up both human capital theories and social closure theories to critical scrutiny. Furthermore, by examining those graduates with specifically 'first class credentials', this study contributes to an understanding of the changing nature of positional competition and its relationship to issues of social justice at a graduate level.

Introduction

The UK has moved rapidly from an 'elite' to a 'mass', and now increasingly towards a 'universal', system of Higher Education (HE)1 (Trow, 1973). Such unprecedented expansion has resulted in an explosion in the numbers of entrants to HE and the labour market, and in ever increasing numbers of 'credentialed' (but not necessarily 'employable') graduates. A combination of empirical and ideological changes in HE, work and the labour market have served to fundamentally alter the structure of opportunities available to different groups of graduates, and have also impacted on graduates' labour market behaviour. Two of the most significant implications of these changes have been (i) the social congestion now evident in the graduate labour market, and (ii) the assumption of decreasing value attached to the possession of a university degree. Given that the relationship between HE, the labour market and the occupational structure is now extremely opaque, a key question is the extent to which success at degree level is reflected in labour market outcomes. For example, how do graduates with the same qualifications and similar forms of capital fare in the labour market? Who is successful (or not successful)? This working paper stems from PhD research exploring differences in how first class graduates of different genders, social backgrounds and educational biographies construct and manage their employability within the labour market, and what these graduates' experiences, aspirations, perceptions and expectations of the world of work are. The need for such research is particularly pertinent given persistent government emphasis on notions of employability and social justice within a 'knowledge-driven' economy (Dearing, 1997; Department for Education & Skills (DfES), 2003).

Contemporary HE has increasingly been linked with the 'needs' of the economy and industry - with building economic prosperity but at the same time with promoting social justice and improving the prospects and life-chances of individuals. The needs of this 'post-industrial' or 'knowledge-driven economy' in which we are now seen to be working and living is claimed to require flexible, 'employable' graduates with a wide range of skills/competences, as well as simply 'academic skills' and subject specialist or technical knowledge (Labour Party, 1997; DfEE, 1998; CBI, 1998; DfES, 2003). However, the fact that the rhetoric of employability has been largely employer and business driven necessitates a critical examination of the concept itself, as well as of how different social groups are positioned within and by the discourse of employability, whether there are social class, gender, or educational biographical differences in the way graduates construct and manage their employability within the labour market, and how these might impact on processes of occupational recruitment and future life-chances. This paper argues that it is essential to recognize that a focus on the supply side (on graduates' 'employability') cannot be seen in isolation from the demand for certain kinds of labour. Furthermore, a complex mixture of social, cultural, personal, institutional, economic and even political factors mediate any particular individual's employability. Hence employability must also be seen in relative terms (Brown et al., 2003), as a social construct that is closely related to and informed by individuals' identities, biographies and self-concepts.

This paper presents and discusses some preliminary findings from an analysis of the study's survey and interview data. It is necessarily somewhat limited in its scope, and focuses on the issue of gender in relation to the study's main research aims. The data presented suggest that there are some important (and increasingly complex) gender differences in graduates' experiences of work and in terms of how different graduates view their credential and its role within the labour market. But these differences exist not simply between men and women, but often between different groups of women and men. Further analysis of the research data will allow the impact of gender on individual perceptions of employability and labour market choice to be explored in more depth, and a fuller re-conceptualization of employability to be arrived at. This paper is necessarily more limited in its aims: The first half of the paper explores graduates' subjective experiences of the world of work, perceptions of the labour market and the role of their first class credential, with a particular focus on gender. The second half advocates a re-consideration and re-conceptualization of common understandings of employability in light of the research data presented.

Methodology

In order to examine differences in the labour market expectations, aspirations, experiences and orientations of first class degree holders, and how they construct and manage their employability within the labour market, the research design incorporated both qualitative and quantitative approaches to data collection and analysis. The research was based on a multi-method design consisting of the following methods of data collection: (i) secondary data analysis, (ii) a postal questionnaire survey of all graduates with firsts and a matching random sample of those with 2:2s from 8 Higher Education Institutions representing a wide range of status positions, who graduated in the years 1997 and 2001, and (iii) semi-structured qualitative interviews with a sample of 50 first class degree holders. There were 834 respondents to the survey (a response rate of 20%), achieved from a single mail-out. Data were analyzed using SPSS. The personal and educational characteristics of the survey respondents and further details of the methodology are given in more detail in a forthcoming working paper (Smetherham, 2003, forthcoming).2

1. Subjective Perceptions of the Labour Market and the Role of the First Class Credential

Although 'employability' is often constructed in somewhat 'objective' terms, as reflecting an individual's ability to 'gain and retain fulfilling work' (Hillage & Pollard, 1998), and is therefore posited as amenable to quantitative 'measurement' in terms of the numbers of graduates able to find employment post-graduation in any given year (the basis of some HEI 'performance' indicators), the value of work to individuals and the ways in which individuals construct their employability is to a considerable extent also subjective. This section of the paper opens up this more subjective dimension of employability to closer examination, by exploring the perceptions of first class graduates themselves, focusing on gender issues. There has been much debate about whether women tend to have distinctively gendered orientations to work and life interests which impinge upon their career development and employment aspirations (see e.g. Purcell, 2002). Hakim's (2000; 2002) distinction between work-centred, adaptive and home-centred women has been challenged in the light of qualitative analysis of women's career 'choices' (Purcell, 2002; Crompton, 1999; 2000). Much of this work, particularly that by Crompton (2000) raises the possibility that, insofar as women do make rational choices (as opposed to more or less ad hoc contextualised or restricted responses) related to work-life balance, they may do so in their choice of occupation or human capital development, prior to labour market entry. Yet Crompton (1999) is somewhat over-positive in her arguments concerning the 'decline' of the male breadwinner, given that this research shows traditional orientations and understandings, on both the part of first class men and women, towards men still being considered the 'main' income-earner, particularly after the birth of a child. Other research on women and the labour market (e.g. Rees, 1992; Crompton, 1997) has highlighted some of the issues and problems facing women in paid employment, emphasizing the barriers that continue to exist for women in this arena.

However, increasingly it seems that the gendered nature of labour market processes serving to disadvantage women and restrict their 'choices' appears as 'implicit' and 'invisible'. Such processes are therefore increasingly hard to tap in to. The younger and highly qualified respondents to this survey provide an interesting test case to evaluate the extent to which highly qualified women, who potentially could choose to opt for any of Hakim's categories of work-life balance, perceive their choices or have systematically different medium and long-term aspirations. These questions are addressed more fully in the full thesis. Here, the responses of graduates to some of the survey questions regarding the extent to which they felt they were actually utilizing their skills and abilities within their work, provide an interesting preliminarily indication of gendered similarities and differences in terms of respondents' job 'quality'. It is worth noting that although the questionnaire did not distinguish between 'personal' and 'graduate-level' skills - which are not mutually exclusive, given that a graduate could feel that they are using their 'personal' skills in their job but not feel that they are using their 'graduate' skills or vice-versa - the responses do give a broad indication of the 'quality' of the job respondents had entered. Some measure of job quality must form a key element in arguments relating to graduate employability, because in one sense all graduates are arguably employable - the key question is 'employable for what?' (Brown et al., 2003). It is to an examination of these issues that this paper now turns.

The following set of tables explore whether respondents felt that they were using their skills and abilities within their job at the time of the survey, and whether they felt the work they did required graduate level ability / training. Whether these top performing graduates are finding jobs consistent with their knowledge and skills within the labour market is an important question. How for example has the expansion of HE and changes in the labour market impacted upon the construction of employability by the highest achieving graduates? What skills and knowledge are required in their work?

Table 1 looks only at those with firsts, and compares whether men and women felt that they were using their skills and abilities in their current job. Table 2 compares the same factors but looks exclusively at men and women with 2:2s. It is immediately apparent that those with firsts are a lot more likely to agree that they are using their skills and abilities in their current job, relative to those with 2:2s. The gender differences here are relatively inconsequential, compared to the differences between those with different degree classifications, which suggests that having a first does have a premium in terms of this particular measure of job 'quality' for both men and women, relative to their counterparts with 2:2s. However, it may of course be the case that those with firsts are more likely to answer this question in the affirmative, given that their higher degree classification may be something they expect to give them access to jobs where they are using their skills and abilities.

Table 1: Use of Skills and Abilities in Current Job:
Graduates with 1sts (N = 369)

 

Frequency

Percentage

 

Male

Female

Male

Female

Using skills and abilities in current job

162

127

79%

77.4%

Not using skills and abilities in current job

31

30

15.1%

18.3%

Don't know / not sure

12

7

5.9%

4.3%

Total

205

164

100%

100%

Table 2: Use of Skills and Abilities in Current Job:

Graduates with 2:2s (N = 301)

 

Frequency

Percentage

 

Male

Female

Male

Female

Using skills and abilities in current job

99

103

66.4%

67.8%

Not using skills and abilities in current job

42

38

28.2%

25%

Don't know / not sure

8

11

5.4%

7.2%

Total

149

152

100%

100%

Another important issue relates to whether respondents felt that the work they did required graduate level ability / training. Clearly this is a key question in the context of mass HE and the position of graduates within an increasingly saturated graduate labour market, given the growth of what have been referred to as 'non-graduate' jobs, catering to those unable to obtain 'graduate-level' employment. Tables 3 and 4 below compare the responses of those with firsts to those with 2:2s. Again it can be seen that the responses of those with firsts and 2:2s clearly differ - graduates with firsts are considerably more likely to respond positively and agree that the work they do requires graduate level ability / training. The responses of the genders are also remarkably similar on this issue. Those with 2:2s are more likely to feel that the work they do does not require graduate level ability / training, and consequently that they are more 'over-qualified' than their first-class counterparts or have a job of lesser 'quality'. Again the responses of the genders are extremely close - it is the differences between those with different degree classifications that appear to be most salient here. The subjective perception of the majority of graduates is that they are in appropriate employment for people with their skills and qualifications, and there is little difference in how women are faring relative to their similarly qualified male counterparts on this measure.

Table 3: Whether Work Done Requires Graduate Level Ability / Training: Graduates with 1sts (N = 375)

 

Frequency

Percentage

 

Male

Female

Male

Female

Work requires graduate level ability / training

164

132

78.8%

79%

Work does not require graduate level ability / training

38

30

18.3%

18%

Don't know / not sure

6

5

2.9%

3%

Total

208

167

100%

100%

Table 4: Whether Work Done Requires Graduate Level Ability / Training: Graduates with 2:2s (N = 306)

 

Frequency

Percentage

 

Male

Female

Male

Female

Work requires graduate level ability / training

90

81

59.2%

52.6%

Work does not require graduate level ability / training

56

60

36.8%

39%

Don't know / not sure

6

13

3.9%

8.4%

Total

152

154

100%

100%

Figure 1 shows responses to one of the central questions of the research - whether respondents feel that having a first gives its holder the best employment opportunities, measured by use of a likert-type scale. The figure includes only those who graduated with a first. The responses to this question are extremely interesting. Overall, the majority of graduates, both male and female, disagreed that having a first gave access to the best employment opportunities. Apart from the 2001 male graduates all the shapes of the graphs tend in the same direction i.e. towards the 'disagree' end of the scale. Women from both 1997 and 2001 were more likely to disagree / strongly disagree that their credential had given them the best employment opportunities, relative to their male counterparts in each of these years. Men were more likely to feel positive about the role their credential had played in the labour market, regardless of the year in which they graduated. Of course what count as 'the best employment opportunities' are socially and culturally defined, so there may be differences in how graduates themselves interpreted this question. But the graph does suggest some interesting issues which merit further exploration e.g. why men and women appear to attach different weight to the value of their credential within the labour market, whether the women are simply being 'realistic' and are more inclined to think that employers judge candidates on criteria other than simply credentials and that gender does play a part, or that they have lower expectations about the role of their first.

The interviews with graduates showed a general recognition that while having a first may help students to 'stand out' on an application form or to get to an interview in the first place, the first class credential alone is by no means the 'be all and end all' of getting a job, and in some instances may serve to disadvantage its holder. Having a first was above all seen by interviewees as a source of personal satisfaction and achievement; it was not by and large viewed instrumentally as a means of helping to 'get a job'. By far the majority of graduates interviewed and surveyed were of the opinion that personal qualities were extremely important in the recruitment process, as was the ability to impress at interview, to be articulate and to 'get on well' with the company or person doing the recruiting.

Figure 1: Those with First Class Degrees get the Best Employment Opportunities: Graduates with Firsts by Gender & Graduation Year

Some of the interview data also throw more light on this issue, as the following quotations illustrate.

Q. Do you think that all graduates with firsts have an equal opportunity of getting good jobs?

No I think it depends on who they are and what their experience is and how they present themselves... I can imagine situations in which, well, a graduate with a first class degree and a whole chunk of relevant work experience is going to be more desirable than a graduate with a first class degree full stop. And there may be an assumption that someone's who's got a first but as far as you can tell from their CV didn't do anything else in college, is maybe going to be a very narrow person...

(Graduate 3876: Female, graduated 1997, Arts/Humanities, 'middle ranking' university, Librarian)

Q. Do you think one's gender makes a difference?

It depends on the sector. I mean it would depend on what subject you did and what sector you're applying for jobs in. In my sector I don't think it makes any difference at all. If you are one of my housemates who got a first in mechanical engineering while being small and incredibly pretty and very feminine, your application, even though I mean I'm not talking like reverse sex discrimination, just the fact that you know they ask for an application with a photo and they've got like engineering geek, engineering geek, engineering geek, Pat... makes them stop and look and that may give you the edge that they actually read your CV...

(Graduate 3876: Female, graduated 1997, Arts/Humanities, 'middle ranking' university, Librarian)

I don't know... Um, but no I don't think so because - especially in the field I'm in, the sort of area I'm in ... No I didn't really get that impression to be honest. At work I find it more, but not in the selection process... Well I don't know because you know sometimes it's just sort of like - the first job I had you know like very male sense of humour and the jokes and stuff - not in terms of jokes that were inappropriate or offensive but you know jokes that you didn't really get because they were just like men's jokes you know - and um, sort of culture, but in where I am now there's sort of more women and it's not like that. But I don't think I feel like you can't get ahead because of that, but as I say sometimes you have to fight a bit more to get taken seriously...

(Graduate 3012: Female, graduated 2001, Social Science, elite university, Civil Service Fast Stream - Policy & Performance Officer)

Q. With more people getting degrees, what factors do you think influence who gets recruited?

It's a popularity contest. A lot of it goes on personality. And looks, which is dreadful - but true ... I was involved in recruiting new editors in *******... I was invited along to the interviews as well, along with my manager. And there are all sorts of horrible, devious thoughts that go through their minds. It's really quite awful - I was quite shocked. There were people that were recruited on the basis that they were women with children who wouldn't want advancement ... although they wouldn't say that to her - they would hire her on the basis that she would be easy to bully, wouldn't challenge anyone, wouldn't want advancement, wouldn't expect pay rises, would want to sit and do the same job over and over again... There were people that were hired specifically to break down a social dynamic within the group, people that would not fit in and therefore break down the social dynamic of the group because the social dynamic of the group was working against the management and pointing out their failings, and because at one point the manager was a woman she was hiring people that she found attractive - because she wanted to be around them all day and she was single... There are some awful, awful practices going on. I mean because there are so many graduates, people are coming in with the same level of ability and being in the same position in their career - they'd usually be people on their second job, who are really interested in moving in to publishing and they would come in and they would be interviewed and they would all be really of the same standard, so it would come down to personal issues or horrible, horrible practices of social engineering and also picking people that would suit their long-term goals of not giving anyone a pay rise and so on. Dreadful. Absolutely awful.

Q. How about gender?

Ah - now that's an interesting question. Let me think about that. Hmmm. I don't know, because I think so much of it goes on personality... And I think whether you get hired on the basis of your gender, would depend upon the gender and sexuality of the person that's interviewing you - and it does happen. I know it happens, I've seen it happen. I've seen people be hired for their sex. Um, so... as I say, a male manager hired a woman because he thought he could bully her - or at least she would be 'easy to control' I think was the phrase that he used, and I've seen a woman hire a bloke because she found him attractive...

In terms of gender, I can't say that I've spotted anything in terms of sexism toward women , carrying on... As I say, most of the women that I know that have done well, have done it on the basis of how they look. I've never seen an unattractive female manager - ever... As I say, my friend from university who did exactly that - I mean she's on the board of directors now and she's earning a fantastic amount of money. She did the same degree as me, but she's earning a fantastic amount of money, and it's all from really scary things - even sleeping with one of the board of directors in his daughter's bed because that's what got him off! I'm not joking... And she told me that, and I was horrified - I said to her, you're in real danger if you carry on this way. Real danger. But, she's got where she is and she's happy - most of the time she's happy, but sometimes she goes through horrible periods of guilt...

(Graduate 1271: Male, graduated 1997, Arts/Humanities, elite university, currently unemployed/seeking employment - previously employed as an editor)

The above narrative of this male graduate, currently unemployed and who had voluntarily left a previous job due to a case of sexual harassment by a female boss, provides a good (though perhaps a-typical) example of the richness of the data collected. This young man's story is full of moral values and evaluations - and the above extract touches on several of the over-arching 'themes' that are emerging from the interviews e.g. sexuality, gender, de-moralization, control, competition, and the tension between market and merit, morality and values. In particular, his perception of what individuals need, and need to do, in order to 'get ahead' in today's labour market involves an allusion to what he sees as the inherent a-morality or immorality of today's competitive labour market. Fevre (2003) encourages us to consider the moral and value dimensions of labour market and ostensibly 'economic' behaviour and his work is important in reminding us to remain alert to these dimensions of social behaviour and social action. Having been involved in recruitment himself this graduate's story (of which this is just a small part) makes fairly unnerving reading and smacks of Sennett's (1998) 'corrosion of character' argument. If employability is as nebulous and intangible as his account would suggest, and is based on the micro-political and micro-level (largely sexual in his opinion) dynamics between individuals and employers/employing organizations in particular social contexts, then the interlinked elements of social bases of competition, occupational selection and meritocracy are in urgent need of re-consideration and re-conceptualization, and policy understandings of what constitutes employability clearly need to be re-thought.

The concept of personal capital (Brown et al., 2003) has recently been introduced and is an extremely useful concept for examining and conceptualizing who 'gets ahead' and how within the labour market. It allows the finer differences of graduates' resources within the labour market to be tapped in to, particularly when looking at graduates with similar levels of educational credentials. However, personal capital does not 'explain it all', despite the fact that judgements about one's personal qualities, 'embodied' human capital and experience have undoubtedly become more important, alongside any consideration of paper qualifications. Certainly, the value of an individual to an employer is no longer represented solely by the denomination of academic currency but by the economy of experience (Brown et al., 2003). The narrative presented above certainly suggests that some graduates are aware of this, and the interview data strongly suggest that graduates are conscious of the way that employability ties up with notions of 'the personal', 'the self' and 'experience'.

This young man's (relatively rare) experience of being a young man sexually harassed by a female colleague has clearly shaped his understanding of both gender relations and his perceptions of the labour market. Furthermore he is experiencing a real level of disillusionment - even de-moralization - with the labour market. Brown et al. (forthcoming) distinguish between labour market 'players' (who operate according to market rules of engagement and see employability as a positional game to be won by deploying necessary resources within the labour market) and 'purists' (who operate according to a belief in meritocracy). However the approach of this graduate may more accurately be characterized as one of 'moral retreatism' from the labour market - he feels he has 'decoded' the rules of the game and is simply not willing to play by them. Furthermore his perception that the labour market is inherently a morally 'questionable' arena has lead him to retreat from the competition. His narrative is replete with disheartening comments and he really appears to be quite de-moralized by the way that he perceives 'post-bureaucratic' organizations within the current labour market to be working:

I hate the workplace as it is now... I fully understand that in the past, that people progressing through a job perhaps wasn't based on their skills and experience and it was 'jobs for the boys' and there was very much a sexist element to it, but I still think that the ideal of people being promoted as a reward for their dedication and long service and their knowledge, is how a company should work, and it should keep and develop the skills base that it has... But they don't - they really don't. They promote their friends.

(Graduate 1271: Male, graduated 1997, Arts/Humanities, elite university, currently unemployed/seeking employment - previously employed as an editor)

The way that individual perceptions of the labour market, jobs and work tie up with understandings and perceptions of the self and one's personal, social and labour market identity has also been a salient and interesting element to emerge from the research data, which certainly merits further exploration and will be examined in the full thesis. For example, asked about the jobs that he felt would be 'appropriate' for him this male graduate gave the following response:

Q. What jobs would you, or would you not, consider?

I ... wouldn't consider advertising or marketing or sales! And that's a shame because sales makes up so much of the workplace - I was quite stunned by how much of the work environment is made up basically of sales. Because I suppose really the industry in the UK nobody makes anything any more - all people do is sell. So ... that was quite a shock to me. So people that have the gift of the gab, that are you know, beautiful and you know, that you know have got an unlimited supply of cocaine - they do incredibly well in this particular field, but I knew I just couldn't - there was no way that I could do it.

(Graduate 1271: Male, graduated 1997, Arts/Humanities, elite university, currently unemployed/seeking employment - previously employed as an editor)

In terms of the move towards individual-level 'employability' and the changes in career structure and work-life history that have been generated by the shift towards flexible work patterns and frequent job changes, graduates were asked whether they saw themselves as changing jobs regularly in their working life. Responses were measured by a likert-scale and the responses of first class men and women are shown below in Table 5. The first thing to note is that the majority of graduates (43% of men and 42% of women) either strongly agreed or agreed that they saw themselves as changing jobs regularly. It seems from this as though the discourse of employability and the changing nature of work have been absorbed by graduates, at least by those graduates surveyed. A further 28% of men and 31% of women were unsure. Another interesting thing to note is the similarity between the responses of men and women, which on each response are extremely close. There therefore seem to be no gender differences (again 'the invisibility of gender' seems ascendant on this issue) - the majority of graduates surveyed are resigned to the rhetoric of employability, flexibility and the notion of 'portfolio careers'.

The interviews analyzed so far suggest that not only do graduates believe that jobs for life no longer really 'exist' (except for perhaps jobs as police officers or civil servant), but that graduates no longer want jobs for life - they want 'a career', but this invariably involves moving between companies to gain experience and promotion. In the eyes of the graduates interviewed, a 'job for life' is a barrier to a fulfilling 'career'. Instead of jobs 'for life' they expect jobs that give them flexibility and the opportunity to create certain 'lifestyles' and 'identities' outside as well as inside of work, that give them enough money to allow them to live 'comfortably'; to consume holidays, cars, travel and particular leisure pursuits in their free time, and that allow them to seek promotion by changing companies, rather than climbing up through the ranks of one particular company. Within this context the notion of company 'loyalty' also changes, and for many becomes completely redundant, given that 'companies are no longer necessarily loyal to you, so why should you be loyal to them?!'

Table 5: 'I see myself as changing jobs regularly in my working life':
All Graduates with Firsts (N = 465)

Frequency

Percentage

Male

Female

Male

Female

Strongly Agree

30

20

11.8%

9.5%

Agree

79

68

31.1%

32.2%

Not Sure

72

65

28.3%

30.8%

Disagree

62

47

24.4%

22.3%

Strongly Disagree

11

11

4.3%

5.2%

Total

254

211

100%

100%

Graduates' subjective perceptions of the labour market and the role of their first class credential are extremely varied, as shown by the interview excerpts and tables above. The survey data show that on the majority of measures relating to graduates' subjective perceptions of the labour market, in terms of the match between qualifications and work done for example, men and women's responses are surprisingly similar; it is differences between those with different degree classes that are most pronounced. Men were however more likely than their female counterparts to regard the role of their first class credential in a positive light. A recent CSU report (2001/2) argues that 'women's study and career choices show an appreciation of the need to consider long-term job flexibility which will enable them to have families and keep their career options open'. The data presented here show that both women and men are considering long-term job flexibility in that they see themselves as changing jobs regularly in their working lives, but perhaps the really interesting question is the extent to which young men feel able to 'choose' family over career.

The majority of the women who have been interviewed thus far, do not feel that their gender has been 'a problem', and many have become quite defensive when the subject of gender has been touched upon - perhaps reactive is a better word, frequently seeing themselves as unquestionably 'equal' to their male counterparts. The issue of sexuality has been alluded to a number of times in the interviews conducted so far, and this is one of the themes that will be followed up in more detail once all of the interview data have been fully transcribed. There are clearly many interesting emerging themes which merit further analysis, but this paper suggests that the gendered and sexual dynamics of the labour market and micro-level interactions must also be fully and centrally integrated into discussions and analyses of employability.

2. Re-Defining Employability

This section outlines the main, existing meta-theoretical approaches to employability within the literature and suggests a re-definition which recognises that employability must be understood as being about lifestyle issues, values, choices and attitudes, as much as simply about individuals obtaining employment. Employability is not only a matter of making a living or being able to get 'a job', but is also a matter of achieving a 'comfortable' (middle class) lifestyle (also see Stroud, 2001). There is also a 'subjective' dimension to understanding labour market outcomes, as issues of employability are intimately connected to the question of social identity (Holmes, 1995) and shaped (not necessarily determined) by an individual's 'habitus' (Bourdieu, 1973).

Employability is central to the policy goals of government and has been identified as a key economic and social target by both government and big business (see e.g. CBI, 1998). It is seen as a key issue for individual and business competitiveness, and the 'solution' to changes in work and organization. The CBI (1998 : 6) for example defines employability as:

'The possession by an individual of the qualities and competences required to meet the changing needs of employers and customers and thereby help to realise his or her aspirations and potential in work'.

The business and policy focus on employability has been presented in terms of labour market changes such as higher skill needs, changing career structures, an increase in flexible working patterns, rising numbers of women in employment, falling job tenure and concerns over unemployment. Central to the whole CBI approach, and that of the government, is the belief that employability is 'specifically a quality of individuals' (CBI, 1998 : 9). This view of employability has informed much of the contemporary debate. Employability therefore serves the ideological function of shifting the blame for failure on to the shoulders of individuals, and for the removal of social and moral responsibilities away from business and government and on to individuals. It also serves the ideological function of legitimating existing labour market inequalities by shifting the focus on to individuals. It is therefore questionable whose interests are being served by employability discourses. This paper suggests that without denying the centrality of individuals, employability is better appreciated as a social construct and is dependent upon context, as well as on individuals' identities and self-concepts.

The CBI document (CBI, 1998) and government policy therefore takes insufficient account of the relative nature of employability: As Brown et al. (2003) strongly argue, employability cannot be defined solely in terms of individual characteristics ... because employability exists in two dimensions - the relative and the absolute (Brown et al., 2003). This they call the 'duality of employability'. Furthermore, employability varies depending on economic conditions and the general health of the labour - and capital - market.

According to the CBI (CBI, 1998) the drive for individual employability requires a change in the knowledge, skills, understanding and attitudes of those in and seeking employment. However, employability for individuals is not limited to skills and knowledge - a re-conceptualisation of employability must recognize that values and attitudes are just as significant. Furthermore the development and maintenance of employability is seen as a continuous, lifelong process. Aspirations in work e.g. rate of pay, opportunity for development etc. are seen as a vital element in the motivation to improve one's employability. And women, who are more likely to enter and leave the job market than men, are particularly seen as needing to maintain their employability (CBI, 1998). However, this understanding of employability is clearly based on gendered assumptions and research is needed to explore the extent to which men for example feel able to leave the labour market for child rearing, or to share the responsibility with their partners.

Despite the increasing use of the term 'employability', there is no single definition within the academic literature and its meaning remains far from clear (Harvey, 2001). The fact that employability is both a social construction and a contemporary discourse means that it has no 'single' meaning. Incorporating the voices and values of high achieving female and male graduates into theoretical understanding of employability forms an important part of arriving at a fuller re-conceptualization of what employability means to young men and women on the ground, and how they feel about the world of work. Gender must form a crucial aspect of the analysis, taking account not only of the views and values of high achieving women, but also of those of high achieving young men.

The conceptual approaches to employability that exist within the literature can broadly be divided into the following five main approaches (although this does not represent an exhaustive list):

  1. Employability as the ability to gain and retain fulfilling work (Hillage & Pollard, 1998), or 'outcome' approaches;

  2. 'Skills' approaches to employability (e.g. Dearing, 1997);

  3. Graduate identity approaches (e.g. Holmes, 2001), which aim to understand how graduates gain social recognition of their 'worth' as graduates;

  4. Employability understood as both an absolute and a relative concept: 'The duality of employability' (Brown et al., 2003), and;

  5. Employability as 'empowerment' (Drucker, 1993; CBI, 1998).

This paper suggests that, whilst each of these approaches is helpful in drawing attention to certain aspects of employability, the 'duality of employability' approach (along with a consideration of the identity dynamics of employability) provides the most coherent model within which to explore the employability of First Class graduates, relative to other graduates. Employability must be understood as being about relative chances (Brown et al., 2003) and differences in labour market power. It is therefore important to examine what the discourse actually means to young women and men on the ground, and to explore how they are positioned both within and by the discourse of employability (Taylor, 1998).

However, existing conceptualisations of employability fail to grasp the value-driven and socially constructed nature of employability. Employability is a social construction, not simply an outcome - connected to identity, the self, experience, habitus. Any individual's employability is dependent upon their identity/identities and values etc. As Brown et al. (2003) argue, a major problem confronting researchers interested in issues of employability is the lack of theoretically informed studies. This research aims to help redress this imbalance.

The two main schools of thought relating credentials to the occupational structure on employability have been human capital theory and social closure theory. These theories represent either side of the duality of employability (Brown et al., 2003).

Concentrating on the individual worker, the argument that one should invest in one's employability to enhance one's capacity to get or maintain employment, is similar to the line of reasoning as presented by human capital theory (Becker, 1993; Schultz, 1971; Mincer, 1974). Both government policy and the official discourse of employability are informed by human capital assumptions i.e. that those with knowledge and skills will see their incomes rise due to the higher value of their human capital (the 'learning is earning' argument). According to this model the ideology of 'meritocracy' prevails within a knowledge-driven economy where competition for the growing number of professional and managerial jobs is meritocratic - 'talent' does not discriminate on the grounds of gender, class etc. Hence employers and government agree that there is a strong need to invest in human capital and that such investments will benefit employers, employees and national economic competitiveness. However, because it assumes that skill rewards people, human capital theory adopts a somewhat nave and functionalist view of the relationship between skill and reward within what is in fact a highly complex type of market (see e.g. Fevre, 1992).

There are a number of major (and well-rehearsed) weaknesses with such an approach. The most important is perhaps that the relationship between education and employment is far more complex than is often assumed. For example, who gets 'the best' jobs may well be more related to differences in labour market power than in returns to skills or 'employability' (or even 'luck'). Human capital theory is blind to gender differences and ignores differences in the power of social groups to enhance their employability at the expense of others. Researching First Class graduates allows for a detailed examination of these issues. For example, it may be assumed that the labour market power of first class graduates will be similar, given that all possess a similar academic credential. Yet more subtle differences in the cultural, personal, material and symbolic capital of graduates, along with differences in their social, economic and cultural characteristics, affects individuals' abilities to use their labour market power and the extent to which they can effectively capitalise on their employability. It is also doubtful whether inequalities can really be overcome by simply investing in the skills, employability and education of individuals.

Social closure theorists (e.g. Weber, 1968; Parkin, 1979; Collins, 1979; Murphy, 1988) on the other hand would argue that the better paying and higher status jobs have historically been 'closed off' to women (or other minority groups or social groups defined as 'other') by men for example wanting to retain their relatively advantageous positions within the labour market and so 'closing off the competition' to those deemed 'outsiders'. According to this model, resources and power are both salient resources which are deployed within the labour market and which serve to increase the position of one group at the expense of another. Social closure theory therefore offers an alternative explanation of the current policy focus on employability. From this approach employability represents an attempt to legitimate unequal opportunities in education and the labour market at a time of growing income inequalities. So for example companies have emphasised employability in an attempt to shift the social and moral responsibility for jobs, training and careers onto the individual. This approach rejects the view that we are advancing towards a high skilled knowledge economy. In fact only an elite is able to preserve their personal autonomy through work. Hence personal qualities are emphasised in an attempt to legitimate the reproduction of inequalities. However, although more attractive than the human capital alternative, social closure theory is arguably too simplistic - the competition cannot always simply be 'rigged', and it sheds little light on how positional competition is experienced by individuals and social groups (Brown, 2000).

Positional conflict theory (Brown, 2000; Brown et al., 2003) has been presented as a more recent 'third way' between these two competing approaches, introduced as a way of conceptualising the changing relationship between education, employment and the labour market. It is grounded in the neo-Weberian tradition where groups are competing for rewards within the labour market, and it recognises differences in the power of groups to deploy their capital. Positional conflict theory offers a conceptual framework that enables us to study how positional competitions are structured and how individuals and social groups fare within the 'rules of the game'. It incorporates the work of theorists such as Bourdieu and Bernstein and encourages us to investigate the social structure of competition. However, again this theory makes no real effort (apart from a passing recognition that gender is important) to integrate the position of women or gender into its analytical framework. The gendered nature of this positional contest has been ignored. In fact none of these theories really acknowledge what the emphasis on employability might mean for women. Given the data reported above, the positional element clearly merits attention - moreover women need to be considered both relative to men and also relative to other women, since differences between women can often be just as important. Interviews with women and men in both female and male-dominated professions will be used to add 'gendered weight' to this theory, and the extent to which young men and women actually see the competition for jobs as positional will also be investigated, in the hope that positional conflict theory can be developed further.

According to this model employability depends on how one stands relative to others within a hierarchy (which may be explicit or implicit) of job seekers (Brown et al., 2003). The 'positional' aspect of employability therefore assumes major importance in understanding who will find elite employment. Using this model entails an examination of how positional competition is organized and legitimated and a wider consideration of the changing relationship between education, jobs and rewards.

Bradley (1999) introduces the notion of 'gendered power', which could also usefully be applied to the analysis of employability. Although neither Giddens nor Bourdieu applies their ideas to the empirical study of gender, their work can form the basis for theorizing power in terms of different forms of resources (Giddens) or capitals (Bourdieu). Following Giddens' theory of structuration Bradley (1999) conceives of power in terms of differential access to and control of rules and resources, and distinguishes nine different types of power resource that are involved in relations between men and women: Economic power; positional power; technical power; physical power; symbolic power; collective power; personal power; sexual power and domestic power (Bradley, 1999 : 34-5). Each of these could usefully be applied to the study of employability.

According to Hakim's (2002) preference theory, women's motivations and aspirations must be investigated more thoroughly, alongside the impact of social, economic and institutional factors. Significantly, preference theory brings values back into the investigation by looking at variations in lifestyle preferences among women. The main theoretical and empirical development is the insistence that preferences and life goals can no longer be ignored or assumed to be known or homogenous. Again there are elements of this analysis that can usefully be applied to the study of employability.

In fact 'employability' is the product of a complex mixture of different factors located in the labour market, in universities, in the recruitment procedures of businesses, in the economic policies implemented by government and in the personal/social characteristics of individual graduates. Employability is not simply 'an outcome'; constructions of employability are intimately connected to issues of social and personal identity, socialization, personal and cultural capital, habitus etc., which begin and have been developed before an individual even enters HE or the labour market. At its simplest level 'employability' itself may be seen as a function of the match, or lack of it, between the demand for labour and the supply of labour, with both these terms being understood as qualitative as well as quantitative concepts (Kleinman & West, 1998). As Knight (2002) argues, graduate employability is not divorced from academic achievements, but academic achievements are only a part of the story. When considering issues relating to employability, above all it is perhaps important to recognise that employability is not simply a question of gaining employment - it is important to recognise that the same qualifications and skills have different exchange values for different social groups in the labour market (Morley, 2001).

Conclusions

The findings presented in this paper suggest that any understanding of graduate employability must incorporate a consideration of the values and attitudes of individuals, including in particular the voices of young women and men within the labour market. Looking at responses to survey questions dealing with individuals' more subjective perceptions of the labour market and the extent to which graduates felt they were using their skills and abilities in their jobs, gender differences were not particularly salient, but there were clear differences between graduates with different degree classes. However men with firsts were more likely to view the role of their credential positively within the labour market, compared to their female first class counterparts.

The paper has argued that employability is about more than simply finding a job - it is intimately connected to issues of social and personal identity, to individuals' subjective understandings of 'self', to how their actions within the labour market are shaped by different value systems and (crucially) to differences in the labour market power of individuals. Employability and labour market choices and behaviour are also shaped by more unconscious elements relating to one's 'habitus' (Bourdieu, 1973). A fuller understanding of the concept of employability necessitates a focus on both the macro and micro levels i.e. it necessitates a focus on the occupational structure and the opportunities it offers for different individuals, but also on how different individuals navigate and experience the labour market.

Existing theories of gender identity only go some way to explaining how young women and men construct and manage their employability. The emphasis on employability and performance affects women, their decisions and attitudes, and the ways in which they construct and understand their employability. Arguably, the employability rhetoric will have a negative impact on gender identity, since women (or at least certain women) may feel that it is difficult to keep fit in the market for jobs when they want to have a family etc. More importantly, if employability equals 'performance' then this raises potential problems for those (both young women and men) who want families. This research clearly already suggests that graduates manage their employability in different ways that are closely linked to their sense of personal and occupational identity. And although the gender dimension of employability certainly needs further analysis, as long as women retain the primary responsibility for child rearing - and young men remain less successful at making 'choices' in relation to this role - then it is arguably going to be more difficult for young women to maintain their 'employability' within the wider market for jobs.

The interview data presented also suggest that experiential and 'personal' forms of capital are becoming more important in the eyes of graduates themselves in terms of structuring access to labour market outcomes and rewards. In fact in many cases personal capital appears to be far more powerful than academic capital. This research is on going, but the one clear conclusion that can be drawn thus far is that the hierarchy of achievement within university is in no simple way related to graduates' labour market outcomes and rewards - the relationship between credential and occupational structure is far more complex than is often assumed. The data emerging from this research strongly suggest that we leave behind the sort of simplistic thinking that lies behind the rhetoric of concepts such as the 'knowledge economy' and 'employability'.

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Notes:

  1. According to Trow's (1973) oft-quoted classification a 'universal' system is reached when more than 40% of the age cohort are enrolled in HE. It is currently the government's intention that, by 2010, 50% of the age cohort will receive some form of HE.

  2. This paper will also be shortly available on-line at www.employability.ukhe.com .

This document was added to the Education-line database on 05 November 2003