Employability: a mismatch of expectations and skills

In the face of the challenges presented by globalisation and the knowledge economy, Hong Kong has witnessed the rapid expansion of higher education from 2000 onwards. With the number of places in publicly funded full-time undergraduate programmes capped at a relatively stable level, their self-financing counterparts have grown to take up 37% (13,900) of student intake in the 2017-18 academic year.

Privatisation of higher education has thus pushed the rate of participation in undergraduate programmes from 17.7% in 2001-02 up to 48.2% in 2017-18.

Wider access to university education has been accompanied by well-documented evidence of declining graduate prospects, in Hong Kong and overseas. In the case of Hong Kong, this is reflected in the earnings disadvantage of recent cohorts of graduates, as well as stagnation in earnings mobility and in occupational attainment when compared to earlier cohorts.

The literature tells us little of workplace demands on young graduates, however. How has the ‘mismatch’ of graduates’ knowledge and skill-sets with the labour market arisen? If graduates are deemed insufficiently equipped for jobs ‘appropriate’ for graduates, what constitute jobs that are ‘appropriate’ for them?

In the global city of Hong Kong, doubts about the external efficiency of self-financing higher education institutions have hitherto been directed at the associate degree level, but less is known about self-financed degree programmes.

With this in mind, Beatrice Lam carried out semi-structured interviews with 37 young workers, the majority of whom had recently graduated from degree programmes provided by self-financing institutions. Lived experiences in job-seeking and at work were probed. Selected findings and implications are presented below.

Early post-graduation experiences

Graduates have been engaged in ‘knowledge work’ at entry level, which demands discipline-specific competence and a variety of ‘transferable skills’, notably bilingual abilities and communication skills.

Taking the initiative to multi-task and take up extra physical, clerical and-or technical work is expected. Routinisation is very much felt: A logistics coordinator’s day of work comprises packing/unpacking; inspection of goods; handling intermediaries, clients and related documents and the steps repeat themselves.

A junior auditor spends the day inspecting invoices “with the calculator in one hand, and with my [eyes] on the [computer] monitor”. A multi-media technician is expected to follow prescribed procedures and produce hundreds of video clips in a year.

Not all graduates got the chance to be creative and some lamented the limited room allowed for the application of perspectives and experimentation of approaches they had learnt in university and for the exercise of their analytical mind. Opportunities to process data and to propose, organise, manage and evaluate an operation were seldom experienced in entry-level positions.

Negotiation of ‘employability’

Besides coping with workplace demands, graduates also discussed challenges in presenting their ‘employability’ and accessing job opportunities. This happened when employers had little or misinformed knowledge of self-financing institutions or queried the ‘relevance’ of ‘generic’ degree qualifications.

What is noteworthy is that graduates were mostly convinced of the promises of university education and some felt the need to underline how their academic training and theoretical or conceptual knowledge differentiated them from sub-degree (associate degree and higher diploma) holders. This is not necessarily appreciated by prospective employers, however.

Jobs characterised by the aforementioned routinisation and a perceived lack of expectation and responsibility placed on them could be experienced as ‘meaningless’ and ‘dead-end’, which in turn discouraged graduates from staying in the position for long.

Perceived relevance of graduate attributes

One possible way to make sense of the findings is to consider how, because of questions about the legitimacy of their credentials, graduates of self-financing institutions have been systematically channelled into positions offering fewer opportunities for them to demonstrate their skills and competences.

There appears to be a perceived ‘decoupling’ of institutional visions of ‘graduate attributes’ and the efficacy of such attributes in the workplace, at least in entry-level positions. In particular, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘a global perspective’, two of those attributes most frequently cited on websites of local degree-awarding institutions, were mostly considered irrelevant, even in positions paid at a ‘degree-level’ rate.

Notwithstanding how considerations of ‘graduate attributes’ are incorporated into higher education practice and how such visions are understood, the findings suggest that understandings of what ‘makes’ an ‘employable’ graduate are mutually constituted in interactions between graduates and (prospective) employers.

It could be problematic to conceptualise ‘graduate’ skills and competences as transactional in economic-rationalistic terms and to assess graduate employability, based on ‘snapshots’ of graduate employment outcomes.

Instead, the findings foreground the skills and qualities required and rewarded in the workplace and can be used to inform the formulation of larger-scale survey research.

This would bring a greater understanding of how graduates access a job, maintain their job and seek career advancement in a way that is sensitive to how different industries, with their diverse recruitment mechanisms, construct the value of subject knowledge, skills and competences.

If we view employability from a longer-term perspective, it is clear that the scope of career services should be expanded beyond facilitating graduates’ movement into the labour market to cover the enhancement of graduates’ capacity for on-the-job learning and career management.

Sensitising graduates to the demands of entry-level positions and training them in skilful presentation of their ‘employability’ as they move jobs will be critical in current labour market circumstances.

Given the ambiguity and lack of consensus over what constitutes ‘employability’, there is a perceived need for employers to be more involved in conversations with higher education practitioners and students.

That being said, the tension felt between graduates’ academic training and the vocational demands of the labour market points to a conundrum in higher education governance. The aspirations fuelled by the rapid expansion of self-financed degree programmes, which offer those who lose out in the competition for places in publicly funded universities an alternative route to degree-level study, are unfulfilled.

To put ‘graduate employability’ in the context of Hong Kong, without a diversification of the economic structure and a reconfiguration of what constitutes an ‘enterprising citizen’, governance of higher education will be circumscribed by the agenda of ‘employability’.

Students pursuing a university education in exchange for securing ‘decent’ work and pay will continue to be left frustrated, whereas teaching and research in areas not amenable to ‘vocationalisation’ could be at risk of being marginalised.

Dr Beatrice Oi-yeung Lam is assistant professor in the School of Arts and Social Sciences of the Open University of Hong Kong. Dr Hei-hang Hayes Tang is assistant professor (specialising in sociology of higher education) in the department of education policy and leadership of the Education University of Hong Kong. Acknowledgements: The work described in this article was fully supported by a grant from the Katie Shu Sui Pui Charitable Trust – Research and Publication Fund (KS 2017/2.1).