What really determines graduate employment outcomes?

Universities have been under great pressure to produce employable graduates. Governments and policy-makers have put strong emphasis on the importance of effectively preparing graduates for the world of work. For decades Australian universities have been subject to a range of policy measures to ensure that they put in place measures, practices and activities that enhance graduates’ future employability.

Many institutions are now publicly evaluated in the form of national and international league tables that demonstrate how successfully their graduates get a sound labour market return from their studies.

From 2020, graduate employment outcomes will be the most important factor under the performance-based funding model for universities. In spite of increasing pressures put on universities to prepare students for employment, however, we do not know exactly how graduates use what they have acquired from universities for their post-study employment.

What do graduates say?

In 2018 and 2019 we organised the Alumni Experience Conference at Monash University to invite alumni in different disciplines to share their career development stories. We used their career narratives as research data and developed a book, Developing and Utilizing Employability Capitals: Graduates’ strategies across labour markets.

The analysis of 120 narratives of alumni revealed graduates’ employment was determined by a range of factors at three levels: macro, meso and micro.

At the macro level

At the macro level, graduates’ career choices and pathways were shown to be influenced by policies about industry investment and development. International students’ employment outcomes were directly impacted by changes in permanent residence and visa policies. Many local employers and industries did not want to hire graduates without permanent residence to avoid constant staff changes when their visa expires.

At the meso level

At the meso level, the prospects, expectations and preferences of three key stakeholders including parents, universities and employers were found to be key determinants.

Parents: 25% of the graduates said their study disciplines and first career pathways were chosen by their parents. Many studied subjects that their parents believed would lead to economically viable occupations, good prospects and job security. However, several then changed their occupation as they matured and gained new experiences because they realised they had different career interests. Graduates who had not used career services and consultancies at school experienced more changes in career pathways when they grew up.

Universities: Graduates acknowledged two sources of skills and knowledge they obtained from universities: occupational expertise (for instance, specialised content knowledge) and practical competencies (for instance, applicable knowledge, hands-on experience and professional skills). In general, they showed high appreciation of the degrees and occupational expertise acquired from universities.

The majority used qualifications as the first enabling factor to enter the labour market and transit to a new job or a new labour market. Although professional skills (for instance, communication, teamwork and critical thinking) may have given them more credit, their university degree was a requirement in many sectors.

For those graduates working in academia, the levels of their qualifications were closely associated with promotion opportunities. Regarding competencies, graduates stressed the significance of articulating practical and applicable knowledge and skills via extra-curricular programmes like work-integrated learning and volunteer and part-time work. These experiences sharpened their content knowledge and enhanced their professional skills.

Employers: Employers were found to have expectations about both academic credentials and professional skills, but they did not show much interest in checking the quality of degrees and qualifications. When applying for jobs, most of the graduates were, therefore, not required to submit their academic transcripts or any evidence showing how they performed academically at universities.

It is important to note that employers paid lots of attention to personal qualities so often checked these with referees carefully. This means graduates should only use referees who know about them well enough and can sell their good qualities to the potential employer. This is an important factor, but graduates do not often pay enough attention to it.

At the micro level

At the micro level, graduates emphasised the need to develop early career plans and interests. Having these enabled them to be more goal-oriented and strategic with regard to what they should be engaged with during and after their study programmes.

More importantly, they highlighted the need to articulate a range of other qualities, including building their social networks, understanding industries better and developing resilience and career-oriented behaviours and attitudes.

Articulating these qualities enabled them to leverage formal qualifications and professional skills as well as maintain and change their jobs easily.

The graduates especially emphasised the need to develop ‘agentic capital’ – the capacity to become more proactive in leveraging opportunities to build social networks, enhance cultural competence, sell their strengths and use their own resources.

In sum, our research clearly revealed that universities are only one of many factors that contribute to graduates’ employment outcomes. When universities are held wholly responsible for graduates’ employment outcomes, the role of other stakeholders is undervalued and neglected. This could lead to poor preparation for students’ post-study career journeys.

Dr Thanh Pham is a senior lecturer in the faculty of education at Monash University, Australia. She has done substantial research on internationalisation of curricula and pedagogies. She is currently researching graduate employability with a focus on unpacking how graduates develop strategies to navigate barriers in the labour markets. Her research has been published in various journals and presented at many local and international conferences.