Digital portraits and future prospects – understanding employability at York

Clare Jackson, Daryl Martin and Rosie Smith, Sociology; Vicky Barton, Careers and Placements; and Katy Mann Benn, Learning Enhancement Team, Academic Support Office


In this paper we discuss student engagement in the Sociology department with Employability initiatives and projects. The paper draws on data gathered from focus groups with Year 1 and 2 students across our programmes, as well as the experience of running pilot workshops that explored questions of digital literacy and online employability practices. Reviewing these projects and pilots, we bring together an analysis of their underlying themes and reflect on ongoing tensions between understanding student needs for planning future career trajectories and addressing these within the curriculum. In particular, we speak to debates about levelling the playing field of opportunity for students from varying social, economic and learning backgrounds.

Chair’s Summary

Embedding employability into the heart of teaching at the University of York is key theme within the York Pedagogy. This session on employability at York was led by Rosie Smith who shared the experiences and findings of Sociology Department Pedagogy team comprised of Daryl Martin and Clare Jackson from Sociology, Vicki Barton from Careers and Katy Mann Benn the Sociology Propel contact.

The session engaged with how the Sociology Department sought to:

  1. Investigate the skills/ competencies students feel they are developing in the work they undertake during their degree
  2. Help students understand, capture and make explicit the transferable skills they acquire during their degree
  3. Further embed existing employability mechanisms within programs and address any gaps

Drawing on data gathered from student seminars it had become clear that undergraduates were asking for support in 5 key areas:

  • Workshops with graduates to see what sectors they are working in”
  • “Help develop confidence and experience in presenting and public speaking
  • “Information and networking sessions with practitioners and professionals”
  • “Help with understanding what skills certain modules can give you”
  • Work experience opportunities…perhaps bursaries or funding to help…students [who] can’t take part in these experiences…due to funding issues”

Sociology had sought to engage with these needs in several ways:

Firstly by running an employability and dissertation workshop, this was in order to encourage students to consider employability as an integrated aspect of their learning within their degree programme. Student turn out and engagement to this timetabled session was very encouraging and this will become an annual event.

Secondly by timetabling a weekly 1 hour long slot for all undergraduate and taught postgraduates in order to embed events and training in employability skills and experiences outside of lectures and seminars. Plans have been made to include: talks from alumni, networking sessions and collaborative practitioner events.

Following small group discussions led by members of the workshop panel it became clear that supervision could be a key way of embedding employability. Key suggestions were focused around the need to improve the value of supervision in the eyes of students in order to support employability.

Suggestions included:

  • Getting students to realise that it is in their best interest to attend supervision and become known by their supervisor. How can this be achieved? Run a job reference workshop where students have to write a reference for a friend/family member and a person they meet once a week at a seminar. They then have to reflect on how easy it is to write a personal and powerful reference for someone you actually know.
  • The 1 hour timetable slot – expect students to attend 4-5 of these timetabled sessions in a year. They must write reflections on it and discuss with their supervisor. If they do not do this students will be reminded that it is to their advantage to engage i.e. to avoid a generic reference
  • Run training on specific skills: networking training (make it practical) and training in group work (don’t assume undergraduates know how to do it well)
  • Improve communication by not relying on email and VLE but to use social media such as Facebook in order to connect with students and get them attending not only supervision but also employability and training events.

Further Workshop Materials

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