360° Employability Skills: Understanding, Cultivating and Applying Professional and Continual Development Skills

Workshop presented by Carmen Álvarez-Mayo, Associate Lecturer and Spanish & Portuguese Coordinator, Languages for All, Department of Language and Linguistic Science. 31 October 2016.

The term employability as we know it has been around since the 1980s, when international corporations, global competition/trade and technology cemented the foundations for a new economic environment. The influx of new technologies set the pace of change, and has been shaping communication and trade ever since. We live in a global world where IT keeps on developing faster and faster, highly impacting in our lives and determining the employability skills required for a successful career. It is essential to understand this in order to develop the motivation and skills required to be able to keep on evolving along its side.

Education itself no longer defines learning, but rather technology does. To set out on a prosperous career, now more than ever it is necessary to keep on learning and developing good independent/self study skills and CPD competencies. It is paramount to instil in our students a taste for trying out and doing new things – that, learning is fun; exploring and discovering new ways is not only fun but necessary. In the 21st century reading and writing are not enough; IT literacy skills and an understanding of IT’s ongoing development are essential in order to be able to keep up with progress and change, and to be successful.

Furthermore, in a global world, developing intercultural competence and communication will equip graduates and postgraduates with international skills to augment their potential and scope for work opportunities and prosper. Such skills can only be acquired through learning and using a foreign language, either spending long periods of time immersed in the culture: living/studying/working abroad, or through an international bilingual collaborative e-learning project like TANGO.

Therefore, current student work and assessment practice should be reviewed and updated in order to ensure that all skills, traditional and ‘new’ can be tested – as well as to allow equal opportunities of assessment ensuring inclusivity and accessibility. We need to make sure that our graduates and postgraduates are fully equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century job market, who need to be all-rounders and possess the full range of skills, 360° skills.

A more holistic approach to the York Pedagogy and employability would be appropriate to ensure that all the good principles and ideas endorsed in the Pedagogy are taken into account and applied, sharing them effectively with our students to allow for a successful implementation of the University’s approach to excellence in education, thereby having a positive impact in society – as underpinned in the five values of the Learning & Teaching Strategy.

Summary by Carmen Álvarez-Mayo

Articulate – A toolkit to help us support students in the game of understanding and articulating their competencies

Dr Lorna Warnock (Biology) and Dr Amanda Barnes (Biology) delivered the first Forum workshop of the academic year. Their workshop focused on an HEA funded toolkit they have developed in collaboration with Dr Hillary Jones (University of Sheffield) to help students articulate the professional competencies they will develop through their programme of study.

Their workshop highlighted the importance for students to understand how they can best present themselves and the skills they have developed to future employers. The framework, which can be developed by academic staff, identifies the core competency developed for each programme. Academics can provide examples of how the core competencies will be achieved, which can then help students to see how they can articulate these skills to future employers.

What was really useful about this workshop was the chance to design our own framework for our own programmes – which stimulated some interesting discussions on the different types of competencies required for different programmes. It was stressed that the competency framework should be updated every two years to ensure that it is still relevant to the programme and also employer’s expectations.

We saw, through supporting videos how useful this approach was to support students, and how we could use this tool to stimulate workshops or personal tutorial sessions with students to help them focus on the skills that they have developed and those that need more development.

To find out more about their framework see:

Summary by Maddy Mossman

An Interdisciplinary Summer for Interdisciplinary Students

Our latest monthly post from the Forum committee, Dr Glenn Hurst from the Department of Chemistry reflects on working collaboratively to facilitate active learning.

Following their FORUM workshop on active learning, Glenn Hurst and Jill Webb, from the York Management School worked together once again to facilitate a component of the new summer activity for students studying Natural Sciences in Chemistry. Glenn and Jill specifically designed this activity to help students to apply their understanding of first year chemistry to establish and run a sustainable chemical company.

The half-day activity challenged students to work effectively in small groups (4-5) to build a business case that they pitched to the “dragons” in the hope of gaining an investment. Students had to manage their time very effectively in order to choose their product, design a synthetic route that was both green and scalable, consider costs and advertise the product to their target audience. Students even took the initiative to collaborate with other companies (other groups) to combine their expertise.


In order to further enhance their personal development skills, all communication between other groups and the instructors had to be made via a telephone call. Students identified that making telephone calls was “the most daunting form of communication; even more than doing presentations”. Being able to effectively communicate on the telephone is an essential skill for most forms of employment and we took this as a perfect opportunity to develop this further.

After the groups of students had formulated their business strategy, they prepared a short (10 min) presentation, which they then pitched to the dragons (to include Dr Brian Grievson, senior lecturer specialising in industrial placements for chemists). This proved to be an excellent opportunity for students to practise how to deliver presentations and communicate science to their peers in a fun and low-pressure environment, for which will form part of their summative assessment in second year.

Further to enhancing their personal development skills by working in groups and communicating effectively, the activity allowed students to contextualise their knowledge in the “real world” incorporating a strong business element to improve their commercial awareness. This activity was designed based on the requirements of companies wishing to recruit graduates. We hope that in completing this activity, it will contribute towards developing the employability skills of our students whilst enhancing the degree of constructive alignment within our degree programme.

A more detailed account of this component of the summer activity together with a discussion of the other constituents will be provided in the upcoming Autumn 2016 edition of our institutional FORUM magazine.

Glenn Hurst, Department of Chemistry

Thinking at the core of employability

Cecilia Lowe, Head of Learning Enhancement, considers the value of critical thinking skills in graduate employability (Forum Viewpoint article, Summer 2016)

Cecilia Lowe will be delivering a workshop on ‘An academic approach to employability’ at the York Learning & Teaching Conference 2016, ‘Value Added Graduates’, Tuesday 7 June. Places are still available to attend –Conference ProgrammeBooking Form.

forum 2The employability agenda is certainly at the forefront of current debate concerning the purpose and value of higher education, whether in relation to ensuring graduates have the key skills needed to compete in the modern job market or the ‘soft skills’ necessary to build a multi-job career (Atkins, 1999; Knight & Yorke, 2004; Yorke, 2006). This is not surprising as not only are societies, governments and businesses struggling to survive in a fast-moving, highly competitive and increasingly unpredictable world, graduates are also facing overwhelming amounts of information and data, work and workplaces which are more mobile and less time-bound, and requirements to be ever-more flexible and adept in the face of change and disappearing career structures.

If we look to research into employability skills to guide us in how to prepare our graduates for such demands, we may be disappointed: multitudes of lists of attributes, abilities and skills have been produced (Yorke, 2006), resulting in a confused and confusing picture. What I would like to suggest in this article is that while due attention should be given to conative and affective skills, such as team-working and modes of communication, we need to ensure we don’t forget the primary skills universities were designed to foster and nurture – the cognitive skills involved in critical thinking.

There is certainly evidence that the most sought after skill for today’s ‘knowledge worker’ is the capacity to activate subject knowledge through critical engagement, but there is also evidence that this is the ability that employers often find lacking (Arum and Roksa, 2014; Korn, 2014). Looking at critical capacities, Dede (2010) highlights the importance of graduates having the capacity to enquire, investigate, and continuously create new methods of discovery through what he terms ‘thinking scientifically’. Additionally, in a disordered environment of information overload, he proposes that ‘thinking skills’ foster the ability to rapidly filter increasing amounts of incoming data to extract information that is valuable for decision making. Similarly, in discussing managing the complexity of the modern world, Reich (2002) describes a new class of workers – the ‘symbolic analysts’ who are happy to experiment and analyse by defining the parameters of problems, seeing the path from abstract principles and models to concrete situations, and thinking through a system from its parts to its whole. These will be the most sought after people in the modern workplace and therefore will be the ones with the power to define their own future. The question is: are these the graduates we are producing?

Surely as a research-driven university we should have no worries about such a question. However, all too easily as educators we can feel the pressure to cover the enormity of our discipline in the classroom, or feel pushed into focusing time and energy on introducing an ever-expanding set of transferable skills, and therefore lose sight of the more nebulous critical skills in our module design and our classroom practice. As a result, students on our programmes may gain the impression, or make the strategic decision, that they just have to learn what is put in front of them and compartmentalise their knowledge in order to survive.

In this situation, giving consideration to how we produce graduates who think, question, challenge, analyse and debate and who are therefore curious, rigorous and adventurous in their approach to the world may take a backseat. The workshop session at this year’s Learning and Teaching conference – An academic approach to employability: or ‘How thinking environments can produce thinking graduates’– will provide participants with space to consider exactly what we mean by a ‘thinking approach’, what we value about it and how we can provide an environment which supports the development of critical awareness and skills. Colleagues from Physics, Psychology (Edinburgh Napier) and Health Sciences will contribute examples of practice.


Arum, R. and Roksa, J. (2014) Aspiring Adults – Tentative Transitions of College Graduates. The University of Chicago Press.

Atkins, M.J. (1999) Oven-ready and Self-basting: taking stock of employability skills, Teaching in Higher Education, 4:2, 267-2.

Dede, C.(2010). “Comparing frameworks for 21st century skills”. In 21st century skills: Rethinking how students learn, Edited by: Bellanca, James and Brandt, Ron. 51–76. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Knight, P and Yorke, M. (Reprinted 2006) Embedding employability into the curriculum.

York, Higher Education Academy.

Korn, M. (2014) Bosses seek Critical Thinking, But What Is it? The Wall Street Journal October 22nd, p. B6.

Reich, R. B.(2002)The future of success. London: Vintage

Yorke, M. (2006) Employability in higher education: what it is and what it is not. HEA Learning and Employability

Cecilia Lowe is a HEA Senior Fellow and Head of the Learning Enhancement Team. Her main interest is in supporting academic staff, students and support staff in creating challenging learning environments. Before joining the university, she worked in the higher education sector in both Sri Lanka and Turkey.

The holistic student

Thomas Ron and Chris Wall discuss how linking societies and academic departments can help students reach their full potential (Forum Viewpoint article, Summer 2016).

Thomas Ron will be delivering a workshop on ‘the holistic student’ at the York Learning & Teaching Conference 2016, ‘Value Added Graduates’, Tuesday 7 June. Places are still available to attend –Conference ProgrammeBooking Form.

Our employability landscapeforum

At York, we spend considerable time and energy on the issue of graduate employability. That said, first year students regularly do not think about employability and it was remarkable that this year was the first one where they made up a significant proportion of Careers Fairs. Our experience as students tells us that there isn’t always consistency of approach from academic staff in dealing with employability: some are promoting it, talking about it, embedding it and making it part of the course experience, whilst others are relying on Careers and, as a result, on students making an early and proactive attempt to tackle the complicated employment and employability space. Furthermore, and as a result of a traditional academic approach, many of the skills learned through course interaction are academic in nature, focusing on solving problems or helping students embark on a research career, rather than looking at industrial work. This could put the University at a significant disadvantage: as students have become savvy about the value of an industrial placement, they’re more likely to make the decision not to apply or to put York as their first choice.

What employers are looking for

We all know that employers today are increasingly looking for ‘more than a degree’ and in some cases are no longer considering undergraduate attainment in and of itself. What this actually means is that they are looking for a rounded individual that has grasped the university experience, has undertaken a part-time job, been in or lead a club or a society, represented other students, or completed a placement. Employers want graduates who have got knowledge about a subject, but also skills and experience that they can apply to accomplishing different tasks and jobs. These skills include but are not limited to:

  • Leadership and teamwork
  • Effective communication
  • Self-management
  • Problem solving
  • Commercial awareness

How Academic Societies build these skills

Academic societies provide a basis for these skills and much more. Students who engage in their academic society are often involved in organising events; this in itself requires students to exercise a range of skills. For example organising a speaker event for the committee will require liaising with other members of the committee to consider who they should book, budgeting for the event, engaging with external contacts, and so much more – all providing opportunities to develop skills outside the degree. Balancing all of this with their studies also demonstrates excellent time management. These skills are ones we do not always receive from traditional study or at least do not get the chance to apply pragmatically in a safe environment.

Involvement in an academic society also provides evidence that an individual is engaged beyond their degree and wants to learn more holistically and perhaps independently. The fact that they cover additional course material is also a benefit to the students who ultimately have chosen their degree because they enjoy it. Allowing them to explore areas which they enjoy continues their interest and encourages the independent learning culture we are looking to promote at York.

Examples where departments and societies have worked well together

It is notable that many departments that have ‘bucked the trend’ on employability tend to have a strong working relationship with their Academic Societies. One such example is the Law Society who have built very close links with senior lecturers in the Law School as well as a close association with their Employability Teaching Fellow. These links have allowed the Society to bring in leading Law firms to multiple events and those firms end up leaving with plenty of prospective interns. The connection has been there from the inception of the Law School and the Law Society and has allowed them to work with each other and maintain Law as a school that does well. Another good example is ShockSoc, who have been highly involved in helping students do independent lab work and promoting ideas within Electronics. This has helped students engage in collaborative work, a trait which is highly sought after with employers. Electronics helps this by fully subsidising membership in ShockSoc for all Electronics students. Therefore, as the club is free at the point of use at any point in time it has a large membership of Electronics students who make the club strong and help with the soft skills employers are looking for while the department can get on with the business of teaching.

Ideas for further links

  • Departments and Academic Societies should work together more in order to derive the greatest mutual benefit and ensure they complement one another fully.
  • The incentives and help that some departments provide should not be the exception, they should be the rule.
  • Furthermore, these incentives should be provided with benchmarks for the society to meet, so that the investment has an obvious quantifiable return.
  • Therefore, we would welcome working with departments to create a framework for providing incentives as well as ensuring societies keep up to their commitments.

user-photo-54241Thomas Ron is the Academic Officer of YUSU for the academic year. He has long been an advocate for student engagement and has held positions in YUSU since 2013. He is particularly passionate about involving students in making changes to their course. He has piloted methods of involving students in all areas of university life and bringing academic societies into academic decision making. He can be contacted at t.ron@yusu.org

user-photo-42186Chris Wall is the Activities Officer of YUSU for this and the last academic year. In his role he has had overall responsibility for societies and our charitable activities. He is particularly passionate for societies to develop into new roles and ways of providing for students. He can be contacted at c.wall@yusu.org


28/01/15 Key skills in the curriculum: Help! I’m teaching research skills

researchWhen: Wednesday 28 January 2015 (week 4) 12.30-2.00pm [Lunch available from 12.15]
Where: Room HG21, Heslington Hall
Who: Zoe Handley and Lynda Dunlop, Education; Jenny Gibbons, York Law School; Ruth Mewis and Cecilia Lowe, Learning Enhancement Team, Academic Support Office

With a growing emphasis on evidence-based practice and policy across disciplines, the development of strong research skills is becoming increasingly important for undergraduates. It is, however, widely acknowledged that research skills modules are some of the least well-received modules on undergraduate programmes. Research skills can therefore be a challenge to teach.

In response to this, as part of the Higher Education Academy Strategic Enhancement Programmes strand focusing on Engaged Student Learning, a team of tutors in the social sciences with the help of the learning enhancement team are conducting a review of research methods teaching at York and setting up a forum to share practice in this area. In this workshop you will learn about the work we are already doing in this area and our plans for the project. The workshop is also an opportunity to develop your support networks in this challenging area by meeting other staff engaged in research methods teaching from across the university.

In order to facilitate discussions, attendees are encouraged to bring along copies of research skills module outlines.

If you wish to attend an event, please use our booking form or email learning-and-teaching-forum@york.ac.uk

If you are unable to attend an event but would like a copy of the materials, please contact janet.barton@york.ac.uk