Student conceptions of employability : a phenomenographic study

Lees, Rebecca, Anderson, Deborah and Avery, Barry (2015) Student conceptions of employability : a phenomenographic study. In: 14th European Conference on Research Methodology (ECRM) for Business and Management Studies; 11-12 Jun 2015, Valletta, Malta. ISSN (print) 2049-0968 ISBN 9781910810118


Despite its everyday use in the higher education discourse, there is still ubiquity around the concept of employability where it continues to be used in a number of contexts and with reference to a range of meanings that include skills, knowledge and attributes in varying degrees of importance (Knight & Yorke, 2002; Moreland, 2006) to a multi-dimensional psycho-social construct based upon career identity, personal adaptability and social and human capital (Fugate, Kinicki & Ashworth, 2004). Although HEIs have placed a greater emphasis on developing employability support for students (Rae, 2007), employers are still finding graduates lack appropriate skills, aptitude and behaviours for the workplace (Tymon, 2013). Despite this extensive discussion, there is little that considers how well students understand the concept of employability and how this affects their job seeking behaviour. To investigate this understanding a sample of 35 undergraduate business students from a range of levels and programmes took part in an online survey asking them to reflect on their employability. These written accounts were then analysed phenomenographically to investigate the qualitatively different ways that business students conceive of employability. To maximise variation in the sample, participants were first to final year students, including some on placement, and were following a mixture of generalist business and specialist programmes, including accounting, marketing and IT. The responses were analysed in three phases (Marton & Säljö, 2005); sorting quotes into groups oriented around the meaning of employability, examining each group further as a decontextualized set of responses and then determining categories of description to represent the outcome space. This methodology was selected to fully appreciate the variety and breadth of conceptions students held, and identified a hierarchy of five distinct ways of understanding employability. The results of this study should be of value to educators and career support professionals in facilitating interventions that move students’ conceptions of employability from that of a possession, to one they must participate in, encouraging students to be more self-aware when entering the employment arena.

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