Does the increased mobility of graduates mean we should re-think how we measure employment supply and demand?

This blog is adapted from a chapter in the State of the Relationship 2014 report, and a version orginally appeared on wonkhe, a blog for higher education wonks, those who work in the HE sector and anyone else interested in higher education policy, culture and politics.

“In discussions with employers, the NCUB also find that more holistic employees are in high demand.”

It’s widely understood that higher level skills are critical to the ability of the UK economy to innovate and be competitive internationally and yet NCUB analysis shows that he most common ways of assessing how well the supply of graduates matches with the demand is not fit for purpose. Typically government agencies try matching number of graduates per subject with the number of jobs available for that subject, but this approach leaves aside the ability (and right) of graduates to try different jobs and sectors, particularly early in their careers, when they are seeking their identity as employees. In discussions with employers, the NCUB also find that more holistic employees are in high demand.

The ‘supply’ of higher level skills is usually measured as numbers of graduates in a particular subject, with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects taken as the indicator for innovation capacity. Judging by this measure only, the picture looks very positive. The supply of graduates and postgraduates of all disciplines increased 5 per cent year-on-year between 2007/8 and 2012/11 in the UK with growth fastest for Business and Administrative Studies (10 per cent yearly) and Engineering and Technology, Mathematical Sciences and Mass Communication and Documentation, all with yearly growth rates of 8 per cent in the last four academic years. This clearly doesn’t give the whole picture though as employers continue to complain about shortages of suitable graduates.

‘Demand’ for graduates and postgraduates is usually measured by employment levels, which move with the economic cycle rather than with education policy and can swing greatly within a year. For example, employment in the year to June 2013 increased by 16 per cent in real estate related roles and fell by 1.5 per cent in the water industries sector. However, over the five years to June 2013 employment grew the equivalent of 4 per cent year-on-year in both sectors. These short-term fluctuations within longer-term trends make it almost impossible to plan for the future accurately and consequently, and to ensure that graduates with the right qualifications will be available to fill unpredictable needs in 3 to 5 years

Conversations with NCUB employer members suggest that they are dealing with these uncertainties by seeking graduates with generic practical skills, flexibility and the ability to adapt to change in addition to subject knowledge. These employers are not looking to reduce subject specific knowledge in courses, but they are telling us that they would welcome a way forward in high skills supply based on joint responsibility between universities and business, helping each other develop best practice to endow students with flexible approaches to employment progression.

Agility is also important for the employee: while at entry level subject specific knowledge increases employability in some sectors, for positions higher up the career ladder, skills that go beyond specific subject knowledge, including people and project management and leadership skills, become more important. In order to progress in their career, employees need to grow these skills either by moving across jobs and occupations within the same organisation or by moving to another employer in the same or even a different sector.

“holding a degree in a particular subject doesn’t mean an identical career for all those who hold the same qualifications”

The ability of graduates to move between employment sectors can be used to link the subject of degree on graduation with their likely progression early in their careers, creating a more holistic view of graduate skills.  Looking at mobility in the first 3 and a half years after graduation we observe that graduates from subjects such as Medicine tend to start and stay in the Health and Care sector, but graduates from Arts and Humanities have jobs that contribute to growth in many sectors, from manufacturing to services.

While the NCUB does not claim that multi-sectoral careers are always superior, there is clear evidence that holding a degree in a particular subject doesn’t mean an identical career for all those who hold the same qualifications. If we acknowledge that degree subjects are not uniquely identified with certain occupations or sectors we can help move the debate on graduate skills away from the simple counting of degrees and jobs towards a more holistic view of graduates and a more fluid view of the labour market, based on the opportunities and rewards in career progression within and across sectors. 

Rosa Fernandez is Head of Research at the NCUB.

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