Policy | Back to Education Allowance – What does it mean for Education and Employability?

JOB 200x200Stuart Duffin, Director of Policy and Programmes, One Family, responds to the recent findings of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) that there is ‘no evidence that the Back to Education Allowance employment support programme is effective helping unemployed people to find jobs’.

The relationship between education and the economy is longstanding. Employers generally see achievements related to the subject discipline in education as necessary but not sufficient for people to be employed. In some employment contexts the actual subject discipline may be relatively unimportant.  Achievements outside the boundaries of a discipline (such as the possession of so-called ‘soft skills’) are generally considered to be important for a job. Yet ’employability’ is not a major feature in education programmes in Ireland; or why should it be?

‘Employability’ refers to achievements and potential to obtain a ‘job’, and should not be confused with the actual acquisition of a ‘job’ (which is subject to influences in the environment, a major influence being the state of the economy). Employability derives from complex learning and is a concept of a wider range than those of ‘core’ and ‘key’ skills. The transferability of skills is often too easily assumed. There is some evidence to suggest that references to employability make the implicit assumption that graduates from education are young people. The risk is of not considering employability in respect of older graduates, who have the potential to bring a more extensive life-experience to bear. Employability is not merely an attribute of the new graduate. It needs to be continuously refreshed throughout a person’s working life.

There are many definitions of what it is to be employable and views on the processes that develop this attribute which are based on the premise that, in education, employability is about good learning. One of many definitions of employability is: ‘A set of skills, knowledge and personal attributes that make an individual more likely to secure and be successful in their chosen occupation(s) to the benefit of themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy.’

Therefore, employability goes well beyond the simplistic notion of key skills and is evidenced in the application of a mix of personal qualities and beliefs, understandings, skilful practices and the ability to reflect productively on experience.

Notice that the commonly used terms ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’ are not used. They have been replaced by ‘understandings’ and ‘skilful practices’ respectively, in order to signal the importance of a rich appreciation of the relevant fields and of the ability to operate in situations of complexity and ambiguity. There is a parallel here with Stephenson’s (1998[1]) suggestion that the capable person can work effectively on unfamiliar problems in unfamiliar contexts as well as on familiar problems in familiar contexts (which is really a matter of routine). Given that this account of employability stresses complexity, it follows that pedagogy for employability (and the associated assessment) (a) needs to take the inherent complexity of the construct into account, and (b) will be promoting similar achievements to those that teachers in education , at all levels, tend to value. Much of the discussion of employability implicitly refers to the full-time student who enters education at around the age of 18 and who graduates at the age of 21 or 22, and deals with matters beyond the boundaries of the subject discipline(s) concerned.

For older students (many of who will opt to study part-time), employability may take on a different route, since they may well have experienced employment and/or voluntary work prior to (or whilst they are) engaging in education. For them, the emphasis that they give to employability may be on the development of subject-specific understanding to complement what they have already learned about employability in general.

There is also a need to acknowledge the employment-relevant learning that ostensibly full-time students derive from part-time employment as they seek to fund their passage through education. Students, therefore, will develop their employability in ways that reflect their particular circumstances. It might be hoped that they would become capable in the sense outlined by Stephenson (1998).

Capable people have confidence in their ability to:

  1. Take effective and appropriate action.
  2. Explain what they are seeking to achieve.
  3. Live and work effectively with others.
  4. Continue to learn from their experiences, both as individuals and in association with others, in a diverse and changing society.

Capability is a necessary part of specialist expertise, not separate from it. Capable people not only know about their specialism but they also have the confidence to apply their knowledge and skills within varied and changing situations and to continue to develop their specialist knowledge and skills. Stephenson’s words point beyond employability at the moment of graduation towards employability in the context of lifelong learning (a point that is implicit in all the definitions of employability).

We have a system in Ireland whereby:

  1. We see education as solely not about investing in human capital and enabling people into a better place.
  2. We lack a coherent and integrated set of supports and aftercare while in education to enable sustainable employment options in the future.
  3. We lack, with the Department of Social Protection understanding of human capital investment and employability skills.
  4. Lack of skills of DSP staff to support and guide people.

Going forward, the Back to Education Allowance should be an education support not an employability support; and therefore taken out the auspices of Social Protection and given to Education and Skills. After all, they are the experts. Though attention is focused on the transition between education and employment, it is important to remember that – as stickers in the rear windows of cars provide reminders in respect of pets – employability, for most people, is for life.