Higher Education: Unpacking the link between Education, Employability and Entrepreneurship

It is axiomatic to state that business models, across all sectors of the economy, are being fundamentally disrupted. From the pervasive use of exponential technologies, the rise of smart machines and artificial intelligence, shifting demographics, increased market transparency, limitless individual choices and consumer sophistication – their structural impacts are clear to see. The confluence of the foregoing factors is the key driver of the transformation and disruption of business models.

Amidst this myriad of challenges facing modern businesses, one of the key challenges is to unlock value creation by finding the right balance of technology, talent and human connection. The current high levels of graduate unemployment is one sure sign that this balance remains out of kilter. Current and future participants in the labour market must therefore, of necessity, possess in-demand skills and importantly, a large appetite and inclination to learn new skills in order to become and stay employable in a meaningful and sustained manner throughout their careers.

Helping the workforce to adapt to this fast-changing world of work is the defining labour market challenge of our time. Given the enormous responsibility that higher education thus carries in this context, responsible and responsive leadership is required from academic leaders and their institutions to build an enduring link between skills development, employability and enterprise development. As a consequence, preparing students with a set of disciplinary skills in a particular degree, is, at best, grossly inadequate in this context.

Besides bold and dynamic workforce development, and in the South African context in particular, where there is an alarming increase in the gap between the ‘Haves’ and ‘Have Nots’, we need to find meaningful and creative skills and enterprise development solutions to draw in those who are not fully participating in the economy

Specifically, there is a serious mismatch and divergence in what employers are seeking in the candidates in addition to qualifications and the actual skills candidates have. This issue of employability skills is particularly important for those who are already in low-productivity jobs in the workforce or students who have completed their education but are unable to get a job. Improving the supply of educated people for employability is more than just qualifications.

A crucial element for business and educational leaders, therefore, is to align workplace needs with higher education preparation systems to promote student success in a career after graduation, rather than simply focusing on traditional academic achievements or grades. Attending a higher education institution and becoming career-ready often requires more from students than simply performing well academically.

Higher educational institutions across the world are being called upon to better prepare learners with 21st century employability skills.

Within this perspective, student employability is high on the agenda of higher education institutions and yet they have been criticised for not adequately developing student employability skills. Employers want graduates to possess knowledge, intellect, a willingness to learn, self- management skills, good communicational and interpersonal skills, and the ability to be a team player.

As higher education institutions seek to improve graduate employability, they have also placed importance on the development of the next generation of entrepreneurs. While the debate continues on the efficacy of entrepreneurship education, the literature has acknowledged employability and entrepreneurialism as complimentary skills. For example, in a competitive job market, the importance of an entrepreneurial spirit, flexibility, and an eagerness to achieve results cannot be overstressed.

An entrepreneurial attitude has been argued to aid job searching, preparing for the market, and presenting one’s abilities. It often involves the identification of opportunities and taking action to make things happen. However, the way to best encourage both entrepreneurialism and employability in students is still under debate and linkages between specific aspects of entrepreneurialism and employability have not yet been fully identified.

Generally, employability can be defined as “a set of skills, knowledge, and personal attributes that make an individual more likely to secure and be successful in their chosen occupation to the benefit of themselves, the workforce, and the economy.” This ‘supply-side’ definition of employability has been expanded upon in some employment policy literature to include ‘demand side,’ external aspects such as labour market conditions.

While it is acknowledged that there is a theoretical working definition of ‘employability’, it must be acknowledged that an employer’s choices when hiring an individual are influenced by more than these factors. Employers’ perceptions of potential employees with the same qualifications vary, depending on the employers’ traditions, social biases, and the existence of nepotism, which may determine an employer’s hiring choice more than do qualifications.

Education, therefore acts as an indicator or signal of abilities and skills. Individuals invest time and money in education in order to ‘signal’ to employers that they possess the requisite skills, lessening the perceived risk an employer feels during the hiring process. Within this context, education itself is a proxy for ability, rather than a process through which ability is developed. As a result, education is a source of human capital development, as it provides the opportunity for students to gain marketable skills and increase their job-relevant abilities. The educated individual is more skilled and thus more attractive and more successful in the labour market.