Employable to a ‘T’

Wanda Hayes, Director of Post-Secondary Planning

Education prepares young people for adult life in all its complexity. Community expectations are that education — as part of this preparatory project — should deliver employability as a key outcome.

At a recent national symposium on tertiary graduate employability, many speakers argued that in the twenty-first century, employability must be central to everything universities do (Office for Learning and Teaching [OLT], 2014). They acknowledged that this marks a departure from the strongly held tradition that universities should be bastions of learning for learning’s sake, unsullied by concerns about student employment outcomes. But the world is shifting: even traditional universities are now touting graduate employability as a key selling point to potential students.

This shift has implications for not only tertiary educators and students, but also for those of us involved in secondary education. Employability is a ‘live’ issue for secondary schools, and the way that the workforce and the notion of employability are evolving has a direct impact on high-school students, even if their first professional job search is still years away.

In the next few paragraphs, I would like to sketch the employment landscape that our students will enter and offer a strategy for thriving within it.

A workforce characterised by change

In a report on the future of Australia’s workforce, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) found that fifty-eight per cent of Australian jobs have a moderate to high likelihood of disappearing in the next ten to fifteen years due to technological advancements (CEDA, 2015). As globalisation changes ways of working and routine tasks are taken over by machines and software – even in professional fields – many of the jobs that remain will change significantly.

The jobs that survive, and the new jobs that will be created in this environment, are likely to be based on work that cannot be done by a machine. Success in this changing environment is less dependent on traditional notions of the link between qualifications and employability, and more connected to a new set of key skills: social and emotional intelligence, creative and innovative problem solving, complex perception, mobility and manual dexterity (CEDA, 2105; Bridgstock, 2017).

A degree is not enough

For the past few years, many major employers have gradually shifted their focus away from specific degrees as pathways to employability. Global companies like EY, Penguin Random House, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, IBM, Deloitte, Apple and Google are no longer insisting that new recruits have a degree at all, let alone a specific type of degree, and they are relying less, or not at all, on university grade point average to evaluate job candidates (Krook, 2017; Kelly 2016; Callaghan, 2016). Even the power of university rankings is diminished, with Deloitte going public with their policy of ’university-blind‘ selection where recruiters are not told where job candidates studied (Coughlan, 2015). This policy is now being adopted by other employers.

Perhaps you are thinking this won’t apply to professions that are regulated; where a particular type of degree is required for registration. But with graduate unemployment in some of those professions above twenty per cent, it’s clear that even for those graduates, a degree is not enough to guarantee employment.

So what does employability look like in this new world?

Employability and the T-shaped individual

It turns out that employability is now T-shaped (OLT, 2014; University of Sydney, 2017). The top of the T is about trans-disciplinary capability, social capability and genuine curiosity. T-shaped people know a little bit about a lot of different things and they actively seek experiences that allow them to cross cultural and/or disciplinary boundaries, in both the work they do and with whom they choose to work. This allows them to integrate perspectives from seemingly disparate disciplines to spot opportunities and come up with clever solutions to wicked problems. The top of the T also includes the critical capabilities related to social and emotional intelligence that were highlighted in the 2015 CEDA report.

T-shaped people also have well-developed knowledge in their preferred discipline(s). This is the upright of the T – they know something about something. And here’s the rub for educators: employers think the upright of the T is only fully developed when an individual is in the workforce. They see disciplinary knowledge as ’seeded‘ during formal education, but only developed to its full power in the workplace (OLT, 2014).

Nurturing our Ts

A T takes time to develop and success depends on starting early. Employers want to see a diversity of interests, not just good grades, and they want to see evidence of a long-term commitment to those interests.

‘Bower birds’ – someone who makes a habit of collecting experiences just because they will look good on a CV – are easy to spot and they do not impress an employer who is spoiled for choice in a flooded graduate job market.

Employers want to see students who engage enthusiastically in learning across disciplinary boundaries and have the beginnings of a passion for a particular discipline. They want to see students who have authentic, enduring commitments to sporting and/or cultural pursuits. They want to see students who take on part-time or volunteer work that places them within diverse work teams, thereby demonstrating they can learn how to work effectively with a wide range of people. They want to see students with a long-standing willingness to sincerely engage in community-based service or project work.

So both the ethos of trans-disciplinary capability and the beginnings of a seed of passion for a particular discipline are more powerful if they begin in secondary school. This is true not only for students’ ultimate employers, but also for the students themselves whose engagement in a wide variety of learning and co-curricular activities will help them learn more about themselves and, therefore, better understand where they want to take their learning beyond school.


Bridgstock, R. (2017, April 28). Grand Challenge Lecture – Future Capable: Learning for Life and Work in the 21st Century. Lecture Presented at QUT Institute for Future Environments, Brisbane.

Callaghan, R. (2016, February 11). Graduate recruitment: academic results no longer matter as much. Australian Financial Review.

Committee for Economic Development in Australia. (2015). Australia’s Future Workforce? Retrieved from http://adminpanel.ceda.com.au/FOLDERS/Service/Files/Documents/26792~Futureworkforce_June2015.pdf

Coughlan, S. (2015, September 29). Firm ‘hides’ university when recruits apply. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/education-34384668

Kelly, F. (2016, January 20). Do you need a degree to succeed? In RN Breakfast. Sydney: ABC Radio. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/do-you-need-a-degree-to-succeed/7102078

Krook, J. (2017, April 18). Degrees of separation: companies shed degree requirements to promote merit over qualifications. The Conversation.

Office for Learning and Teaching. (2014). Learning and Teaching Symposium: Enhancing graduate employability. Gold Coast: Bond University.

University of Sydney. (2017, February 24). Career Advisers and Teachers Conference. Sydney.