Reconsidering College Student Employability: A Cultural Analysis of Educator and Employer Conceptions of Essential Workplace Skills

WCER Working Paper No. 2018-5

Ross J. Benbow and Matthew T. Hora

March 2018, 36 pp.

ABSTRACT: A dominant narrative shaping discussions about the purpose of higher education in the early 21st century focuses on whether colleges provide students with the “employability skills” they need to be productively employed after graduation. Critiques of this view abound, however, including its reliance on researcher-driven frameworks, generic lists of skills divorced from occupational contexts, and the notion that discrete skills alone ensure student success in the labor market. Using sociocultural theory to problematize this narrative and qualitative methods to foreground the experiences of postsecondary educators and employers (N=152), this paper investigates conceptions of essential workplace skills in biotechnology and manufacturing fields. Results indicate that considerable variation exists in how members of different disciplinary and occupational communities value and conceptualize important skills, though the competencies of work ethic, technical knowledge, and technical ability represent core competencies valued by all groups. Respondent conceptions of skills were also strongly tied to geography, organizational culture, and a number of other contexts. With these results in mind, we conclude that skills are best viewed as multifaceted and situated assemblages of knowledge, skill, and disposition—or “cultural models”—and urge the adoption of more nuanced views among educators, employers, and policymakers that take into account the cultural and contextual forces that shape student success in the workplace.

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keywords: higher education, employability, skills, cultural models, cultural capital, context.