Employability is also a matter of attitude

Employability is an important theme in higher education. Thorough knowledge of your subject is essential, but so too are practical skills, experience and attitude: knowing what you’re talking about, but also being able to anticipate change, take initiative and continue learning. For that you need good self-awareness, which is something you can and should work on even as a student, according to Professor Mariëlle Heijltjes of Maastricht University (UM) and Oscar van den Wijngaard, tutor and coordinator of academic advising at University College Maastricht (UCM).

Naturally, UM’s School of Business and Economics (SBE) has a Career Services portal, providing information for students on all the ins and outs of developing their professional profile. And it goes without saying that SBE is well versed in the concept of employability. The days of jobs for life are over, even for university graduates, and job-hopping is today not the exception but the rule.

“True,” says Heijltjes, professor of Managerial Behaviour and member of the SBE Board, “but that’s not to say everyone is automatically maximally employable. Students rarely pay much attention to it. They tend to enrol in a study programme because they enjoy the subject or because they want a good job later, a good salary. At UM, they can acquire the knowledge and lay the groundwork to achieve those ambitions. But knowledge isn’t everything. In fact, knowledge isn’t worth much at all if you can’t use it, can’t share it or communicate it to others. You have to know how you come across, what your attitude is, what your impact is on others. It’s a matter of increasing your self-awareness and gaining experience, and it’s never too early to start working on this. That’s why, at SBE, we intend to pay a lot more attention to how students can develop a personal professional profile by combining their choice of courses, internship, international experience and skills training in such a way that it best suits their ambitions. After all, it’s this mix of knowledge, experience, skills and personal characteristics that ultimately determines your employability, your capacity to change and grow.”

Van den Wijngaard is in full agreement. He chairs the UM council for academic advising and student guidance, SUMa, which recently organised a symposium on the integration of employability in university curricula. “It shouldn’t be a separate subject or an isolated tool. Instead, we can use student guidance to increase students’ self-awareness. What goals are you pursuing and what do you expect from your programme? What strikes you as interesting and what are you good at? What subjects do you choose and why? The small scale of Problem-Based Learning provides an excellent environment for this, likewise the closeness of students, tutors and other members of the academic community. This allows certain competences and skills to emerge very quickly. The art is to learn from this, by evaluating together with supervisors and tutors what’s going well and what isn’t. And this evaluation process shouldn’t be seen as just another thing to do in an already full study programme, but rather as a way to get a better grasp on the programme: self-reflection in view of concrete goals helps you to make the right choices and achieve your learning objectives. It’s about the balance between expertise and skills.”

Heijltjes nods. “It’s important to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses. That goes too for professionals who follow an executive programme here. Few professionals are trained in self-reflection or aware of their impact on employees. Because we work in small groups in Maastricht, we’re able to pay a lot of attention to this. The tutors serve more as coaches and we expect a lot of self-reliance from our students. We want to see them developing entrepreneurial and leadership skills, the sorts of competences that are highly valued on today’s labour market. And character, too, particularly from university graduates; the ability to adapt and participate in new developments. Employability – exactly.”

Given UM’s small-scale approach and emphasis on study guidance, these aspects of employability are already present in many parts of the curriculum. “Most definitely”, Van den Wijngaard agrees. “But they’re not always equally visible. We want to make the concept more explicit and concrete, in the form of an ‘academic advising curriculum’. This could include individual coaching sessions as well as group work, plus online tools such as a portfolio in which students can record extracurricular activities, like a board position in a student association or a summer job. The idea would be to regularly discuss these portfolios so that students develop a clear picture of what they can do and whether their goals are achievable. No doubt there will be costs associated with this, so even more important will be to look closely at what we’re already doing, and how we can optimise it. The key is to turn the implicit into the clear and obvious.”

“Compared to other universities we’re already leading the way in this area, thanks to our unique education system and the opportunities we give students to gain international experience”, says Heijltjes. “The world is changing, and education has to change with it. Knowledge transfer alone is no longer enough. We have to inspire students, help them to develop as people. If they know who they are, what they can do, that will provide them with a good foundation for employability.”

Expert Guide

Mariëlle Heijltjes (1968) obtained her PhD at UM and is now professor of Managerial Behaviour at the School of Business and Economics (SBE). She also serves on the SBE Board as Associate Dean of Strategic Development and Internationalisation and director of Postgraduate Education (PGE) responsible for the MBA and executive programmes. Read more about her on the UM Expert Guide

Oscar van den Wijngaard (1962) studied history and philosophy in Leiden. He has taught humanities and served as coordinator of academic advising at University College   Maastricht since 2003. He is also chair of SUMa, UM’s council for academic advising and student guidance.

This article is reprinted with permission from UM Magazine

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