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WTF does ’employability’ mean?

June 29, 2009

It must have come as a shock to staff in higher education to learn that for decades, nay centuries, universities have been churning out the graduates who are apparently unemployable. So concerned are government by this state of affairs that they have commissioned reports and directives to encourage universities to build something called ’employability’ into their courses. According to Dr. Phoebe Moore of Salford University, employability is increasingly defined by our the ability to adapt to flexible patterns of employment and the ability to become lifelong learners, and this is what universities have to foster in their students. I can endorse being a life long learner but once I hear terms such as ‘flexibility’ and ‘adaptability’ I assume that I’m being warmed up for lifetime of unstable employment and on the job harassment. More sinisterly Moore writes that the implementation of employability is nothing short of the ‘colonisation of the everyday lives of workers’ who are expected to ’embrace their own alienation from their work, and are told that the project of self-employability must become a part of their subjectivities and self worth’. By this reckoning making yourself employable is all consuming – a full time job in itself, if you will.

I first came across the concept of employability when I was sent by management to a seminar extolling its virtues. As a life-long loafer (and only co-incidently a life-long learner) I was horrified and set about angrily denouncing the seminar’s leaders and their nefarious agenda, and I insisted that universities had a duty to provide a space for the bewildered and bemused, and a sanctuary from the vagaries of harsh economic life. My intervention wasn’t entirely welcome (to be fair they weren’t really my audience). But I was inspired by my own experience of higher education, which was an attempt to park myself somewhere for a few years while I took stock of my downward mobility, having lost a series of jobs through neglience, militancy and sometimes good fortune. This was in the days when government provided grants and every other person was a yuppie (remember them?) or ‘upwardly mobile’ (remember that?). Whatever, clearly the experience didn’t do me any harm and I am now productively employed producing  other ’employable’ and ‘industry ready graduates’.

But I wish I had read Dr. Moore’s article in the Journal for Critic Education Policy Studies before my rant at the employability seminar, for she provides some ammunition for those of us suspicious of any attempt to force us into gainful employment. First of all she sees ‘the process of restructuring of education in the UK as part of a global hegemonic project toward the expansion of neoliberal capitalism in the sense that education is becoming a service that is no longer public, but which is becoming increasingly subordinate to capital, and is thus being put under a process of liberalisation to supposed market demands’. It’s in this context that we must understand employability.

And here’s how the concept works. As Moore explains, ‘The demands for adaptability and self-management have actually been critically deemed an ethic of employability for unemployed youth. … This ethic is increasingly evangelised in a judgemental tone that appears to be encroaching on lives of all age groups.’ In essence, people are made responsible for their own employability (or unemployment as may be increasingly the case). The failure to find work will not be the fault of the state, industry or system.

New Labour‘s employability campaign, in its rational and seemingly logical promotion of education and learning as intimately linked with work, and with the resultant blurring of productive with political man, is a case of colonisation of the everyday of people who continue the struggle for survival in the neoliberal capitalist world. The implication is that those individuals who are fortunate enough to find employment in a rapidly flexibilising job market would then be held directly responsible for not only their own employability project, coupled with the drive toward lifelong learning, but also will be responsible for the prosperity of their nation on the globally competitive stage.

So, ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. And the first thing you can do is make yourself employable. In the not too distant future expect this to mean that you will be flexible, low-paid, willing to re-skill at your own expense and it’ll be all your fault should you or your country not prosper.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 25, 2009 11:54 pm

    A tad pessimistic – but maybe a dose of truth.

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