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Urban Studies, Vol. 42, No.

2, 197– 219, February 2005

The Concept of Employability

Ronald W. McQuaid and Colin Lindsay


[Paper first received, March 2004; in final form, June 2004]

Summary. The concept of ‘employability’ plays a crucial role in informing labour market policy
in the UK, the EU and beyond. This paper analyses current and previous applications of the term
and discusses its value as an exploratory concept and a framework for policy analysis. It then traces
the development of the concept, discusses its role in current labour market and training strategies
(with particular reference to the UK) and seeks to identify an approach to defining employability
that can better inform labour market policy, by transcending explanations of employment and
unemployment that focus solely on either supply-side or demand-side factors. Although the
literature offers a range of definitions of ‘employability’, many policy-makers have recently used
the term as shorthand for ‘the individual’s employability skills and attributes’. It is argued that
this ‘narrow’ usage can lead to a ‘hollowing out’ of the concept of employability. The paper
concludes by presenting a broad framework for analysing employability built around individual
factors, personal circumstances and external factors, which acknowledges the importance of
both supply- and demand-side factors.

1. Introduction range of meanings (Hillage and Pollard,


1998; McQuaid and Lindsay, 2002). Indeed,
‘Employability’ plays a crucial role in inform- for some, employability is little more than a
ing labour market policy in the UK, the EU ‘buzzword’ that is more often used than prop-
and beyond. The concept of employability erly understood (Philpott, 1999); or “a fuzzy
has been deployed to describe the objectives notion, often ill-defined and sometimes not
of the economic strategies promoted by defined at all” (Gazier, 1998a, p. 298).
important supranational institutions and This paper seeks to contribute to the debate
labour market policies at national, regional surrounding employability, by analysing
and local levels (see for example OECD, current and previous applications of the term
1998; CEC, 1999; ILO, 2000; UN, 2001). In and discussing its potential value as an explora-
the UK, employability has emerged as a tory concept and a framework for policy analy-
central tenet of so-called ‘Third Way’ pol- sis. The aims of the paper are therefore: to trace
icies: ‘a cornerstone of the New Labour the development of the concept; to discuss its
approach to economic and social policy’ role in informing current labour market and
(Haughton et al., 2000, p. 671). Despite, or training policies (with particular reference to
perhaps because of, its ubiquity, the concept the UK); and to identify an approach to defining
of employability continues to be used in a the concept that can better inform labour
number of contexts and with reference to a market policy, by transcending explanations
Ronald McQuaid and Colin Lindsay are both in the Employment Research Institute, Napier University, Edinburgh, EH14 1DJ,
Scotland, UK. Fax: 0131 455 4311. E-mail: r.mcquaid@napier.ac.uk and c.lindsay@napier.ac.uk. An earlier version of this
paper was presented at the seminar series on ‘Employability and labour market policy’ at Napier University and the University
of Warwick, sponsored by the Regional Studies Association and the Regional Science Association (British and Irish Section).
0042-0980 Print=1360-063X Online=05=02197 –23 # 2005 The Editors of Urban Studies
DOI: 10.1080=0042098042000316100
198 RONALD W. McQUAID AND C. LINDSAY

of unemployment that focus solely on either goal for the revised European Employment
supply- or demand-side factors. Strategy, formulated in 2003, which empha-
Following this introduction, section 2 of the sises three overarching objectives: full employ-
paper discusses the importance of the concept ment; quality and productivity at work; and
of employability to local, national and inter- cohesion and an inclusive labour market
national labour market policy. Section 3 con- (CEC, 2003a).
siders working definitions of employability Whereas the original EU strategy included
and traces the historical development of the employability as a pillar of its approach, the
concept. Section 4 examines in detail the more flexible, longer-term strategy now advo-
manner in which the concept is currently cated by the European Commission speaks of
applied in discussions of labour market promoting more and better ‘investment in
policy in the UK. In section 5 of the paper, human capital and strategies for lifelong
we argue that the manner in which the term learning’. However, this and many of the
‘employability’ is currently used by many Commission’s other guidelines for imple-
policy-makers, as shorthand for ‘the individ- menting the strategy (or so-called ten com-
ual’s employability skills’, represents a mandments) reflect the pre-existing focus on
‘narrow’ usage of the concept and contrast employability, including: the promotion of
this with attempts to arrive at a more active and preventative measures for the
broadly defined concept of employability. In (especially long-term) unemployed and inac-
section 6, an holistic framework for under- tive; improving financial incentives to make
standing employability is set out, acknowled- work pay; and promoting active ageing
ging the importance of both supply-side and (CEC, 2003b).
demand-side factors affecting the labour Other cross-national institutions concerned
market outcomes experienced by individuals. with labour market policy have similarly
Finally, some conclusions are presented. The emphasised the importance of employability.
concept of employability relates to those: in The United Nations (UN) has made employ-
work and seeking to improve or sustain their ability one of its four priorities for national
position in the labour market; in education; policy action on youth employment (along
and out of work. However, the focus of this with entrepreneurship, equal opportunities
paper is largely, but not exclusively, on between young men and women and employ-
employability as it relates to unemployed job ment creation). To this end, the UN’s Youth
seekers and labour market policy. Employment Network has suggested that
All countries need to review, re-think and
2. Employability and Labour Market Policy re-orient their education, vocational train-
ing and labour market policies to facilitate
Employability, a relatively obscure concept a
the school to work transition and to give
decade ago, now commands a central place
young people . . . a head start in working
in labour market policies in the UK, many
life (UN, 2001, p. 4).
other European states and beyond. At the
supranational level, employability formed Finally, the OECD’s influence in promoting
one of the four original pillars of the European employability-focused labour market policies
Employment Strategy, having emerged as a arguably pre-dates both of these initiatives.
defining theme of the Extraordinary European Although less inclined to deploy the concept
Council on Employment (the so-called Jobs of ‘employability’, by the mid 1990s the
Summit), which took place in Luxembourg OECD (1994a, 1994b) had begun to advocate
in November 1997 (CEC, 1999). The pro- strongly more active labour market policies in
motion of employability in the workplace order to break the ‘dysfunctional division’
and among young people, the unemployed between the working population and the
and other potentially disadvantaged groups unemployed. The need for strategies targeting
in the labour market remains an important “low-paid and unskilled job seekers [and]
THE CONCEPT OF EMPLOYABILITY 199

enhancing the effectiveness of active labour to address unemployment that has led to
market policies and lifelong learning to main- attempts to arrive at a thoroughgoing defi-
tain employability” continued to form the nition. Prior to discussing a broad concept of
central focus of the Organisation’s labour employability, however, we will review
market policy agenda throughout the 1990s some established definitions and current and
(OECD, 1998, p. 4). Indeed, it has been historical uses of the term.
argued that by the end of the decade the
OECD (particularly through its 1994 ‘Jobs 3. What Is Employability?
Study’) had played a crucial role in promoting
3.1 Working Definitions
active policies to improve the employability
of the unemployed across international bound- As noted above, the concept of employability
aries (Sinfield, 2001). continues to be applied within a range of
At the national level in the UK, as in many different contexts and to both those in work
other EU states, the European Employment and those seeking work. Accordingly, while
Strategy’s focus on employability (and it is simple enough to assign ‘employability’
especially on providing a ‘fresh start’ to the a straightforward dictionary definition, such
young unemployed who have been out of as ‘the character or quality of being employ-
work for at least six months) has been particu- able’, arriving at a working definition is a far
larly influential. Employability was a key more complex process. Perhaps understand-
theme of UK’s EU presidency in 1998 ably, employers have tended to view employ-
(Verhaar and Smulders, 1999). The concept ability as primarily a characteristic of the
has found expression within the UK’s national individual. The Confederation of British
Employment Action Plans and the current Industry (CBI) has defined employability thus
government’s welfare to work agenda, with
Employability is the possession by an indi-
the New Deal programmes at its centre
vidual of the qualities and competencies
(DfEE, 1997a, 1997b, 1998; DWP, 2002).
required to meet the changing needs of
Improving the employability of young
employers and customers and thereby help
people, the long-term unemployed, lone
to realise his or her aspirations and potential
parents, the disabled and other disadvantaged
in work (CBI, 1999, p. 1).
job seekers is the primary objective for the
New Deal, which seeks to provide interven- The UK government has similarly arrived at a
tions designed to address the skills of partici- definition that, while implying that employ-
pants while also ‘re-attaching’ them to the ability-development is a priority for govern-
labour market. Indeed, ministers have ment, again places individuals’ skills at the
described the New Deal as being defined by centre of the concept
the principles of ‘quality, continuity and
Employability means the development of
employability’ (DfEE, 1997a). At regional
skills and adaptable workforces in which
and local levels, many of these, or similar,
all those capable of work are encouraged
policies to tackle employability issues have
to develop the skills, knowledge, techno-
been implemented or devised by area-based
logy and adaptability to enable them to
development agencies, local authorities and
enter and remain in employment through-
other bodies such as careers services.
out their working lives (HM Treasury,
This discussion illustrates that employabi-
1997, p. 1).
lity is not merely a subject of theoretical
debate. The concept has become a cornerstone Other attempts to define the concept have
of labour market policies and employment hinted at a more holistic approach, emphasi-
strategies in the UK and elsewhere. Yet it is sing the impact of both individual characte-
perhaps only the relatively recent emergence ristics and labour market conditions—i.e.
of employability as an all-embracing objec- both labour demand and supply factors. The
tive for national and supranational policies Canadian government’s Labour Force
200 RONALD W. McQUAID AND C. LINDSAY

Development Board offered the following In general, the differences in perspectives


definition appear to revolve fundamentally around
whether the focus is upon the individual’s
Employability is the relative capacity of an characteristics and ‘readiness’ for work, or
individual to achieve meaningful employ- upon the factors influencing a person getting
ment given the interaction of personal into a job (or job ‘match’ in job search
circumstances and the labour market theory), moving jobs or improving their job.
(Canadian Labour Force Development
Board, 1994, p. viii).
Similarly, research for the Northern Ireland 3.2 The Historical Evolution of the Concept
Executive has explicitly suggested a wide of Employability
working definition of employability The historical antecedents of the current
Employability is the capability to move into employability debate can be traced back at
and within labour markets and to realise least a century. Gazier’s (1998a, 1998b, 2001)
potential through sustainable and accessible work on employability provides a useful over-
employment. For the individual, employ- view of the concept’s development towards
ability depends on: the knowledge and currently accepted definitions. He distinguishes
skills they possess, and their attitudes; the between seven operational versions of the
way personal attributes are presented in the concept of employability—namely
labour market; the environmental and – Dichotomic employability—emerging at the
social context within which work is beginning of the 20th century in the UK
sought; and the economic context within and the US. Gazier describes this formulation
which work is sought (DHFETE, 2002, p. 7). of the concept of employability as ‘dichoto-
The Northern Irish approach appears to follow mic’ due to its focus on the opposite poles
on from approaches such as that suggested by of ‘employable’ and ‘unemployable’, initially
Hillage and Pollard (1998) who developed a with little or no gradation: employable refer-
broad-ranging definition of the concept, ring to those who were able and willing to
seeing employability as an individual’s work; unemployable referring to those
ability to gain initial employment, maintain unable to work and in need of ‘relief’.
employment, move between roles within the – Socio-medical employability—emerging
same organisation, obtain new employment before the 1950s in the US, the UK,
if required and (ideally) secure suitable and Germany and elsewhere, referring to the dis-
sufficiently fulfilling work. Hence this covers tance between the existing work abilities of
both unemployed people looking for work socially, physically or mentally disadvan-
and employed people seeking alternative taged people and the work requirements of
jobs or promotion. Employability thus employment.
involves – Manpower policy employability—developed
mainly in the US since the 1960s, and extend-
The capability to move self-sufficiently ing underlying discussions of socio-medical
within the labour market to realise potential employability to other socially disadvantaged
through sustainable employment. For the groups, with the emphasis again on the dis-
individual, employability depends on the tance between the existing work abilities of
knowledge, skills and attitudes they the disadvantaged and the work requirements
possess, the way they use those assets and of employment.
present them to employers and the context – Flow employability—emerging in the French
(e.g. personal circumstances and labour sociology literature of the 1960s, and focus-
market environment) within which they ing on the demand side and the accessibility
seek work (Hillage and Pollard, 1998, of employment within local and national
p. 12). economies, with employability defined as
THE CONCEPT OF EMPLOYABILITY 201

“the objective expectation, or more or less as emerging in three waves. The first wave,
high probability, that a person looking for a and the first use of the concept, centring on
job can have of finding one” (Ledrut, 1966; ‘dichotomic employability’, emerged in the
quoted in Gazier, 1998b, p. 44). early decades of the 20th century. Although
– Labour market performance employabi- useful for distinguishing the ‘employable’
lity—used internationally since the end of from the ‘unemployable’ (i.e. those eligible
the 1970s. This understanding of the for welfare benefits), this rather simplistic
concept focuses on the labour market out- version of the concept was more an ‘emer-
comes achieved by policy interventions, gency distinction’ than a labour market
measurable in terms of days employed, policy tool. However, a version of this
hours worked and payment rates, and other concept has been raised more recently in
labour market outcomes for individuals par- labour market models concerning whether
ticipating in employability-related pro- unemployed people may be ‘unemployable’,
grammes. partly due to technological change (Saint-
– Initiative employability—emerging in the Paul, 1996). The second wave began around
North American and European human the 1960s, as three very different versions of
resource development (HRD) literature of the concept were used by statisticians, social
the late 1980s, reflecting an acceptance workers and labour market policy-makers.
amongst individuals and organisations that ‘Socio-medical employability’ and the
successful career development requires the related ‘manpower policy employability’
development of skills that are transferable focused on identifying and measuring the dis-
and the flexibility to move between job tance between individual characteristics and
roles. Again, the focus is on the individual, the demands of work in the labour market.
with the onus on workers to develop their ‘Flow employability’, limited almost entirely
skills and networks in the workplace, so to the French policy literature, offered a
strengthening their position when they radical alternative, focusing on the demand
wish, or are required, to move. side of the labour market, macro-level econo-
– Interactive employability—emerging first in mic change and (crucially) the absorption rate
North America and then internationally of the economy.
since the end of the 1980s, and maintaining Gazier acknowledges that these versions of
the emphasis on individual initiative, while employability have now largely given way to
also acknowledging that the employability a third wave incorporating three new formu-
of the individual is relative to the employ- lations of the concept, originating in the
ability of others and the opportunities, insti- 1980s and developed in the 1990s: the
tutions and rules that govern the labour outcome-based ‘labour market performance
market. This can be seen as implying the employability’; ‘initiative employability’, with
importance of the role of employers and its focus on individual responsibility; and
labour demand in determining a person’s ‘interactive employability’, which “maintains
employability. Gazier identifies two main the focus on individual adaptation, but intro-
operational implications arising from this duces a collective/interactive priority” (Gazier
approach to employability: the targeting of 1998a, p. 300). Gazier concludes that while
long-term unemployed people and other dis- earlier versions of the concept of employability
advantaged groups by policy-makers; and have fallen away, having been exposed as too
the resulting focus of many Western govern- static and one-sided, ‘labour market perform-
ments on activation policies which seek to ance employability’ remains a basic compo-
intervene to prevent long-term unemploy- nent of policy evaluation (although, notably,
ment and labour market disadvantage. it is not explicitly attached to any more
general view of employability), while ‘initiat-
Gazier suggests that these seven versions of ive employability’ has retained a limited role
the concept of employability can be identified in HRD thinking.
202 RONALD W. McQUAID AND C. LINDSAY

Indeed, human resource development lit- have included: its potential role in tackling
erature has continued to use employability as the social inclusion of disadvantaged groups;
an important explanatory and descriptive a reaction to the consequences of high
concept, with employer –employee relations levels of the long-term unemployed and inac-
no longer being seen as being based on the tra- tivity; and the trend towards new types of
ditional model of reciprocal loyalty (Rajan, relationships between employers and employ-
1997; Ellig, 1998; Baruch, 2001). Instead, ees. First, the increasing importance of
they involve a form of personal, psychological employability in labour market policy can be
contract from which the individual seeks: a partly sourced to an “emphasis on skills-
sense of balance between personal time and based solutions to economic competition and
work; a form of work organisation that work-based solutions to social deprivation”
allows autonomy to concentrate on specifi- (Hillage and Pollard, 1998, p. 4). Within this
cally defined objectives; and, personal devel- context, the drive for employability is more
opment made possible through continuous than a means of offering workers the opportu-
learning that adds to individual employability. nity to develop flexible skills as an alternative
From a business perspective, the promotion of to security of tenure. Rather, the development
employability both within and beyond the of individuals’ employability is viewed as a
organisation has therefore become increas- crucial step towards improving access to
ingly viewed as the key to developing a ‘flex- employment (particularly for disadvantaged
ible and adaptable’ workforce (CBI, 1999). groups) and therefore a necessary element
Similarly, the UK government has recognised within strategies seeking to address unem-
that an individual’s employment security ployment and social exclusion.
increasingly depends not upon attachment to However, the emphasis on the skills of indi-
a single employer, but on their having skills viduals implicit within much of the labour
that will attract a range of employers (DfEE, market policy literature has raised concerns
1997c). that the ‘interactive’ elements of the concept
Finally, Gazier suggests that a consensus of employability have been lost amongst a
has gradually emerged around the concept of welter of discussions centring on how best to
‘interactive employability’ as a defining idea activate and ‘up-skill’ the unemployed and
in labour market policy, reflecting an accep- other disadvantaged groups. While Gazier
tance that employability is about overcoming (2001) and others suggest that employability
a broad array of barriers to work faced by indi- is now commonly understood as involving
viduals and that employability policies should an interaction between the individual and
therefore focus not just on individuals. other actors and conditions in the labour
However, as we argue below, there is evi- market, the policy debate and the content of
dence that the current application of the labour market strategies have often focused
concept of employability, at least within on individual-centred, supply-side solutions.
labour market policy, often, but not exclu- This supply-side policy orthodoxy has antece-
sively, leans heavily upon its individual- dents in both economic and social theory,
centred, supply-side components. related to responses to economic instability
and labour market change, and attempts to
re-establish the balance between the rights
and responsibilities of individuals within
4. The Rise of the Concept of
Western welfare states. These issues are dis-
Employability
cussed below, with particular reference to
We have seen that the concept of employabi- UK labour market policy (although, as noted
lity has been used in various contexts and above, they are of similar importance within
formats over a century. In the past decade or the EU and international policy context).
so, factors that have given increased impetus However, most local strategies (as opposed
to the use of the concept of employability to specific policies within them) appear to
THE CONCEPT OF EMPLOYABILITY 203

consider both demand and supply factors, skills and qualifications they need to work
although the two may not necessarily be in a flexible labour market . . . If we can
well integrated. increase the numbers in work and improve
There is little doubt that structural shifts the chances of work for the most disadvan-
have created mismatches between labour taged, then more vacancies will turn into
supply and demand—in sectoral terms, there jobs rather than bottlenecks, skills
has been a shift in the UK, as elsewhere, shortages and inflationary pressures (Blun-
towards various service industries. This has kett, 1999).
resulted in changing skills needs (with ‘soft
skills’, such as interpersonal and communi- Thus, it has been argued that the Labour Party
cation skills increasingly valued (see, for replaced its ‘historic’ commitment to full
example, Belt and Richardson, 2005), but employment with a promise of ‘full employ-
also a shift towards part-time and more flexible ability’ (Finn, 2000)—equality of outcome is
work practices. In occupational terms, there less the objective than equality of opportunity
has been a shift towards non-manual work in (Lister, 2001). The objective of the employ-
general and knowledge work (requiring ability agenda as formulated here is the cre-
higher level skills and qualifications) in par- ation of a higher-skilled labour force and a
ticular. Those without the skills to adapt to more inclusive and competitive active labour
these changes are often faced with the choice market, leading to the combined benefits of
of long-term unemployment or low-paid, social inclusion on the one hand, and down-
unstable work. That the policy response to ward pressures on wage inflation and
these problems has focused on the individual improved productivity and competitiveness
aspects of employability and has particularly on the other. Philpott (1998, 1999) suggests
targeted the long-term unemployed, reflects: that this inevitably leads to a two-part
first, a belief that measures to ‘up-skill’ and approach to employability policy—one focus-
activate unemployed people will have positive ing on activation and labour market attach-
impacts in terms of labour market partici- ment (or what Philpott calls ‘access’) and
pation, economic competitiveness and pro- the other focusing on ‘up-skilling’ the labour
ductivity; and, secondly, that long-term force through employability training and life-
unemployment specifically is a crucial barrier long learning (or ‘performance ability’).
to increased participation in the economy and As suggested above, a crucial element
wider society, and so to the realisation of informing labour market policy in the UK
these associated macro-economic benefits. refers to the particular importance attached
The UK government has explicitly iden- to tackling long-term unemployment. Labour
tified concerns over structural unemployment market economists have successfully argued
and the impact of poor basic skills attainment that duration dependency—the increased like-
on national productivity as informing its lihood of continued unemployment amongst
employability policy agenda (DWP, 2002). the long-term jobless due to the deterioration
Although delivering ‘employment opportu- of skills, work habits and commitment over
nity for all’ is seen by government ministers time—has a major role to play in explaining
as an important element in social inclusion high levels of structural unemployment (Blan-
and poverty reduction, this egalitarian aspect chard and Summers, 1987; Layard et al.,
of the employability agenda is consistently 1991; Layard, 1997; Abbring et al., 2001).
linked to broader economic concerns, includ- This ‘withering flowers’ argument leads to
ing improved productivity and the control of the logical conclusion that effective active
wage inflation. As the then Secretary of labour market programmes, aimed at activa-
State for Education and Employment noted ting and improving the skills of the long-
term unemployed, have the potential both to
The employability agenda is about chan- impact positively on the employability of indi-
ging the culture—helping people to gain vidual clients and permanently to ratchet
204 RONALD W. McQUAID AND C. LINDSAY

down the rate of unemployment in the wider programmes, even if compulsory, mark a con-
economy. siderable advance on the approach of govern-
A second major strand of thinking inform- ment policy during the 1980s and early 1990s,
ing current policies on employability (in the which included using benefit cuts and an
UK and elsewhere) reflects both a reaction increasingly stringent job-seeking regime in
to the social consequences of high levels of an attempt to force unemployed people to
long-term unemployment, concern at increas- enter low-paid work (White, 2000; Lindsay,
ing inactivity rates and an attempt to curtail 2001). Furthermore, the development of
rising social expenditure directed towards policies designed to ‘make work pay’, such
welfare recipients of working age. It is as the 2003 Child Tax Credit and Working
argued that policies to enhance the employ- Tax Credit reforms, arguably represent
ability of unemployed groups (using a combi- an acknowledgement by government of the
nation of ‘access’ and ‘performance ability’ need for additional financial support for
measures) are required in order to re-establish those making the transition from welfare to
the balance between the right to financial work (Bryson, 2003).
support through the social security system Nevertheless, there remain considerable
and the responsibilities of unemployed concerns regarding the employability agenda
welfare claimants. as currently formulated within labour market
The theoretical bases for this approach have policy in the UK and elsewhere. Peck and
been cited as, amongst others: the ‘underclass’ Theodore (2000, p. 729) suggest that, while
thesis popularised by social theorists during the concept of employability may seem rela-
the 1980s and 1990s (see for example tively new, “the kind of supply side funda-
Murray, 1990); and the alternative visions of mentalism that it signifies most certainly is
central European Christian Socialism and not”. Similarly, Serrano Pascual (2001a,
social communitarianism (see for example 2001b) argues that the concept of employabi-
Etzoni, 1993). What is clear is that, as with lity, as understood within the European
the duration dependency thesis in economic Employment Strategy and national welfare
policy, there is a renewed acceptance in to work policies, evokes a ‘traditional’ reac-
social policy circles that responses to unem- tionary understanding of unemployment,
ployment must focus on the attributes and which seeks to blame the jobless individual’s
responsibilities of the individual. Indeed, predicament upon his or her inadequacies,
with the introduction of major active labour rather than acknowledging a lack of opportu-
market policies such as the New Deal, the nity within the labour market.
UK has seen a shift towards ‘a work-focused The supply-side orthodoxy that informs
welfare state’ (Evans, 2001) where labour most current approaches to employability pol-
market participation is arguably viewed as icies at the UK and EU levels has been chal-
the ultimate solution to social and economic lenged by those who question the extent to
exclusion (Powell, 2000). The objective of which labour market inclusion and social
the government is to provide ‘work for those inclusion can be equated. Cook et al. (2001)
who can and security for those who cannot’, argue that the preponderance of low-paid,
by ‘rebuilding the welfare state around casualised work within the UK economy
work’ (DSS, 1998). From the government’s means that work-first approaches have the
perspective, ‘work is the best form of potential to accentuate rather than mitigate
welfare’ (DfEE, 2001) and “the best anti- the social exclusion. There is also evidence
poverty, anti-crime and pro-family policy yet that current supply-side initiatives have not
invented” (Labour Party, 2001, p. 24). been effective in addressing the needs of
The recent development of employability- people with multiple or severe disadvantages
focused welfare to work policies in response (Millar, 2000). Clearly, ‘one size fits all’
to this agenda has been supported by those employability programmes which emphasise
who argue that client-centred training a work-first, labour market attachment
THE CONCEPT OF EMPLOYABILITY 205

approach cannot be expected to assist all of the individual with the labour market,
people facing severe health, personal or but the ‘problem’ is often seen as resting
social problems that require interventions with the individual. Accordingly, ‘so-called’
that are personalised, intensive, flexible and employability policies have too often
(if necessary) long-term (Lakey et al., 2001). focused solely on activating the unemployed
It has also been argued that the situation of through a combination of compulsory training
these individuals is not assisted by “the cor- and job-seeking activities. That the success of
rosive effects of an ideological ethos that these policies tends to differ significantly
encourages people with multiple needs and across regions and labour markets points to a
problems to blame themselves for their fundamental weakness—that the concept of
failure in the labour market” (Dean et al., employability as currently formulated within
2003, p. 24). many activation policies fails to acknowledge
The assumptions underlying the current the importance of the geography of labour
employability policy agenda have faced markets, issues surrounding travel to work,
further challenges, questioning the extent to employer attitudes and behaviour, demand
which the ‘long-term unemployment within local economies and other ‘context’
problem’ is independent of general levels of factors impacting on the experiences of job
unemployment with the economy (Machin seekers.
and Manning, 1999; Webster, 2000) and the
need to address problems of demand in local
5. Supply-side and Broader Concepts of
labour markets. From this perspective,
Employability
welfare to work initiatives which focus on
improving the individual aspects of employ- 5.1 Employability and the ‘Supply-side
ability fail to acknowledge the strong link Orthodoxy’
between weak labour demand and high
It might therefore be argued that the concept
‘welfare usage’ in disadvantaged commu-
of employability—particularly as applied
nities (Peck, 2001). The ‘jobs gap’ in many
within many supply-side labour market pol-
of Britain’s cities (in a large part a result of
icies—has been ‘hollowed out’ in many
the restructuring of manufacturing industries)
current theoretical and policy discussions. In
has meant that employability-focused pro-
many cases, the interactivity supposedly at
grammes have encountered far larger client
the centre of the concept appears to have
groups in these areas and have predictably
been replaced by a singular focus on the indi-
struggled to match the results achieved in
vidual and what might be termed their
more affluent, ‘job-rich’ areas (Turok and
‘employability skills’. The employability
Edge, 1999; Martin et al., 2003). In more
skills or individual assets possessed by
general terms, labour market analysts have
workers and job seekers, and the extent to
argued that a purely supply-side focus fails
which these tie in with the immediate needs
to acknowledge the impact of employers’
of employers, have come to define many
attitudes and the nature of contracts and
policy-makers’ identification of skills gaps
conditions (such as shift patterns, wages,
and understanding of the concept of employ-
location) on the ability of job seekers to
ability. Lister (2001) characterises the
pursue certain opportunities (Adams et al.,
current government’s approach as concerned
2000, 2002).
with the supply side of ‘employability’
What Gazier (1998b, 2001) describes as the
rather than the demand side of ‘employment’.
‘interactive’ formulation of the concept of
Similarly, for Haughton et al.
employability has in reality been adapted by
policy-makers and labour economists to [The current government’s] rendering of the
become a buzzword for supply-side labour employability agenda taps into the orthodox
market strategies (Peck and Theodore, strain of economic thinking which has it
2000). The focus is indeed on the interaction that both the underlying causes of, and the
206 RONALD W. McQUAID AND C. LINDSAY

appropriate remedies to, unemployment viewed as a complex problem, rather than a


essentially lie on the supply-side of the simple failure with a simple remedy
labour market; that the unemployed should
It is the outcome of a complex of different
be induced to price themselves back into
factors, located in the labour market, in
work; that the government has neither the
schools, in the recruitment procedures of
responsibility nor the capability to create
businesses and in the economic policies
jobs, but instead should direct its energies
implemented by government (Kleinman
to the supply-side of the labour market
and West, 1998, p. 174).
(Haughton et al., 2000, p. 670).
The argument that long-term unemployed
In local labour markets, the issues associated people face an ‘employability gap’ involving
with labour demand are generally significant a complex combination of barriers to work
(both in terms of the opportunities that exist has been used to advocate innovative
and the competition for jobs). Peck and Theo- supply-side solutions tailored to local labour
dore argue that demand (McQuaid and Lindsay, 2002) but
employability-based approaches, which also deployed to inform critiques of current,
locate both the problems and the solutions work-first labour market policies (Lindsay,
in labour market policy on the supply-side 2002). Furthermore, the same analytical fra-
of the economy, are not sufficient to the mework has been used to examine the barriers
task of tackling unemployment, social to work faced by job seekers in rural areas,
exclusion and economic inequality (Peck with the effect of drawing attention to
and Theodore, 2000, p. 731). demand-side issues and problems of geo-
graphical remoteness (Lindsay et al., 2003).
As the previous discussion illustrates, the Employability, it is argued, should be under-
concept of employability pre-dates current stood as being derived from, and affected
definitions linked to neo-liberal and/or by, individual characteristics and circum-
‘Third Way’ labour market policies. What is stances and broader, external (social, insti-
important is the substance of the concept, tutional and economic) factors that influence
and if employability is fundamentally about a person’s ability to get a job. The next
‘the character or quality of being employable’ section discusses a broad model of employ-
then there clearly must be a role for individual ability and the implications for policy.
characteristics, personal circumstances,
labour market and other external factors in
5.2 Broad Approaches to Employability
explanations of the responses of employed
or unemployed people to potential employ- Labour market and policy analysts concerned
ment opportunities. with arriving at an understanding of employ-
Many researchers who have sought to use ability that is holistic, and so offers a realistic
the concept of employability as a means of description of the factors affecting individ-
analysing barriers to work amongst the unem- uals’ journeys in the labour market, have
ployed have themselves stressed the need to therefore sought to define the concept in a
avoid an approach that involves ‘blaming the format that accounts for the full range of per-
victim’, or policies that offer solely supply- sonal and external barriers impacting on the
side solutions (see Hillage and Pollard, employability of workers and job seekers.
1998; Kleinman et al., 1998; Evans et al., To take an example, a person may not be
1999). Kleinman and West (1998) accept able to get or take a job due to: personal
that attempts to address employability with factors such as a lack of suitable skills; and/
reference to supply-side measures alone risk or the lack of institutional infrastructure such
being ‘swamped’ by rising levels of general as suitable childcare or transport in their
unemployment in times of economic reces- area; and/or labour demand factors involving
sion. The ‘lack of employability’ is thus employer preferences (such as only shift
THE CONCEPT OF EMPLOYABILITY 207

work being available, or discrimination). External factors include


Hence, each of these, and other, factors may
have singly or jointly a profound impact on a – the attitudes of employers towards the
person’s employability—i.e. their ability to unemployed;
gain employment or move to a more suitable – the supply and quality of training and edu-
job. Such a broad approach to employability cation;
(of unemployed people or those in work) – the availability of other assistance for disad-
allows us to identify the real key interrelated vantaged job seekers;
barriers that actually prevent someone – the extent to which the tax-benefits system
getting a new job, rather than merely identi- successfully eliminates benefit traps;
fying a subset, such as their ‘employability – and (most importantly) the supply of appro-
skills’ which may or may not be the actual priate jobs in the local economy.
main barrier. To elaborate one example, if Similarly, Kleinman et al. (1998) discuss a
employers in an area practise discrimination range of ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ factors that
(based, for instance, on area of residence, define the detail of each side of the supply-
gender, ethnicity or age), then a person who side– demand-side equation. In an attempt to
may have all the required employability arrive at a definition of employability that
skills and attributes will still not get employ- would provide a ‘framework for policy analy-
ment if they belong to the discriminated sis’ and a means of understanding the com-
group. plexities of the barriers to work faced by
Given the increasing acceptance that dis- individuals, Hillage and Pollard (1998) have
cussions of employability cannot be limited drawn upon many themes from the existing
to the orthodoxies of solely supply-side and literature. Their framework for employability
demand-side economic theory, recent efforts seeks to highlight a complex interaction of
to arrive at a clearer definition of the different components, namely
concept have emphasised the need to under-
stand the interaction of individual and external – Employability assets: including baseline
factors affecting the individual’s ability to assets, such as basic skills and essential
operate effectively within the labour market. personal attributes (for example, reliability
The focus of such analyses is on ‘interactive’ and honesty); intermediate assets, such as
employability in its truest sense—the dynamic job-specific, generic and ‘key’ skills (e.g. com-
interaction of individual attributes, personal munication and problem solving); and high-
circumstances, labour market conditions and level assets, such as those skills that contribute
other ‘context’ factors. to organisational performance (for example,
To this end, Evans et al. (1999) suggest a team work and commercial awareness).
division of employability into supply-side – Presentation: defined as the ability to secure
and demand-side elements (described as an appointment to an appropriate position
‘employability components’ and ‘external through the demonstration of employability
factors’). Employability components are assets (for example, through the competent
identified as including completion of a curriculum vitae or appli-
cation form, or participation in an interview).
– the extent of the individual’s transferable – Deployment: referring to a range of abilities
skills; including career management skills (for
– the level of personal motivation to seek example, awareness of one’s own abilities
work; and limitations, awareness of opportunities
– the extent of the individual’s ‘mobility’ in in the labour market, and decision-making
seeking work; and transitional skills) and job-search skills.
– access to information and support networks; – Context factors, or the interaction of
– and the extent and nature of other personal personal circumstances and the labour
barriers to work. market: Hillage and Pollard accept that the
208 RONALD W. McQUAID AND C. LINDSAY

individual’s ability to realise the assets and same individual to have the minimum necess-
skills discussed above will to some extent ary skills, etc. under different circumstances
depend upon external socioeconomic (for example, when there is a large supply of
factors, personal circumstances and the labour or when the firm does not have any
relationship between the two. External con- pressing orders to fulfil). Even at a specific
ditions such as local labour market demand time and place, if demand changes (for
and employer attitudes will impact upon example, an employer changes their childcare
the availability of suitable opportunities, or job advertising policies) then this may
while personal circumstances will affect result in new people seeking and getting
the ability of individuals to seek and employment with them. In this case, the indi-
benefit from opportunities. vidual has not changed their ‘narrow’ employ-
ability in terms of employability skills and
The Hillage –Pollard employability frame-
attitudes, but their ability to take up work
work, although perhaps the most thorough to
with the employer (and their ‘broad’ employ-
date, hints at a continued emphasis on the
ability) has.
supply side, at least in its organisation
(Lindsay et al., 2003). Three of Hillage
and Pollard’s key components of employabil- 6.1 Individual Factors
ity (assets, deployment and presentation)
The component covering ‘Individual factors’
operate at the individual level, while virtually
involves, first, a person’s ‘employability
everything outside the individual’s immediate
skills and attributes’. Employability skills
control is collapsed into a single category of
and attributes can be seen as broadly covering
‘context factors’. While there is clearly
the overlapping: essential attributes (basic
value in acknowledging that context does
social skills, reliability, etc.); personal compe-
not merely refer to labour market conditions,
tencies (diligence, motivation, confidence,
but also involves a range of other external
etc.); basic transferable skills (including
factors, there may be more effective ways of
literacy and numeracy); key transferable
conceptualising and differentiating between
skills (problem-solving, communication,
personal circumstances and institutional,
adaptability, work-process management,
infrastructural and labour market barriers.
team-working skills); high-level transferable
The next section builds upon this to provide
skills (including self-management, commer-
a broad employability framework.
cial awareness, possession of highly transfer-
able skills); qualifications and educational
6. Towards a Broad Model of
attainment; work knowledge-base (including
Employability
work experience and occupational skills);
Following from the above section, Table 1 and labour market attachment (current unem-
illustrates our own re-ordered ‘holistic’ frame- ployment/employment duration, work history,
work of employability. It has three main inter- etc.).
related components, or sets of factors, that These ‘employability skills and attributes’
influence a person’s employability: individual cover many of the main aspects of the
factors; personal circumstances; and external ‘narrow’ concept of employability. Also,
factors. The examples here and in Table 1 there are some parallels between the categor-
are not exhaustive. Some examples of policies isation of skills and attributes suggested here
related to each component are briefly and human capital theory (see Becker, 1975)
discussed in this section. Of fundamental and wider discussions of skills acquisition
importance are the interactions between each and intelligence (see Gardner, 1999).1 These
of the components. For instance, employers factors should not be considered as forming
may be willing to accept someone under one a hierarchy, as the nature and importance of
set of circumstances (for example, during a different factors will change with circum-
labour shortage), but may not consider the stances and in many cases these factors
THE CONCEPT OF EMPLOYABILITY 209

Table 1. An employability framework (with examples)


Individual factors Personal circumstances External factors
† Employability skills and † Household circumstances † Demand factors
attributes Direct caring Labour market factors
Essential attributes responsibilities Level of local and regional
Basic social skills; honesty Caring for children, elderly or other demand; nature
and integrity; basic personal relatives, etc. and changes of local and
presentation; reliability; Other family and caring regional demand (required
willingness to work; responsibilities skill levels; occupational
understanding of actions and Financial commitments to structure of vacancies;
consequences; positive children or other family sectors where demand is
attitude to work; members outside the concentrated); location,
responsibility; self- individual’s household; centrality/remoteness of
discipline emotional and/or time local labour markets in
Personal competencies commitments to family relation to centres of
Proactivity; diligence; self- members or others industry/employment; level
motivation; judgement; Other household of competition for jobs;
initiative; assertiveness; circumstances actions of employers’
confidence; act The ability to access safe, competitors; changing
autonomously secure, affordable and customer preferences, etc.
Basic transferable skills appropriate housing Macroeconomic factors
Prose and document literacy; † Work culture Macroeconomic stability;
writing; numeracy; verbal The existence of a culture in medium- to long-term
presentation which work is encouraged business confidence; level
Key transferable skills and supported within the and nature of labour demand
Reasoning; problem- family, among peers or other within the national economy
solving; adaptability; personal relationships and Vacancy characteristics
work-process management; the wider community Remuneration; conditions
team working; personal task † Access to resources of work; working hours and
and time management; Access to transport prevalence of shift work;
functional mobility; basic Access to own or readily opportunities for
ICT skills; basic available private transport; progression; extent of
interpersonal and ability to walk appropriate part-time, temporary and
communication skills; distances casual work; availability
emotional and aesthetic Access to financial capital of ‘entry-level’ positions
customer service skills Level of household income; Recruitment factors
High level transferable skills extent and duration of any Employers’ formal
Team working; business financial hardship; access to recruitment and selection
thinking; commercial formal and informal sources procedures; employers’
awareness; continuous of financial support; general selection preferences
learning; vision; job-specific management of income and (for example, for recent
skills; enterprise skills debt experience); employers’
Qualifications Access to social capital search channels (methods
Formal academic and Access to personal and of searching for staff when
vocational qualifications; family support networks; recruiting); discrimination
job-specific qualifications access to formal and (for example, on the basis
Work knowledge base informal community support of age, gender, race, area
Work experience; general networks; number, range and of residence, disability,
work skills and personal status of informal social unemployment duration);
aptitudes; commonly valued network contacts form and extent of
transferable skills (such as employers’ use of informal
driving); occupational networks; demanding only
specific skills appropriate qualifications or
Labour market attachment credentials
Current unemployment/
employment duration;

(Table continued)
210 RONALD W. McQUAID AND C. LINDSAY

Table 1. Continued
Individual factors Personal circumstances External factors
number and length of spells of † Enabling support factors
unemployment/inactivity; Employment policy factors
‘balance’ of work history Accessibility of public
† Demographic characteristics services and job-matching
Age, gender, etc. technology (such as job
† Health and well-being search/counselling);
Health penetration of public
Current physical health; services (for example, use
current mental health; medical and credibility among
history; psychological well- employers/job seekers);
being incentives within tax-
Disability benefits system; existence of
Nature and extent of: physical ‘welfare to work’/activation
disability; mental disability; and pressure to accept jobs;
learning disability accessibility and limitations
† Job seeking on training; extent of local/
Effective use of formal search regional development
services/information resources policies; measures to ease
(including ICT); awareness the school –work transition
and effective use of informal and address employability
social networks; ability to issues at school and
complete CVs/application university
forms; interview skills/ Other enabling policy
presentation; access to factors
references; awareness of Accessibility and
strengths and weaknesses; affordability of public
awareness of location and type transport, child care and
of opportunities in the labour other support services
market; realistic approach to
job targeting
† Adaptability and mobility
Geographical mobility; wage
flexibility and reservation
wage; occupational flexibility
(working hours, occupations,
sectors)

interact—for instance, a qualification such as and their employees, has become more signifi-
a degree usually needs to be supplemented cant (see—for example, Drucker, 1985; Gibb,
by transferable skills or social skills in order 1993; McQuaid, 2002; Hartshorn and Sear,
to gain employment (Holmes, 2001). Simi- 2005).
larly, interpersonal, ‘emotional’ and ‘aes- Recent employability-raising policies in the
thetic’ skills are increasingly demanded by UK (with the New Deal at their centre) have
many employers, particularly where there is adopted fairly ‘standard’ labour market
a direct interface with customers (Witz approaches, based around training and basic
et al., 2003; Glomb and Tews, 2004). Enter- skills assistance, although work placement
prise skills (such as the ability to search and intermediate labour market programmes
systematically for and take opportunities, have gradually grown in importance (Finn,
creativity, negotiating skills, etc.) have also 2003; Fletcher, 2004). The emphasis here is
emerged as of greater importance in recent on addressing basic gaps in the skills-sets
years, as the adaptability of organisations, and attributes listed above, while particularly
THE CONCEPT OF EMPLOYABILITY 211

emphasising labour market attachment. The strategies, and the importance of which
targeting of these interventions on long-term search channels are used, with what intensity
unemployed people reflects the manner in and with what effectiveness (Holzer, 1988;
which UK government policy has been Budd et al., 1998; Wanberg et al., 1999;
informed by the argument that the duration Boheim and Taylor, 2001).
structure of unemployment is the main deter- Job-search support is a major component of
minant of the competitiveness of unemployed national employment policies (through Job-
job seekers (see above, and Boeri et al., 2000; centre Plus and Careers Service provision)
Robson, 2001). and local policies, including ICT-based ser-
‘Demographic characteristics’ include fac- vices (McQuaid et al., 2003). Again, the pro-
tors such as: age, gender, ethnicity etc. These motion of effective job seeking provides an
may influence individuals’ motivations or important focus for national welfare to work
ability to carry out certain jobs. programmes such as the New Deal. While
‘Health and well-being’ factors include: the efficiency of formal services provided by
health (physical and mental health, medical state agencies has been questioned (Osberg,
history, and physical ability to do different 1993), it has been demonstrated that the struc-
jobs, some of which may be age-related) and tured job-search assistance provided via the
disability (including: the nature and extent UK Jobcentre network can positively impact
of: physical disability; mental disability; on job entry rates (Gregg and Wandsworth,
learning disability). Within the UK policy 1996; Thomas, 1997). As with the other
context, dealing with long-term sickness policy mechanisms discussed above, there
among working-age men has become an remain concerns that a ‘work first’ approach
important priority, although the extent to will see job seekers pushed into work that
which rising levels of incapacity reflect dete- cannot be sustained in the longer term
riorating health, rather than ‘hidden unem- (Daguerre, 2004). Nevertheless, the selection
ployment’ remains a matter of debate of effective job-search channels remains a
(Nickell and Quintini, 2002). Policies such key individual factor impacting on employabil-
as the New Deal for Disabled People have ity and therefore an appropriate priority for
sought to provide targeted job-matching labour market policy (McQuaid et al., 2004).
support for those facing severe physical and Finally, ‘adaptability and mobility’ refers to:
other disabilities. While concerns have been the job seeker’s awareness of his or her own
raised regarding the policy’s potential to strengths and weaknesses; a realistic approach
force vulnerable groups into unsuitable work to job targeting; geographical mobility; wage
(Roulstone, 2000), there is also some evidence flexibility and reservation wage; and occu-
of positive outcomes for disabled participants pational flexibility, including willingness to
who have been benefited from a return to do shift work or flexible hours and to consider
work in environments providing ‘supported jobs across a range of sectors. There is a wealth
employment’ (Heenan, 2002). of research pointing to the importance of
‘Job seeking’ refers to how well a person wage flexibility to individuals’ employability
identifies and searches for a job, including: (see for example, Layard et al., 1994; Aberg,
the effective use of formal search services/ 2001; Bloeman and Stancanelli, 2001). How-
information resources; the use of appropriate ever, there has been an increasing emphasis
technologies; awareness and effective use of on broader measures of adaptability in the
informal social networks; ability to complete recent employability literature. In particular,
curriculum vitae and application forms, inter- the difficulties faced by older workers in adapt-
view skills/presentation; labour market aware- ing to the decline of ‘traditional’ sectors has
ness including the appropriateness of the types been noted. Many older, male job seekers con-
of jobs sought; and the amount, efficiency and tinue to look for work in these declining sectors
effectiveness of job-search effort. There is a (McQuaid and Lindsay, 2002) and are reluc-
considerable body of literature on job-search tant even to consider occupations in rapidly
212 RONALD W. McQUAID AND C. LINDSAY

expanding areas of the service economy responsibilities. The development of social


(Lindsay and McQuaid, 2004). housing policies in areas where home-owner-
The adaptability of people to take up job ship is unaffordable for many low-paid
offers or search more widely can be influenced workers represents a similar attempt to
by deterrent or ‘push’ policies. These seek to respond to personal, household circumstances
make life on benefits less attractive for the that can act as a barrier to work. More contro-
unemployed and encourage them to find work versial is the continued emphasis in the
where it is available (Nickell, 1998; Layard, current government statements on promoting
2000). However, a number of alternative a strong ‘work culture’ and challenging the
‘pull’ mechanisms can also be deployed by perceived ‘culture of worklessness’ in some
government. In the UK, recent Tax Credit disadvantaged areas (DWP, 2003). The idea
reforms and the establishment of a National of an unemployed ‘underclass’ refusing work
Minimum Wage have enabled job seekers to in favour of life on benefits was popular
demonstrate greater flexibility in their wage among some social theorists during the 1980s
demands (McLaughlin et al., 2001; Adam- and 1990s (see above). However, the decline
Smith et al., 2003). Furthermore, while regis- in unemployment among even the most disad-
tered job seekers are required to demonstrate vantaged groups as a result of sustained econ-
that they are ‘actively seeking work’ across a omic recovery after the mid 1990s in the
range of sectors, innovative local initiatives UK and elsewhere undermined the argument
have been developed to assist older workers that there is a large identifiable underclass
in the transition to work in unfamiliar sectors (Freeman, 2000). Nevertheless, the targeting
such as retail (Nickson et al., 2003). of additional job-search and training support
on local authority wards with particularly
high long-term unemployment (piloted from
6.2 Personal Circumstances
April 2004 in the UK as ‘Working Neighbour-
The second component, ‘Personal circum- hoods’) may at least represent a concentration
stances’, includes a range of socioeconomic of resources in those local labour markets
contextual factors related to individuals’ most in need of assistance.
social and household circumstances. These Next, there are factors related to ‘access to
may affect the ability, willingness or social resources’ including: transport/mobility issues
pressure for someone to take up an employ- (such as access private transport, ability to
ment opportunity. Household circumstances walk appropriate distances to work); access
can be divided into: direct caring responsibil- to financial capital (such as the level of house-
ities (for example, for children or elderly rela- hold income and access to formal and infor-
tives); other family and caring responsibilities mal sources of financial support); and access
(including financial commitments to children, to social capital (such as personal and family
emotional and/or time commitments to family support networks, formal and informal
members); and other household circumstances community support networks especially
(such as the ability to access appropriate those relevant to job seeking). The latter
housing). An additional element of personal concept—social capital—has become the
circumstances, ‘work culture’, refers to the focus of considerable interest in the job-
wider social influences impacting on the indi- search literature (Stoloff et al., 1999; Brown
vidual’s attitudes and aspirations, such as the and Konrad, 2001; Chapple, 2002). In
existence of a culture in which work is encour- certain local economies (such as rural areas),
aged and supported within the family, among social networks can be particularly important
peers and the wider community. (Hofferth and Iceland, 1998; Monk et al.,
In terms of recent policy, the introduction 1999). In more general terms, holding a
of the Childcare Tax Credit in the UK marks large number of social ties (even if relatively
a clear attempt to address the barriers to weak) to higher-status workers has been
work faced by job seekers with caring shown to be associated with progression in
THE CONCEPT OF EMPLOYABILITY 213

the labour market (Granovetter, 1974, 1982) and other assistance to those moving from
and, in some cases, exits from unemployment unemployment towards work.
(Lévesque and White, 2001). Clearly, demand factors and enabling
support factors are linked—labour market
demand may be influenced by national pol-
6.3 External Factors
icies concerning macro-economic growth
Thirdly, ‘External factors’ include those influ- and stability, anti-discrimination legislation
encing a person’s employability, such as and regional and local strategies to stimulate
labour demand conditions and enabling demand via support for inward investment
support of employment-related public ser- and new firm development. Campbell (2000)
vices. As discussed earlier, ‘demand factors’ also stresses the role that local labour market
include: local labour market factors (such as policies can have in reducing long-term unem-
the level and nature of local and regional or ployment. Similarly, many of these policy
other labour demand, location issues, centra- responses have been discussed above, high-
lity/remoteness of local labour markets in lighting the extent to which individual
relation to centres of industry/employment, factors, personal circumstances and external
levels of competition for jobs); macroeco- (labour market and policy) factors are inher-
nomic factors (macroeconomic stability, ently linked. For example, the efficiency of
level and nature of labour demand within the individuals’ job-search strategies can only be
national economy, etc.); vacancy character- understood with reference to employers’
istic factors (remuneration, conditions of recruitment preferences and channels. This
work, working hours and prevalence of shift relationship in turn operates within a set of
work, opportunities for progression, extent specific labour market and policy contexts.
of part-time, temporary and casual work, The framework discussed above shares
availability of ‘entry-level’ positions if appro- similarities with those that have gone before.
priate, etc.); and recruitment factors (inclu- Perhaps its defining feature is the manner in
ding employers’ formal recruitment and which it seeks to clarify and acknowledge
selection procedure and general selection pre- the status of individual factors, which can be
ferences, employer discrimination, form and addressed through standard supply-side pol-
extent of employers’ use of informal net- icies targeted at job seekers, from personal cir-
works) (see Adams et al., 2000, for a wider cumstances that may require different policy
discussion). interventions or may inherently limit indivi-
‘Enabling support factors’ for matching duals’ labour market participation. Both of
labour demand and supply include: employ- these groups of factors are in turn distin-
ment policy factors (accessibility of public guished from employer-related, economic,
services and job-matching technologies, institutional and labour market factors that
including information and communication are clearly external to the individual. By re-
technologies, information and job search/ ordering employability in this way the frame-
counselling, use and credibility among work restates that it is not just individual,
employers and job seekers of public services, supply-side factors that require detailed
incentives within tax-benefits system, description and analysis, but all aspects of the
measures to ease the school –work transition); employability equation, including demand.
and other policy factors that help enable
people to get a job (such as the accessibility
7. Conclusions
and affordability of public transport or child-
care). One example of local childcare This paper has analysed the concept of
support is the ‘Working for Families’ policy employability by discussing its importance
in Scotland which has a £20 million fund to to local, national and international labour
help improve disadvantaged parents’ employ- market policy, considering working definitions
ability through providing flexible childcare of employability, tracing the historical
214 RONALD W. McQUAID AND C. LINDSAY

development of the concept and examining market. In a ‘tight’ labour market, an


how the concept is currently applied in UK employer may accept (or find employable)
labour market policy. someone whom they would not consider
It is important to recognise that employabil- in a ‘looser’ labour market. Secondly, the
ity implicitly assumes specific types of ‘narrow’ view focusing on an individual’s
demand that may vary across space, time skills and attributes identifies important
and employers. Also, employers, potential aspects of the employability equation, but
employees and wider society can and do omits other important aspects. For instance,
have fundamentally different perspectives on there may be circumstances where job
employability. Employability can be seen as seekers with strong transferable skills and
referring to the individual’s relationship with strategic job seeking will still struggle to
a single job (or ‘class of jobs’), so that find work—their actual ‘employability’
someone considered ‘employable’ for one limited by—for example, family and caring
job might not be considered so for a differ- responsibilities (which may also be a function
ent job. From an employer’s perspective, of a lack of appropriate childcare provision
someone with appropriate employability and some employers’ reluctance to develop
skills and attributes may be ‘employable’, family-friendly policies); problems in acces-
but this may be only the minimum criterion sing transport and/or geographical remote-
when considering candidates and no job ness; the numbers and/or type of vacancies
offer may be made. From the job seeker’s per- within local labour markets; and the attitudes
spective, a lack of availability of enabling or recruiting methods of employers.
support (such as transport to work) or contract All of these factors should be incorporated
terms (such as the requirement for shift work) within the concept of ‘employability’, if it
may mean that a specific job is not acceptable. relates to the ability of an (employed or unem-
From a policy-maker’s perspective, the fact ployed) individual to move into or within
that the person does not take the job and employment rather than primarily to the
remains unemployed suggests that (within minimum skills and attitudes that an employer
the context of a specific vacancy or job role) requires of a job candidate.
the person is not ‘employable’. A broad approach can help to move analysis
In recent years, many, but not all, research- and policy towards the identification of the
ers and policy-makers have used a ‘narrow’ full range of factors affecting a person’s like-
concept of employability focusing upon lihood of getting a new job and so provide a
‘employability skills and attributes’, often framework for richer labour market models.
resulting in purely supply-side ‘employability’ It may also assist analysts and policy-makers
policies. This paper presents a ‘broad’ frame- to move towards more sustainable, long-term
work of employability, which takes account labour market strategies, by helping to ident-
not only of ‘individual factors’ (including ify the range of labour market factors that
employability skills and attributes and job are, for example, stopping people moving
search), but also ‘personal circumstances’ and into suitable work, the necessary interventions
‘external factors’. Clearly, these factors have and their interconnections.
a close two-way interaction with each other. Furthermore, the long-term employability
Although the two perspectives are not of job seekers and labour market programme
mutually exclusive, there are at least two participants is unlikely to be improved by
ways in which a ‘broad’ perspective can add training schemes that only consider employ-
to a ‘narrow’ concept of employability. First, ers’ demands for competencies specific to
the employability skills and attributes that an their own immediate-term needs. Investment
employer may demand depend upon the chan- in skills that are genuinely transferable and
ging environment in which they operate, such of long-term value to employers, employees
as changing customer preferences, the actions and other job seekers requires a substantial
of competitors and the state of the labour commitment to training within and beyond
THE CONCEPT OF EMPLOYABILITY 215

the workplace, and to the overcoming of the These are linguistic, logical-mathematical
many other barriers to an individual’s employ- intelligence, musical intelligence, bodily-
ability. Employers have a crucial role to play kinesthetic (which may be of particular use
for some physically demanding jobs),
in the design and delivery of provision— spatial, interpersonal (for example, working
demand-responsive employability program- effectively with others), intrapersonal (the
mes and intermediate labour market pro- capacity to understand oneself, to appreciate
jects have proved highly effective, both in one’s feelings, fears and motivations) and nat-
offering training that is relevant and in uralist intelligence (the ability to discriminate
among living things as well as sensitivity to
providing participants with positive and other features of the natural world).
sustainable outcomes. However, there remains
a need for local and national policy-makers
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