• Fraser Harper

Learning, Competency and Employability

As competition and markets enter education, there is growing awareness of what a student gets out of education and a career it can lead towards. So students are hunting out what can make them employable both today and into a future where employability is much more valued than just gaining employment.

Equal attention in employability is also being shown by educational establishments (schools to universities and colleges) as they seek to attract students. These demand pressures feed through to what and how students learn through course curricula.

This article explores learning, competency and employability and how they are interdependent. It concludes that there is a need for much greater alignment along the chain of personal education and development, and, in particular, to promote the ability to learn and adapt at speed.


There are a range of skills which enhance initial and personal learning development. How these learning skills are acquired vary but they can be clearly identified. In all there are 15 main learning skills which are detailed below. Mastery and demonstration of these skills goes a long way to acquiring key competencies and in turn a highly marketable set of employability skills.


Competencies, in the most general terms, are “things” that an individual must demonstrate to be effective in a job, role, function, task or duty. These “things” include job-related behaviour (what a person says or does that results in good or poor performance), motivation (how a person feels about a job, organisation, or geographic location), and technical knowledge/skills (what a person knows/ demonstrates regarding facts, technologies, a profession, procedures, a job, an organisation, etc.).

Competencies are identified through the study of jobs and roles (ref. 2). Depending on how narrow or wide competencies are defined and described results in a significant variations in the number of competencies. The 24 organisations (detailed in the chart below; 14 supply side – education; 10 – demand side – employers) the range is 4 to 62 with the biggest grouping around 8-17 (13 organisations in all). In fact, those organisations which list 40+ competencies all recommend on focusing on the top 10-12. The chart also illustrates the point that competencies also operate in a hierarchy and can be grouped into clusters (or domains).


Employability can be viewed from several perspectives each of which has their own definition. For example, employability can be seen as a measure of performance (a possible university perspective), or as a commodity (Government perspective seeing graduates as a flexible and adaptable resource for the economy). More usually employability is seen as a changing set of skills, knowledge and attributes, and where the Higher Education Academy see employability as:

A set of skills, knowledge and personal attributes that make an individual more likely to secure and be successful in their chosen occupation(s) to the benefit of themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy.

The final perspective is that of employers. Increasingly, employers are demanding skills from graduates which are outside the subject area of their course of study in higher education. Indeed, some employers have placed less importance on graduates’ actual discipline in favour of the more generic skills which they have acquired.

Competencies and Employability

When we bring core competencies and employability skills together we can clearly see the very high level of alignment and commonality. The table below captures this alignment and commonality.


How you learn individually and collectively, and then use that ability to progress and solve ‘at work problems’ is what really counts. This then also indicates the importance of how a curriculum is delivered (format, structure, location etc.) and how students are engaged (problem identification and diagnosis; working in terms; developing solutions and having an impact).


  1. Employability in higher education: what it is – what it is not. Mantz Yorke. Learning and Employability Series One. ESECT (Enhancing Student Employability Co-ordination Team). The Higher Education Academy. 2006. 24 pages

  2. Harvard University Competence Dictionary. Development Dimensions Inc. No date. 76 pages

  3. Source for the table are: Aberdeen University – both www.abdn.ac.uk/graduateattributes/ and www.abdn.com/webapps looking for Achieve: Self-Assess, Reflect and Improve; Civil Service Human Resources, Civil Service Competency Framework 2012-2017, 46 pages

#competences #employability #onet

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