In my last post I considered the common assumption that the study of philosophy produces graduates who are less employable than those with degrees in other subjects. Although there is strong evidence to suggest that this assumption is incorrect, with philosophy graduates outstripping those with degrees in a range of more obviously vocational subjects in terms of graduate employment, I wondered if the best way to enhance the employability of philosophers (and their own perceptions of this employability) was not merely to encourage them to identify the ‘transferable skills’ which they are likely to have developed over the course of their studies. Owing to the fact there is a sense in which such a justificatory move represents an endorsement of the useful/useless discourse which pervades popular discussion about the purpose of Higher Education, I suggested that there may be another way to make philosophers employable.
Philosophising About Employability
In 2011/12 I began working as a (student) project assistant with the Careers Network at the University of Birmingham. As a doctoral research student in philosophy, I was asked to look for ways in which we could start to embed employability into my own discipline. Of course, in spite of the obvious concerns about some of the overall assumptions underpinning the employability agenda, it seemed clear that we would not be able to abandon the traditional approach (involving skills auditing & personal development planning) completely. We may acknowledge that the vision of the university as a tool to produce workers is problematic, whilst simultaneously realising that we have an educational duty to equip students with the requisite knowledge to be able to ‘play the employability game’. This duty arises from the fact that, like it or not, such knowledge will determine the extent to which graduates are able to live flourishing lives after graduation. This said, the traditional approach needn’t be old-fashioned in terms of how it is delivered and, in order to support the personal development process, our Careers Network developed an innovative online employability tool, Progress, which is now being integrated into personal tutorials, induction and transition across the University of Birmingham.
The trouble with the traditional approach however, is that it does not provide us with the tools to establish the particularity of philosophy; its uniqueness as a discipline. In order to attempt to address this challenge I introduced the idea of philosophy & employability workshops dealing with the philosophy of employability.
Through problematising the employability agenda itself; by thinking philosophically about employability and asking what it means as a concept, I reasoned that participants would begin to grasp how the discipline of philosophy informs their thinking and give them a richer perspective on their own employability. Indeed, the feedback from the students who participated in the workshop that we held implied that this was, in fact, the case. Of course, far more empirical and theoretical work needs to be done in order to validate this theory but, if I’m correct, the position may point to the conclusion that good employability practice ought to arise out of in-depth critical engagement with the most significant features of a discipline; that it should help students to answer the question “what makes you employable?” with direct reference to the unique attributes of their subject.
 It is worth noting that the concept of ‘transferable skills’ is more controversial than mainstream discussions of employability acknowledge. For an illuminating discussion of some of the key disagreements see Bridges, D. (1993) ‘Transferable skills: A philosophical perspective’, Studies in Higher Education, 18:1, 43-51.