What is employability?

Question mark on blackboard - what is employability?
Employability is about having strong soft skills and a professional attitude, as well as relevant qualifications. Here’s how school students can become more employable for the job market of the future.

Employability can be defined as the skills, knowledge and attitudes that help people to get a job and to move between jobs. The ‘knowledge’ aspect and job-specific skills may seem the most concrete and receive the most attention – for example in terms of what qualifications are required for a particular job. However, while it’s important for applicants to meet any specific qualification requirements for a vacancy (for example subject, level of study or grades) this isn’t ultimately what will get them hired.

Candidates’ soft skills, attitudes and experiences outside the classroom, combined with their level of research into the job and employer, are what make them stand out from others with similar qualifications. Employers’ recruitment processes typically focus on assessing these, to see what candidates can offer beyond the subjects and grades listed on their initial application. And given that the qualification requirements for many roles are fairly broad – for example a 2.1 degree in any subject, or two A levels at grade A* to C – there will often be a lot of eligible applicants.

Employability skills

Employability skills – aka transferable skills or soft skills – include the following:

  • commercial awareness
  • communication
  • teamwork
  • negotiation and persuasion
  • problem solving
  • leadership
  • organisation
  • perseverance and motivation
  • the ability to work under pressure
  • confidence.

You can find much more detail on the employability skills in this list by reading our article on the top ten skills that employers look for and how school leavers can show that they’ve got them.

Why are employability skills important? The future job market

Looking towards the job market of the future, it’s soft skills and appropriate attitudes that are likely to remain in demand, long after the market for a particular body of knowledge or technical skill has disappeared. You may have heard the term ‘fourth industrial revolution’, referring to the merging of physical and digital worlds and concurrent automisation of even relatively skilled white-collar jobs. Of course, no one knows which jobs will stay, go or emerge over the next 20 or 30 years, but it seems likely that there will still be demand for workers with very ‘human’ skills such as communication or leadership while areas such as numerical or process-driven work can be automated.

First steps to employability

The good news is that many school students will already be developing the skills they need to get hired and remain employable in a changing job market, be it through ironing out a disagreement among hockey team members or plucking up the courage to talk to prospective pupils and their parents as a student rep at a school open evening. All sorts of activities can help develop the right skills and attitudes, so, if they’re not already doing so, simply getting involved in something that interests them outside the classroom is a great first step. And reflecting on past experiences may uncover a bank of skills they didn’t know they had.

Our transferable skills lesson plan will help teachers help students to identify which skills they already possess and consider how to develop new ones. The following articles also give plenty of ideas for activities that are good for increasing employability.

Employability matters for university-bound students

Becoming employable is a pressing matter for students who want to start work straight after school rather than go to university. However, there’s no dodging the matter for those who want to get a degree first. They’ll still need to find work eventually, and would be well advised to start building their skills as soon as possible.

Some career sectors have recruitment timetables that involve students applying for internships or other forms of work experience in their first or second year of university, so they may have to draw on experiences gained while still at school on their applications. Additionally, at university they may find that it is easier to build their employability through extracurricular activities or part-time work if they already have related experience from their schooldays – for example their chances of getting onto a university sports team are likely to be higher if they’ve already trained hard in that sport while at school. And of course employability depends on similar skills and experiences to those that will impress universities on a UCAS personal statement.

Showcasing employability in apprenticeship applications and interviews

Students applying for apprenticeships or other school leaver programmes may well need to showcase their skills and other experience in the application and interview process. For example, they may be asked to provide evidence that they have the skills or attributes the employers seeks in online application forms or at interview.

Search for...

Degree Explorer

The Degree Explorer helps you plan for your future! Match your interests to university subjects and explore each recommendation to find out what suits you.

Get started

Teacher or parent?

Join our mailing list to receive monthly newsletters from our TARGETcareers and Inspiring Futures teams to help you support your school leavers in their career and university decision making.


Are you a teacher or parent?

Join our mailing list to stay up to date with new content on our site.

Join now

Register today

Sign up to access to use your dashboard and receive extra advice in your inbox

Sign up