Being employable (having opportunities on both internal and external job markets) is the closest one can have to employment security in today's job market. And it is not a small ask given professional competence is becoming an increasingly hurried standard to keep up with. Chasing the technological advances in our fields is a significant part of our daily jobs, and we either keep the pace or risk being caught by obsolescence.
Companies have a large stake in this too. The vast majority of the employees planning to resign from their jobs after Covid (the so-called great resignation) are doing so because they feel their companies are not giving them the right career advancement. They have worked hard through the pandemic and feel their organizations are not holding their end of the deal. Companies need to invest time and effort in helping employees feel confident that they are not falling behind in a fast-moving world.
"Employability – in a changing world like ours – is arguably the ultimate source of sustainable competitiveness"
Breaking it down
The first use of the term employable was recorded in 1852 meaning "fit for service". The idea of employability is not new: in the 1920s, insurance companies were screening the employability of their potential clients to assess how likely it would be for them to become unable to work due to illness. Employability started being seen as a driver for individual and organizational success towards the end of the 20th century, so it is still a relatively new concept.
Some have understood employability as the development of soft skills that are translatable to any current or future profession or job. Nobel Laureate James Heckman for example, stated that workforces needed to develop both specialized technical knowledge as well as a set of broader “employability skills” needed to succeed in any job. You’ll be bored to know that these are the usual suspects of social and emotional capabilities such as communication, collaboration, or empathy. However, employability is not a set of stable characteristics but a dynamic process requiring individuals to constantly adapt to changes in the labour market.
Thought of as a dynamic process, employability does not require specific soft-skills but more of a mindset. An "employability mindset" would involve individuals having their finger on the pulse of progress and pushing themselves to keep up with it throughout their career. This can involve efforts such as continuously updating one’s knowledge to seeking stretching opportunities outside of one's professional comfort zone.
Why employability is important for individuals
We spend a third of our adult life at work, journeying in and out of jobs, teams, organizations or professions, building our professional and personal project throughout it.Work is a source of meaning and a part of who we understand ourselves to be, and in today’s volatile world, feeling employable allows us to navigate uncertainty, live with complexity and be optimistic about the career choices we make. It makes us feel confident about our professional future and helps us broaden our prospects in an increasingly liquid job market.
In the Netflix series Stay Close, main character Ray Levine confronts his friend and bar manager Fester about his career choices. Fester shields himself from the attack by saying "I have a portfolio career!". In the 80s employees relied on companies to hold their careers together. As companies proved reliable but not bullet-proof, workers moved in the 90s to build their careers around their professions: Coherency was king, and CVs were narrated as calendarized lists of jobs and companies. The increasingly ubiquitous portfolio career is a professional life that promises independence and flexibility and requires individuals to be able to market and sell themselves to employers and to buyers of their services. We no longer entrust our careers to companies or professions, but to our ability to be sufficiently broad and flexible to survive the fast-moving world ahead.
If employability is becoming the new backbone to people’s careers, it is not an easy one to keep up with. You may have heard of a friend who stepped down from a project because they could not get comfortable with the technological complexities of it. Or a colleague who switches off in meetings when the conversation turns to technology. I have seen a few, and these micro-obsolescences need to be understood as wake-up calls to anyone experiencing them (on the flip side, not ever experiencing any of these micro-obsolescences need to also trigger some alarms as it would likely mean that we are not being explorative enough, that we are not exposing ourselves enough).
Why is employability important for companies
Is it better for a company to have an employable workforce or an unemployable one? Put this way the answer is obvious, yet many times companies fear employability is an invitation for their employees to outgrow them, and they allow their retention instincts to kick in. It could be that the concept of employability has a branding issue: It may sound as if we are investing in helping people leave our companies. Companies holding back because of this understanding and retaining out of fear may find themselves managing a workforce with stagnating skills.
Employability isn’t at all about helping people leave. It is instead about modernizing the collective capability of the company. When employees gain an edge, so does the company. Understood this way, employability – in a changing world like ours – becomes arguably the ultimate source of sustainable competitiveness.
How to improve employability
Developing the employability of a workforce is not a small ask as it involves fundamentally transforming the way in which we learn and push ourselves. Here are five things I believe companies can do to encourage employability in their workforce.
1. Make employees aware of how staying at the top of their professional game has become both more critical and more challenging. Back in the 00s, we were confident that by enrolling in some form of training every three to five years we kept ahead of the curve. This is not enough today, and we now need to engage in agile, life-long learning. Awareness of this is key, as obsolescence creeps in slowly but always lands as a surprise.
2. Introduce employability of the team as a leadership responsibility. Build on the idea of employability as a sustainable edge that leaders need to seek and deliver on. Turn your leaders’ attention to what developments are happening outside of the organization.
3. Introduce employability in processes such as goal-setting or talent reviews. For example, when you set goals at the beginning of the year have your leaders and their teams ask themselves: Is working on this objective going to make me more employable at the end of the year?
4. Embed employability in your development strategy. Make development look outside more often and take risks by targeting skills and capabilities that are nascent. Get inspiration from the organizations and teams that are pushing the boundaries on your industry or profession.
5. Promote experimentation and growth. With organizations being flatter and structures being more liquid, employees can expand and contract their roles with greater ease. Take advantage of this, shift your focus off vertical promotions and into smaller, more flexible changes that allow employees to explore and test their interests, skills and passions.
Employability is not about learning, but about constant curiosity and competitive learning. It is not about finding a new job, but about having the mindset to constantly keep up with a fast-moving labour market. Companies would do well in empowering their workforce to become critical, hungry, fast-moving learners, constantly on the look for an edge. Other companies already doing so may be gaining on them. And if the word employability still gives you the creeps, call it something else and think it through again before you brush it off.