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Developing career management competencies among undergraduates and the role of work-integrated learning

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Abstract

This paper explores undergraduate capabilities in career self-management and the influence of work-integrated learning (WIL). Career management competencies are an important aspect of individual employability and impact on wellbeing, graduate job attainment and long-term career success. Enhanced competencies among graduates can assist Faculty in achieving strong employment outcomes and support industry partners who wish to employ graduates able to self-manage their career pathways effectively amid flatter organisational structures and greater employee mobility. Our findings indicate that business undergraduates at one UK and one Australian university consider themselves reasonably proficient in career self-management yet variations exist across the different dimensions of self-awareness, opportunity awareness, decision-making learning and transition learning. Participation in work placements and study and employment characteristics influenced certain elements of career self-management. Our study highlights the importance of nurturing career management competencies in undergraduates and we discuss strategies, particularly in relation to WIL, which may promote effective career self-management.
Developing career management competencies among undergraduates and the role of
work-integrated learning
Abstract
This paper explores undergraduate capabilities in career self-management and the influence
of work-integrated learning (WIL). Career management competencies are an important aspect
of individual employability and impact on wellbeing, graduate job attainment and long-term
career success. Enhanced competencies among graduates can assist Faculty in achieving
strong employment outcomes and support industry partners who wish to employ graduates
able to self-manage their career pathways effectively amid flatter organisational structures
and greater employee mobility. Our findings indicate that business undergraduates at one UK
and one Australian university consider themselves reasonably proficient in career self-
management yet variations exist across the different dimensions of self-awareness,
opportunity awareness, decision-making learning and transition learning. Participation in
work placements and study and employment characteristics influenced certain elements of
career self-management. Our study highlights the importance of nurturing career
management competencies in undergraduates and we discuss strategies, particularly in
relation to WIL, which may promote effective career self-management.
Keywords
Career management competencies; work-integrated learning; employability; employment.
Amid continued economic uncertainty and a highly competitive labour market (Ross 2012;
Tomlinson 2012), strategies for developing employable graduates are of significant
importance to higher education (HE) providers worldwide. Graduate employability is a
multifaceted concept consisting of a range of individual attributes, including disciplinary
expertise, non-technical skills, and life and work experience (Dacre Pool and Sewell 2007).
Approaches to producing employable graduates have typically emphasised the development
of non-technical skills (Holmes 2013), such as communication, self-management, self-
awareness and problem solving (Australian Association of Graduate Employers [AAGE]
2013). However, the changing nature of graduate careers, reflecting trends in organisational
restructuring and the emphasis on individual responsibility for career management (Jain and
Jain 2013), have acted to shape what constitutes a work-ready graduate and increases the
pressure on HE providers to produce graduates who are both adequately skilled and adept at
making informed career choices, navigating a range of job opportunities and articulating their
strengths and abilities (Coetzee and Beukes 2010). University-wide efforts in fostering
graduate employability must therefore extend to the development of career management
competencies.
Career management competencies span the formulation of informed career goals, labour
market understanding, job search skills, the identification of relevant learning opportunities
(Bridgstock 2009; Eby, Butts, and Lockwood 2003; King 2004) and professional networking
(see de Janasz and Forret 2008; Gerard, 2012). For undergraduates, proficiency in career
management enhances self-efficacy (Raelin et al. 2011), encouraging individuals to
understand the expectations of their chosen profession and to identify employment pathways
early in their career (Watts 2006). Such capabilities underpin lifelong learning to develop and
maintain employability among graduates (see Berdrow and Evers 2011) and are likely to
enhance graduate employment prospects (Purcell et al. 2013).
However, career management competencies remain under-explored among undergraduates in
respect of their precise nature, extent of development and determinants (Watts 2006).
Enhancing current understanding will assist in identifying areas where undergraduates are
less proficient and inform strategies for their development, an imperative given the
documented gaps in graduate mastery of such competencies (Bridgstock 2009; Laker and
Laker 2007).
Watts (2005) suggests that the development of career management competencies in HE is not
adequately harnessed with concerns surrounding the extent to which existing approaches
engage students (Stevenson and Clegg 2011). Work-integrated learning (WIL) has been
considered as an alternative, or complementary, platform for the successful development of
career management competencies (see, for example, Pegg et al. 2012; Watts 2006). WIL
represents the intersection of theoretical and practice learning (Orrell 2011) and is a
prominent aspect of the interface between university and industry. Also referred to as
experiential learning, cooperative education and work-based learning, it exists in many forms,
including practicums, fieldwork, placements, internships and client-based projects. Within
HE, WIL provides students with an opportunity to integrate academic learning with ‘real-
world’ experience and encourages both industry feedback on individual capability and self-
reflection (see Smith 2012). It can, therefore, aid in developing student’s awareness of the
labour market and possible career pathways, as well as providing the necessary exposure to a
relevant work setting to facilitate informed career choices (Usher 2012).
We sought to develop current understanding by addressing three research objectives: (i) to
gauge the extent of career management competencies among undergraduates; (ii) to evaluate
the role of WIL in the development of undergraduate career management competencies; and
(iii) to assess the variation in career management competencies by individual characteristics.
We addressed the research objectives using data collected from business undergraduates
studying in two different universities, one based in the UK (N=136) and the other Australia
(N=344). Participation in WIL, for the purpose of this study, is the completion of a work
placement as part of a student’s academic studies. We have structured the article to first
provide a background review of relevant literature on career self-management, with a focus
on undergraduates and new graduates. We follow this with an outline of the study’s
methodology, presentation of the results and then discuss implications of the findings for
practitioners.
Background
What are career management competencies?
Career management encompasses career planning - the identification of career goals and
pathways for achieving them - and career development - the acquisition of skills and
competencies to achieve one’s aspirations (see Ayranci and Oge 2011). Smith et al. (2009)
highlight the continuous nature of career management with individuals progressing through
cyclical stages of self-awareness and resolution of career-related issues. Career management
competencies are, therefore, inextricably linked with professional development planning
(Watts 2006), with self-reflection being integral to the successful development of both (Pegg
et al. 2012).
There are a range of conceptual frameworks summarising the competencies considered
important for self-managing one’s career. An established and widely used model (Watts 2006)
is DOTS (Peterson, Sampson, and Reardon 1991) which underpins much of career
management provision in HE providers (Evans 2008). The model comprises four dimensions:
development of decision-making skills; opportunity awareness; transition learningsuch as
job-search skills and self-awareness. Later, King (2004) developed a framework of career
management competencies that comprised positioning, influence and boundary management
behaviours, the development of which ensures individuals have the necessary contacts, skills
and experience for their chosen career. Hawkins and Winter’s (1995) framework highlights
self-awareness, self-promotion, access to opportunities, action planning, networking, decision
making, negotiation, political awareness, coping with uncertainty, development focus and
transfer skills.
More recent literature emphasises establishing informed career goals and understanding local
labour market conditions (Eby et al. 2003). Bridgstock (2009), for example, presents a model
of graduate employability which highlights the importance of developing career management
in undergraduates, including capabilities in labour market analysis, identifying work and
learning opportunities, negotiating recruitment processes and professional networking.
Akkermans, Brenninkmeijer et al. (2013) empirically validated six constructs of career
competencies: reflection on motivation, self-profiling, work exploration, reflection on
qualities, networking and career control. In Australia, the national Blueprint for Career
Development framework was introduced to underpin career development programs and
comprises 11 competencies across personal management, learning and work exploration and
career building (see Hooley et al. 2013).
The importance of career management competencies
On an individual level, career management helps to develop understanding of career options
(Miller and Liciardi 2003) and encourages reflection on career choices and pathway
(Greenbank 2011). Drawing on the work of Holmes (2001), career management capabilities
also contribute to the development of one’s identity, as ‘… the type of work we do determines
our social standing and status’ (Evans 2008, 47). In the long term, there is evidence that
career management competencies positively influence employee wellbeing, self-efficacy,
goal achievement, resilience, personal growth and work-engagement (Akkermans, Schaufeli
et al. 2013). Adamson, Doherty and Viney (1998) stressed the relationship between effective
career self-management and ‘the continuous construction and maintenance of a healthy self-
concept, congruent with individuals’ changing strengths and weaknesses, shifting beliefs and
attitudes and future aspirations’ (257).
There is broad acknowledgement and documented evidence that career management
influences individual employability (Potgieter 2012; Raemdonck et al. 2011) and ‘how the
individual perceives his or her opportunities in the labour market’ (Berntson and Marklund
2007, 281). There is evidence, although Bridgstock (2009) argues somewhat limited, that
skills in accessing and using relevant information on career roles, job applications and labour
markets will positively impact on employment outcomes (Krug and Rebien 2011; Pegg et al.
2012). Increasingly competitive graduate labour markets (Association of Graduate Recruiters
[AGR] 2013; AAGE 2013; Accenture 2013; Purcell et al. 2013), and developing patterns of
global student mobility, (International Education Association for Australia [IEAA] 2012)
mean that effective career self-management has become ever more critical for graduate career
success (Segers and Inceoglu 2012).
Career management competency is also important for long-term career progression. In the
context of increasingly complex and fragmented career paths (see Akkermans, Schaufeli et al.
2013) and a focus on career self-reliance (see Smith and Kruger 2008), career management
skills are required to generate and maintain career momentum, reduce the likelihood of poor
person-job fit (Heaton et al. 2008) and enable personal development (Whitelaw 2010).
Furthermore, Bridgstock (2009) summarises a number of broader economic benefits
associated with effective career management including improved productivity, lower
unemployment and reduced healthcare costs and crime rates from higher earnings. This
discussion highlights the importance of our first research objective, to gauge the extent of
career management competencies among undergraduates.
Development of career management competencies
The development of career management competencies in HE, often referred to as ‘career
development learning’, can be structured as university-wide generic modules, customised
units for certain schools or faculties or more bespoke options for particular programs or
courses (Watts 2006). The need to infuse career management learning across the disciplinary
curriculum, and early, is echoed by many (Bridgstock 2009; Pegg et al. 2012) and Greenbank
(2011) argues provision should be student-centred and facilitative of effective decision-
making rather than advising students what choices to make. Stand-alone, extra-curricular
initiatives, such as career fairs or seminars, can be delivered at key stages of study and target
certain groups yet their irregularity and isolation from course curriculum limit their
contribution to career readiness (Sultana 2012). Early intervention is particularly important
as graduate recruiters shift talent acquisition strategies towards first and second year
undergraduates, aiming to capture ‘elite’ students (Isherwood 2014) through internship and
vacation programs.
Pegg et al. (2012), in their review of careers service provision in the UK, concluded that
interaction among career experts and those responsible for the design and delivery of
academic content is critical to enhancing graduate employability. Benson, Morgan, and
Filippaios (2014) consider the role of social media in cultivating career management among
students, while AGCAS (2005) provide a useful review of suitable teaching and learning
methods such as ‘buzz-group’ discussions, personal skill audits, role play scenarios and peer
reviews of resumes. Sultana’s (2012) summary of career management learning in Europe
indicated assessment was largely informal, formative and multi-modal. Interviews, self-
assessment and competency assessment – including action planning – were popular, and there
was extensive use of portfolios. The use of portfolios for self-reflection is strongly supported
and is considered critical for self-awareness and the effective articulation of experience and
capabilities to potential employers, particularly in non-technical skills (Berdrow and Evers
2011). Recent discussions of alternative approaches focus on the use of library services
(Davey and Tucker 2011) case studies and lectures (Greenbank 2011) and embedded units or
modules (see Evans 2008).
Unsurprisingly, employers are concerned with graduate career management competencies
(Bridgstock 2009) amid evidence that undergraduates are failing to ‘adopt a practical,
proactive approach to their careers’ (McKeown and Lindorff 2011, 311) and are not
adequately engaging with career management activities (see Brown and Hesketh 2004;
Greenbank and Hepworth 2008). Sagdic and Demirkaya (2009) cite a range of studies which
suggest that many young people are not adequately planning their careers, particularly
students from lower socio-economic backgrounds (Greenbank and Hepworth 2008),
increasing the likelihood of poor employment outcomes upon graduation (Ayranci and Oge
2011).
Undergraduate failure to adequately engage in career development activities may partly be
attributed to ignorance. McKeown and Lindorff (2011) highlight the disparity between
graduates’ labour market expectations and what they term ‘job search realities’, with many
undergraduates expecting a ‘good job’ upon graduation and being unprepared for extensive
job searches and the anxiety associated with ongoing career self-management (Perrone and
Vickers 2003). However, this lack of preparedness cannot be solely attributed to a lack of
student engagement. Many commentators believe existing career management provision in
HE is not providing students with the necessary strategies or capabilities to meet employer
expectations (McKeown and Lindorff 2011; Ng and Burke 2006; Pegg et al. 2012). Despite
provision evolving from lengthy, individual guidance interviews to more bite-sized
interventions that are wider in scope, such initiatives are criticised as continuing to focus on
short-term employment outcomes (see Watts 2006). Further, these services most often assist
those who least need guidance with lower levels of take up among widening participation,
mature and part-time students (Stevenson and Clegg 2011).
Role of WIL
Watts (2006) argues problem-based, active and student-centred learning are essential to the
effective development of career management competencies, in addition to an authentic
context that facilitates the simulation of work-related activities. Hooley (2013) notes that
instead of being concerned with when career management is learned during undergraduate
study, rather the focus should be on where and in what context. Smith et al. (2009) advocate
WIL as a valuable tool for nurturing reflection and planning while Raelin et al. (2011) posits
enhanced career self-efficacy from such opportunities. The importance of employers’ input
into the development and assessment of career management competencies, to add realism and
credibility to content, is acknowledged by many (Bridgstock 2009; Gunn and Kaffman 2011;
Jackson 2014).
The focus of much WIL is the enhancement of work-readiness through developing non-
technical attributes such as self-efficacy and effective teamworking (see McIlveen et al. 2011;
Smith and Worsfold 2013), rather than disciplinary knowledge and skills (Usher 2012). WIL
also acts to enhance students’ understanding of the expected skills and task performance of
specific job roles (see Jackson 2014), empowers effective career decision-making and
facilitates successful networking in one’s chosen field (Bourner and Millican 2011).
Barriers remain, however, to the effective use of WIL to develop career management
competencies. For instance, there is confusion over the different terminology applied to WIL
and the different forms it can take, inhibiting stakeholder understanding of its value (Maertz,
Stoeberl, and Marks 2014). Cleary et al. (2013) also highlight the potential lack of managerial
support in the workplace that may be problematic for career development. The potential
influence of WIL prompts our second research objective, an evaluation of the role of WIL in
developing undergraduate career management competencies.
Variations in career management competencies
Demographic influence on the development of career management competencies is under
explored (Jain and Jain 2013), particularly for groups other than established professionals and
managers (Zhang 2010). This prompts our third research objective, to assess variation in
career management competencies by individual characteristics. Extant studies suggest
contradictory evidence for the influence of age on career management competencies (see
Gerber et al. 2009; Zhang 2010; Creed, Prideaux, and Patton 2005; Kujpers and Meijers
2012) and those that explore the influence of gender are typically focused on career success
and career orientation (see, for, example Ashby and Schoon 2010; Gerber et al. 2009).
Kuijpers and Meijers (2012) found that men were more competent in career exploration and
networking. Patton, Bartrum, and Creed (2004) suggest, however, that women are more adept
at making career choices yet men are more certain of their decisions.
Alongside demography, we believe educational characteristics are likely to be significant in
the development of career management competency, consistent with Kuijpers and Meijers
(2012) who report the influence of both degree specialisation and stage of study. Elevated
perceptions of capabilities in career management competencies are, therefore, expected
among those more advanced in their studies, assuming exposure to opportunities to develop
such capability. We also believe the influence of employment status is worthy of
investigation.
Method
Participants
The sample comprises business undergraduates from vocationally-focused universities in the
UK (N=136) and Australia (N=344). The countries were selected on the basis of their explicit
attention to developing student employability and the similarities in their labour market
contexts. These include a broad acceptance among educators, government and industry that
individual employability contributes to economic wellbeing and that multiple stakeholders
are responsible for preparing graduates for employment. Further, both countries, at the time
of the survey, were experiencing similar labour market conditions with relatively high levels
of graduate unemployment and underemployment (GCA, 2014; UKCES, 2015).
Participant characteristics are summarised in Table 1. An independent samples t-test reported
a significant difference in the average age of Australian students (M=26.5, SD=8.1) and UK
students (M=21.8, SD=3.3); t(478)=6.55, p<0.001. The higher proportion of mature-age
students in the Australian university may be due to the choice of entry pathways into the
university. There were relatively fewer women in the UK sample and a greater proportion of
students in their final year of study. Variations exist in degree specialisation across the two
samples and more Australian students were currently working although there were similar
trends in the distribution of part-time and full-time status.
Relatively more UK students completed work placements as part of their studies under the
‘thick’ sandwich degree model whereby two years of study is followed by one year of full-
time work in industry, before returning to university for their final year (in contrast to a ‘thin’
format where one year’s work experience is structured into multiple placements). Students
are ultimately responsible for securing their own one-year placements although support is
provided by the university for advertising and guiding students to suitable opportunities. The
Australian students complete shorter placements on a full or part-time basis over a 16-week
period. Placements are organised by a dedicated WIL team within the Faculty.
[Table 1 near here]
Procedures
We gathered data on the career management competencies of business undergraduates at two
universities through self-assessment in an online survey. We invited participation from
students by email and/or via announcements on the universities’ virtual learning management
system, between April and June 2014.
Measures
Survey participants were asked to report on their age, gender, degree major, stage of study,
current employment status and whether they participated in a work placement as part of their
undergraduate program. While we acknowledge that WIL is an umbrella term encompassing
a range of on and off-campus activities that integrate theory with practice (Patrick et al.
2009), we chose to measure WIL for practical purposes as the completion of a work
placement.
We selected the DOTS career management framework for measuring career management
competencies due to its concise nature, widespread use and suitability for the undergraduate
cohort (Smith et al. 2009). The model is also considered valuable in assessing WIL
experiences in regard to career management learning (Reddan and Rauchle 2012). McIlveen
et al. (2011), who studied the perceived relationship between career development learning
and WIL, argue the DOTS model ‘clearly and simply captured student-related issues
pertaining to the world-of-work, self-reflection, and transferability across learning and
employment settings’ (6). Twenty-one items were used to measure DOTS’ four dimensions of
self-awareness, opportunity awareness, decision-making learning and transition learning.
These items have been used in previous empirical studies that assess career development
learning among undergraduates (see, for example, Dacre-Pool, Qualter, and Sewell 2014;
McIlveen et al. 2011; Reddan and Rauchle 2012). We asked participants to rate their
capabilities in each item on a five-point scale, ranging from ‘very poor’ to ‘very good’. In
addition, we asked respondents to indicate, on a scale of one (‘no development’) to five (high
level of development’), the extent to which each item was enhanced during their work
placement. Finally, we asked respondents to consider which aspects of their work placement
helped develop their career management competencies the most and to outline any barriers to
their development. Both were optional, open-ended response questions.
Analysis
Items measuring the four dimensions of career management competency and the associated
Cronbach alpha values are presented in Table 2. The values, each exceeding the widely
accepted threshold value of .70, confirm internal consistency among the constituent
items/elements and their reliability as an accurate measure of that particular dimension.
Correlations between the different items were computed to assess construct validity for each
of the four dimensions. Values ranged from .65 to .89, indicating the elements for a particular
dimension are measuring the same facet of career management.
[Table 2 near here]
We then conducted a descriptive analysis of career management competencies among the
undergraduate sample (N=480), followed by an evaluation of the variations in the four career
management dimensions for the combined sample using MANOVA. We analysed the ratings
assigned to the development of career management competencies during placement using
descriptive techniques at both item and dimension level. Analysis was conducted using SPSS
22.0. Finally, we completed a thematic analysis and coding at an individual response level of
the open responses relating to aspects of work placements that assisted and hindered their
development of career management competencies. This analysis was conducted using Excel.
One hundred and four responses were gathered and analysed from the 110 students across the
sample who had completed a work placement.
Results
Career management competencies among undergraduates
The means and standard deviations of the four dimensions, and their constituent elements, are
presented in Table 2 for the UK, Australian and combined samples. Average ratings were
broadly similar among the UK and Australian students for self-awareness, opportunity
awareness and transition learning. For the combined sample, self-awareness achieved the
highest mean rating of 4.01, indicating that respondents – on averageconsider themselves
reasonably adept at identifying the knowledge and skills acquired during their degree and
understanding their personal qualities, strengths and weaknesses in relation to employment.
They also embrace reflection and, overall, appear to recognise the importance of self-
awareness. In contrast, respondents reported capabilities only marginally above average for
opportunity awareness with a mean rating of 3.54. This was the weakest element of career
management competencies for both samples. Respondents report limited knowledge of
general trends in graduate employment, opportunities in their own prospective field of
employment and the requirements of graduate recruiters. They reported limited understanding
of degree-related career options.
Students performed marginally better in transition learning with a mean rating of 3.77.
Analysing transition learning at an item level would suggest that students perform better
during the actual selection process such as varying their self-presentation and conducting
interviews – than the stage of actually seeking vacancies and identifying suitable
opportunities. Accordingly, student scores for using relevant vacancy information and
understanding effective opportunity-search strategies was relatively weak with mean ratings
of 3.47 and 3.64 respectively.
For decision-making learning, independent samples t-test indicated the Australian students
rated themselves more highly than their UK counterparts (t(478)=3.37, p=0.001) for all six
items. Across both samples, students rated themselves more highly on evaluating how their
personal priorities may impact upon future career options and relating self-awareness to
knowledge of different opportunities, consistent with the reasonably high levels of self-
awareness previously reported. Respondents were, however, less equipped with tactics for
managing the role of chance in career development.
Influence of individual characteristics
A series of MANOVAs was conducted for the combined sample to detect any variations in
ratings for self-awareness, opportunity awareness and transition learning for individual
characteristics. ANOVA was conducted for decision-making learning at an individual
sample level, given the different competency ratings among Australian and UK
students. A significant MANOVA (α=.05) variation in competency ratings was reported
for degree specialisation, Λ=.894, F(24, 1640.844)=2.240, p=.001, partial η2=.028.
Univariate ANOVA, with a Bonferroni correction (α=.013), indicated a significant
effect for degree specialisation on transition learning, F(6, 473)=3.549, p=.002, partial
η2=.043. Tukey post-hoc analysis (α=.05) found HRM students reporting significantly
higher levels than those in Marketing (p=.006), Finance/Accounting (p=.003),
Management (p=.032) and those in the Other grouping (p=.005).
A significant MANOVA interaction was reported for stage of degree, Λ=.962, F(8, 948)
=2.307, p=.019, partial η2=.019 although there was no evidence of a significant ANOVA
effects. A significant MANOVA was reported for employment status, Λ=.947, F(12,
1251.732)=2.168, p=.011, partial η2=.018 with univariate analysis (α=.013) reporting a
significant effect for opportunity awareness, F(2, 477)=4.980, p=.007, partial η2=.020. Tukey
post-hoc analysis suggested that those working part-time typically achieved higher ratings
than both those not working (p=.035) and those working on a full-time basis (p=.050). Cohen
(1988) provides benchmarks for effect sizes using partial eta squared whereby .0099 indicates
a small effect, 0.0588 a medium effect and 0.1379 a large effect. The significant effects
reported for the influence of certain individual characteristics on competency ratings are
therefore small to medium.
Influence of WIL
A significant MANOVA (α=.05) interaction was detected in competency ratings by
participation in a work placement, Λ=.939, F(4, 475)=7.710, p=.000, partial η2=.061.
Significant ANOVAs = .013) were reported for self-awareness, F(1, 478)=16.377,
p=.000, partial η2=.033 and transition learning, F(1, 478)=7.389, p=.007, partial
η2=.015. Again, following Cohen (1988), the effect sizes are small to medium.
Comparative mean analysis indicated that, contrary to expectations, those not
completing placements achieved significantly higher (p=.000) mean ratings for self-
awareness (4.06) than those who did (3.84). Similarly, non-placement students achieved
higher ratings for transition learning (p=.007), 3.81 in contrast to 3.63. In the Australian
sample, independent samples t-test indicated that placement students also achieved
significantly lower ratings for decision-making learning (t(342)=-3.266, p=0.001)
although this was not apparent in the UK sample.
We conducted further contingency analysis to investigate any mediating effect for
employment status on ratings among placement/non-placement students. As suspected,
filtering out those who were currently working in a full or part-time capacity produced a very
different effect. The mean rating for all four dimensions of career self-management for those
completing placements was higher than those who did not, although only significantly so
(p=.012) for decision-making learning (those completing placements achieved a mean rating
of 3.87 in comparison to 3.44). It appears, therefore, that current employment status seems to
wash out any positive effect of the work placement on certain career management
competencies.
Development of career management competencies
With regard to the extent to which the different career management competencies were
developed during work placements, the mean ratings for each dimension and their
constituent elements – are presented in Table 2 for the UK, Australian and combined samples.
The pattern of ratings is broadly similar across the UK and Australian samples with no
significant variations in the mean ratings for the four dimensions. Completing a work
placement appeared to offer a reasonable opportunity for developing the four dimensions of
career self-management. More specifically, students typically felt work placements were
extremely useful for developing their ability to identify strengths and weaknesses and areas
for future development. In addition, the data show relatively high ratings for placements’ role
in helping the student identify their interests, values and personality in the context of
vocational and life planning. In contrast, placements assisted them less in developing a self-
reflective stance and synthesising their attributes. Reasonably high ratings were also achieved
for opportunity awareness, decision-making learning and transition learning, suggesting work
placements constitute overall a useful tool for cultivating career self-management
capabilities. Inevitably, less evident was the capacity of placements to develop opportunity-
search strategies among students, to improve understanding of general trends in graduate
employment and career options, and more efficient use of vacancy information.
Aspects of placements most benefiting learning
Using accepted approaches to narrative analysis (see Mishler 1990), inductive coding and
thematic analysis of qualitative responses was undertaken to identify aspects of the
work placement that respondents reported contributing to the development of career
management competencies. Our analysis identified six common themes in individual
responses. First, many identified the development of self-awareness and of a better
understanding of the skills required in their intended profession, their capability ‘gaps’
and where their personal strengths lie. One stated, ‘the ability to talk with people that
employ others to find out what skills are required helped me greatly’. Another found by
the end of the placement they were better able to ‘synthesise one’s key strengths, goals
and motivations into a rounded personal profile’. Interestingly, several students noted
that the recruitment process for their placement (whether employer-based or mediated
via the university) helped to highlight what attributes employers desire in candidates. A
number of respondents noted the quality and volume of constructive feedback, which
often extended beyond that provided at university, was invaluable to deciphering their
personal weaknesses and areas for improvement.
Second, many cited the mere exposure to working first-hand in their chosen profession as
invaluable to their career planning skills and in providing insight into the realities of the
industry. Third, working alongside established professionals allowed them to learn through
listening and interaction, as well as the guidance and mentoring they received. Two students
commented on what they learned from watching professionals promote themselves in their
careers among their peers and colleagues. Fourth, many felt the placement experience had
enhanced their confidence in their own capabilities to perform at the required level. One
stated, ‘[the] placement has helped me push boundaries to make me more confident in my
abilities and see where I can progress to’. Several believed they had progressed with career
planning: ‘it allowed me to gain a thorough understanding of what path I need to take’.
Finally, many felt the placement helped them learn about networking and also provided them
with opportunities to improve their own networks, gaining ‘first-hand experience in meeting
existing clients/partners and interacting with potential new partners/contacts for future
employer prospects’.
Our thematic analysis also identified six main barriers to developing career management
competencies during work placement. The first was a lack of exposure to their chosen
profession through poor placement design. Some students reported work placements that
were too short (for instance, a placement of one hundred hours), were based in work areas
unrelated to their degree specialisation or were spent working in isolation from the rest of the
department. A second barrier was a lack of mentoring and guidance. Some students found
managers unsupportive of the placement process or the assigned mentor lacked knowledge of
their targeted profession. A small number commented on the lack of formal training given in
the workplace and they felt there was a heavy reliance on learning by themselves and through
their own mistakes.
Certain individual characteristics inhibited the development of career management
competencies. Younger students noted the age gap with members of staff contributed to a lack
of trust in their judgment and those with weaker English language skills reported likewise.
One student noted that diversity, in general, acted to create misunderstanding that, in turn,
inhibited learning. Several commented on the importance of communication and confidence
in personal development during the placement. Finally, host organisation type appeared to
influence the development of career management with larger organisations facilitating
rotation across different areas, highly beneficial for broadening a student’s understanding of
their intended profession, and providing a wider range of opportunities for involvement. As
an aside, many students spoke about their inability to ‘shine’ during the placement due to
their lack of responsibility and control over the work undertaken, a situation aggravated on
short placements.
Discussion/Implications
Our data show that while business undergraduates differentially rate themselves on their
possession of particular career management competencies, the pattern is broadly similar
across the UK and Australian samples. On average, students perceive their competency in
opportunity awareness relatively lower than decision-making and transition learning while
self-awareness is relatively high among all students. The Australian students rate themselves
as more competent in decision-making learning the ability to develop and adapt career
plans in the context of personal priorities - may be due to their more mature age profile rather
than differences in the curriculum.
Work placements appear to offer a sound platform for developing self-awareness among
students, consistent with previous studies exploring the value of WIL (Jackson 2013). WIL
also appears to positively impact on the development of opportunity awareness, decision-
making learning and transition learning. An area of weaker development among WIL students
was nurturing opportunity-search strategies and a broader understanding of the graduate
labour market. Overall, the data suggests that, particularly in the absence of concurrent part-
time or full-time employment, students benefit from work placements in the development of
career management competencies. This is consistent with the findings of Kuijpers and
Meiers (2011) who report that a ‘career-oriented learning environment’ that stimulates the
development and application of career competencies is one in which students have the
opportunity to obtain real-life work experience. That work experience per se appears to
contribute to greater possession of career management competencies, whether integrated into
a program of study or not, reinforces the value of all employment to student and graduate
employability. Exploration of the precise influence of different types of work experience
including whether part or full time, related to academic study, and at varying levels of
seniority – is an area for further consideration.
The implications of this data for HE institutions are twofold. First, they reinforce the
imperative to expand opportunities for WIL across the student population. Within the sample,
respondents experience a range of forms of WIL from yearlong industrial placements to
shorter, less intensive periods of work experience. That the data from both cohorts indicate
the influence of WIL on the development of critical career management competencies
suggests the value of diverse forms of WIL. This supports evidence (for example, Jain and
Jain 2013; Wilton 2012) for the positive impact of WIL for the development of critical
employment-related capabilities and attributes. It also adds nuance to the issue of exactly
how WIL contributes to employability. As such, HE providers need to be proactive in
promoting and securing employment opportunities for students, particularly among those
social groups that continue to experience disadvantage in the graduate labour market and in
those subject areas where WIL has historically been less commonplace.
Second, the data indicates that WIL is not a panacea for the development of such
competencies. The data shows that development is not uniform across competencies and,
notably for the development of career-search strategies and labour market understanding, HE
providers have a critical role in situating work experience within the broader environment in
which such capabilities are enacted. WIL is reported by respondents to clearly have an impact
on ‘inward-focused’ competencies, yet, not surprisingly, a lesser impact on ‘outward-focused’
contextualisation of experience. As such, universities have a critical role to play before,
during and after WIL activities to place experience in its broader context through individual
counselling, provision of relevant information and group briefings. This is likely not only to
ensure students possess a better understanding of the graduate labour market, both in general
and relating to specific sectors or occupations, but also to improve their preparedness for, and
confidence during, selection processes. The development of contextual understanding should
begin at the outset of study so that subsequent WIL can be used to prompt reflection upon
career intentions and to shape the development of career development strategies.
This represents one way in which WIL programs should be scaffolded and integrated into
course curriculum with coordinators ensuring workplace learning and activities complement
disciplinary-based offerings. This can further be achieved by paying close attention to the
order in which units are taken to ensure students gain the most from their WIL experience,
through applying relevant knowledge in that particular aspect of their discipline, and are able
to translate their learning into academic units subsequent to their experience. Similarly,
campus-based WIL models for enhancing career development among students can
complement work experience. Here, students engage with industry and develop an insight
into their intended profession through activities such as simulations, role modelling and
client-based projects outside of the workplace.
For employers, the key message from the data is that, in order to best address their own
criticisms of the graduate labour supply, recruiters should proactively provide opportunities
for students to develop career management and related competencies through WIL. As
employers seek to secure talent and engage in non-standard ways of doing so, such as
curriculum co-design and early identification of potential recruits, then a critical means of
positively shaping prospective employees, as well as a means of screening possible applicants
for graduate posts, is to offer opportunities for work experience.
While the positive benefits of work experience during study are well rehearsed, take up
among students, certainly in the UK, remains patchy (Bullock et al. 2009). This data adds
further weight to arguments concerning work experience as being central to the enhancement
of individual employability. That current students often remain sceptical of the benefits of
WIL represents a critical challenge for HE providers, further reinforcing the need to be able
to clearly advise students of the specific benefits of work placements and the manner in
which WIL positively impacts employability. This research contributes to this discourse by
elucidating the specific areas in which WIL students are better prepared for the graduate
labour market beyond the acquisition of work-related skills and experiences (Wilton 2012).
Interestingly, that the data provides no evidence for a gender or age effect on the development
of career management competencies reinforces the perspective that work experience
represents a prime determinant of the possession of employability-related attributes and,
therefore, adds weight to the view that WIL has a role to play in overcoming traditional social
disadvantage in the graduate labour market (Wilton 2011). Further exploration of any
mediating effect of socio-economic status on the determining role of the different types of
work experience on employment outcomes would be worthwhile. The absence of a ‘stage of
study’ effect in the analysis is also worthy of note. It might be assumed that students who are
further progressed in their studies would report higher levels of competency development.
That this is not the case indicates again that work experience represents a key determinant of
attainment of such competencies. It also suggests that HE providers have work to do to
ensure the progressive development of competencies, particularly among those who do not
choose or have the opportunity to undertake WIL.
Developing career management competencies in a campus-setting, for those who participate
in WIL and those who do not, should emphasise fostering effective opportunity search
strategies. This may include enhancing student understanding and following trends in
graduate employment. One-way of achieving this is regular ‘employment seminars’ where
external stakeholders, such as employer bodies, inform students of local and national
economic trends and how these impact upon the labour market. Similarly, student
understanding of the expectations of graduate employers and how to use vacancy information
more efficiently could be facilitated through guest lectures and seminars with a range of
graduate recruiters. Introducing students to industry requirements and the latest techniques
for assessing graduate applicants against these selection criteria would be particularly useful.
Finally, broadening student thinking in relation to degree-related career options could be
achieved by encouraging students to think more innovatively about where to seek work,
beyond the traditional and highly sought after graduate programs, by emphasising the
importance of small and medium-sized businesses as graduate employers and the less
‘popular’ choices for graduate employment, such as the retail sector. Finally, assigning
academic credit for career development learning, whether embedded in study units or through
stand-alone delivery, could act to encourage student engagement with initiatives by which to
develop career management competencies.
Conclusion
This study develops our understanding of how undergraduates perform in career management
competencies and the impact of WIL on individual development of related knowledge, skills
and abilities. Whilst respondents reported reasonably proficiency in career management
competencies, particularly in the area of self-awareness, there is clear room for improvement,
particularly in their reported ability to identify suitable opportunities, understand employer
expectations and demonstrate awareness of graduate and career-specific employment trends.
Notably, respondent’s degree specialisation and employment status caused variations in
competency ratings for certain aspects of career self-management. We found participation in
work placements was also influential although this effect appeared to be washed out for those
currently in employment. Those completing work placements broadly believed them to be
useful to the development of career management competencies, particularly self-awareness.
Key areas in which WIL promoted career development learning included the ability to self-
assess work-related capabilities, insight into the realities of a profession, exposure to
guidance and mentoring by established professionals, enhanced confidence, and career
planning and networking. Impediments to the development process included a lack of
exposure to their intended profession through poor placement design, poor mentoring and
guidance, low self-esteem and poor communication.
We aimed to advance the understanding of how career management competencies are
cultivated in undergraduates through WIL. There is limited empirical analysis gauging career
management competencies among undergraduates and how best to develop them, particularly
in relation to infrastructure, funding and collaborative partnerships among relevant
stakeholders (Watts 2006). Our findings highlight the pivotal role of work placements for
career development learning and suggest a set of strategies for practitioners to enhance career
management provision and, ultimately, graduate employability. This will assist in producing
graduates more aware of career aspirations and opportunities and better able to pursue their
goals and to make informed choices, in order to more confidently transition to the graduate
labour market. This is critical given the expectation that today’s graduates will have relevant
work experience, a repertoire of key skills and notable achievements, and a clear
understanding of their career ambition (GCA 2012).
As with all studies, ours has limitations. The study only explores individual-level influences
on career management competencies and does not extend to social/cultural capital
explanations. Many, for example, acknowledge the influence of social class (Greenbank
2011), ethnicity (Kuijpers and Meijers 2012) and media, social and political climate
(Blackford 2010). We gathered self-report data, which is considered problematic by some
(Douglass, Thomson, and Zhao 2012), using a single method that may raise concerns for
common method variance (Taylor 2014). An alternative approach to gathering student
perceptions could be the objective assessment of career management competencies by career
management providers in the university setting. Also, we allow no comparative analysis of
different strategies used to develop career management competencies in undergraduates as
this study focuses on only one aspect of WIL, namely work placements. Future studies could
also explore the influential role of personality (see Gerber et al. 2009).
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Table Summary of participant characteristics
Variable Sub-group
Australia (N=344) UK (N=136) Total (N=480)
N Valid % N Valid % N
Valid
%
Age group Less than 20 years 53 15.4 13 9.6 66 13.8
20 to 24 years 138 40.1 111 81.6 249 51.9
25 to 29 years 56 16.3 5 3.7 61 12.7
30 years and over 97 28.2 7 5.1 104 21.7
Gender Male 102 29.7 62 45.6 164 34.2
Female 242 70.3 74 54.4 316 65.8
Specialisation Generalist 32 9.3 21 15.4 53 11.0
Tourism, Hospitality,
Recreation and Events 48 14.0 0 0.0 48 10.0
Marketing, Public
Relations and
Advertising
42 12.2 29 21.3 71 14.8
Human Resource
Management 58 16.9 7 5.1 65 13.5
Finance/Accounting 104 30.2 12 8.8 116 24.2
Management 43 12.5 33 24.3 76 15.8
Other 17 4.9 34 25.0 51 10.6
Stage of degree First year 73 21.2 13 9.6 86 17.9
Second year 168 48.8 26 19.1 194 40.4
Third year 103 29.9 97 71.3 200 41.7
Employment
status
Not currently working 47 13.7 39 28.7 86 17.9
Working part-time 189 54.9 60 44.1 249 51.9
Working full-time 108 31.4 37 27.2 145 30.2
WIL Work placement 58 16.9 52 38.2 110 22.9
No work placement 286 83.1 84 61.8 370 77.1
Host organisation
size
1 - 49 (small) 26 44.8 10 19.2 36 32.7
50 - 149 (medium) 7 12.1 5 9.6 12 10.9
150+ (large) 25 43.1 37 71.2 62 56.4
Host organisation
sector
Public sector 18 31.0 16 30.8 34 30.9
Private sector 29 50.0 36 69.2 65 59.1
Not-for-profit 11 19.0 0 0.0 11 10.0
Table DOTS dimensions, means and standard deviations for capability ratings
UK (N=136) Australia
(N=344)
Combined
(N=480)
Item α M SD M SD M SD
Self-awareness .81 3.98 0.52 4.02 0.51 4.01 .51
Identify knowledge, abilities and transferable skills developed by one’s degree 4.06 0.70 3.98 0.67 4.00 .68
Identify personal skills and how these can be deployed 4.15 0.67 4.15 0.64 4.15 .65
Identify one’s interests, values and personality in the context of vocational and
life planning 4.10 0.73 4.05 0.70 4.06 .71
Identify strengths and weaknesses, and areas requiring further development 3.99 0.83 4.11 0.68 4.08 .73
Develop a self-reflective stance to academic work and other activities 3.78 0.84 3.92 0.77 3.88 .79
Synthesise one’s key strengths, goals and motivations into a rounded personal
profile 3.79 .774 3.92 0.75 3.88 .76
Opportunity awareness .84 3.50 0.86 3.55 0.78 3.54 .80
Demonstrate knowledge of general trends in graduate employment and
opportunities for graduates in one’s discipline 3.48 1.02 3.54 0.87 3.53 .91
Demonstrate understanding of the requirements of graduate recruiters 3.60 1.06 3.58 0.91 3.59 .95
Demonstrate research-based knowledge of typical degree-related career options
and options in which one is interested 3.42 0.93 3.53 0.88 3.50 .90
Decision-making learning .83 3.65 0.67 3.86 0.60 3.80 .63
Identify the key elements of career decision-making, in the context of life
planning 3.57 0.91 3.83 0.83 3.76 .86
Relate self-awareness to knowledge of different opportunities 3.84 0.84 3.92 0.80 3.89 .81
Evaluate how personal priorities may impact upon future career options 3.95 0.76 4.14 0.74 4.08 .75
Devise a short/medium-term career development action plan 3.45 1.11 3.87 0.88 3.75 .97
Identify tactics for addressing the role of chance in career development 3.42 1.03 3.66 0.84 3.59 .90
Review changing plans and ideas on an ongoing basis 3.68 0.85 3.77 0.79 3.75 .81
Transition learning .83 3.69 0.65 3.80 0.62 3.77 .63
Demonstrate understanding of effective opportunity-search strategies 3.46 0.90 3.72 0.79 3.64 .83
Apply understanding of recruitment/selection methods to applications 3.85 0.96 3.88 0.88 3.87 .90
Demonstrate ability to use relevant vacancy information, including ways of
accessing unadvertised vacancies 3.40 1.06 3.50 0.96 3.47 .99
Identify challenges and obstacles to success in obtaining suitable opportunities
and strategies for addressing them 3.57 0.92 3.68 0.83 3.65 .86
Demonstrate capacity to vary self-presentation to meet requirements of specific
opportunities 3.91 0.77 4.00 0.77 3.98 .77
Demonstrate ability to present oneself effectively in selection interviews and 3.98 0.76 4.04 0.81 4.03 .80
other selection processes
36
Table Means and standard deviations for the development of DOTS dimensions during placement
UK (N=52) Australia (N=58) Combined
(N=110)
Item M SD M SD M SD
Self-awareness 3.84 0.67 3.66 0.81 3.75 .75
Identify knowledge, abilities and transferable skills developed by one’s degree 3.71 1.07 3.67 0.96 3.69 1.01
Identify personal skills and how these can be deployed 4.12 0.94 3.88 0.94 3.99 0.94
Identify one’s interests, values and personality in the context of vocational and life
planning 3.88 1.02 3.52 1.05 3.69 1.05
Identify strengths and weaknesses, and areas requiring further development 4.27 0.93 3.90 0.95 4.07 0.96
Develop a self-reflective stance to academic work and other activities 3.54 1.09 3.55 1.08 3.55 1.08
Synthesise one’s key strengths, goals and motivations into a rounded personal
profile 3.52 1.13 3.45 0.99 3.48 1.06
Opportunity awareness 3.54 0.76 3.57 0.77 3.55 .76
Demonstrate knowledge of general trends in graduate employment and opportunities
for graduates in one’s discipline 3.02 1.45 3.10 1.17 3.06 1.30
Demonstrate understanding of the requirements of graduate recruiters 3.75 1.20 3.33 1.10 3.53 1.16
Demonstrate research-based knowledge of typical degree-related career options and
options in which one is interested 3.25 1.25 3.00 1.14 3.12 1.19
Decision-making learning 3.57 0.65 3.63 0.61 3.60 .63
Identify the key elements of career decision-making, in the context of life planning 3.33 1.18 3.24 1.23 3.28 1.20
Relate self-awareness to knowledge of different opportunities 3.58 1.07 3.24 1.14 3.40 1.12
Evaluate how personal priorities may impact upon future career options 3.44 1.33 3.41 1.21 3.43 1.27
Devise a short/medium-term career development action plan 3.48 1.18 3.40 1.12 3.44 1.15
Identify tactics for addressing the role of chance in career development 2.92 1.22 3.10 1.07 3.02 1.14
Review changing plans and ideas on an ongoing basis 3.37 1.27 3.24 1.19 3.30 1.22
Transition learning 3.67 0.58 3.59 0.59 3.63 .59
Demonstrate understanding of effective opportunity-search strategies 3.06 0.98 3.07 1.18 3.06 1.09
Apply understanding of recruitment/selection methods to applications 3.58 1.30 3.26 1.19 3.41 1.25
Demonstrate ability to use relevant vacancy information, including ways of
accessing unadvertised vacancies 2.83 1.32 3.00 1.01 2.92 1.17
Identify challenges and obstacles to success in obtaining suitable opportunities and
strategies for addressing them 3.23 1.20 3.29 1.03 3.26 1.11
Demonstrate capacity to vary self-presentation to meet requirements of specific 3.56 1.23 3.60 1.09 3.58 1.15
37
opportunities
Demonstrate ability to present oneself effectively in selection interviews and other
selection processes 3.65 1.31 3.69 1.13 3.67 1.21
38
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