We should use the term “employability” more carefully

Improving people’s “employability” has become a common objective among education and employment interventions across the globe. Yet, the precise meaning behind this term is often unclear to practitioners. In fact, there is no commonly accepted definition for “employability” in the literature, leaving ample room for contradictory interpretation across projects and making it difficult to measure success in a consistent way. Practitioners should therefore (i) specify what they mean by employability when defining project objectives (or use alternative terminology), (ii) properly identify key barriers to employability in the local context to inform their interventions, (iii) design an adequate mix of activities to address the respective constraints to employability, and (iv) adopt a credible monitoring approach to measure improvements in employability.

By Kevin Hempel | October 2022

I just returned from a regional workshop with colleagues from GIZ in Eastern Europe and Central Asia where we explored how to properly apply the concept of “employability” in employment related projects (incl. TVET, Active Labor Market Policies, Private Sector Development). Since this topic is relevant to many education and labor market practitioners, I would like to share some of my thoughts and recommendations.

Improving people’s “employability” has become a common objective among education and employment interventions across the globe. Yet, when you look more closely, there are huge differences regarding what people actually mean by “employability”. For some it is the same as skills, for others it is the same as employment (with many different interpretations in between). As a result, indicators and measurement approaches to assess improvements in employability also vary widely.

It is easy to get confused… so let’s try to clear things up a little bit.


Definitions of employability: A mixed bag

Given how frequently the term “employability” is used in our field of work, it is surprising to find that there isn’t a common definition. In fact, definitions vary immensely, and scholars have therefore criticized employability as a fuzzy concept that lacks clarity and specificity (Roemgens et al 2020). Let’s look at a few examples of definitions:

“The skills and abilities that allow you to be employed.” Cambridge Dictionary

 “The degree of adaptability an individual demonstrates in finding and keeping a job, and updating occupational skills. Relates to portable competencies and qualifications that enhance an individual’s capacity to make use of the education and training opportunities available in order to secure and retain decent work.” UNESCO UNEVOC

 “A combination of factors (such as job-specific skills and soft skills) which enable individuals to progress towards or enter into employment, stay in employment and progress during their careers. Employability depends on: 1) personal attributes (including adequacy of knowledge and skills); 2) how these personal attributes are presented on the labour market; 3) environmental and social context (incentives and opportunities offered to update and validate their knowledge and skills); and 4) the economic context.” CEDEFOP

Looking at these or other definitions, it becomes clear that they differ along two major dimensions:

1. Outcomes of interest: What does it mean when someone is employable? While some definitions are more narrowly focusing on the ability of finding a job, others take a broader and longer perspective, also considering the ability to keep a job (retention) and progress in their careers.

2. Determinants: What influences employability? Some definitions take a narrow view, focusing mainly on competences and skills. Others look at the person more broadly, also taking into account personal attributes and preferences (e.g., motivation, health, etc.). And then you have holistic definitions that do not just look at the individual, but also recognize the relevance of personal circumstances (e.g., caring responsibilities, access to support networks, etc.) and external factors (e.g., labor market conditions, employer discrimination). See Figure 1.

Figure 1: Determinants of employability

Source: Adapted from McQuaid (2005)

In my personal experience, people’s common understanding of employability often reflects narrower definitions that focus on the individual and the level of skills a person possesses. This may have a lot to do with who mainly talks about employability. Take education institutions, for instance. When they talk about the employability of graduates, they naturally refer to skills and competences, because this is what education focuses on. Similarly, when firms talk about the quality or employability of workers or potential hires, they focus on the individual as well.

That said, ignoring the role of personal and broader context can be very misleading. For instance: Take the case of a very smart and highly trained young woman who does not find a job due to caring responsibilities and the associated needs (fewer work hours, flexible schedule). Should we consider her highly employable even though she cannot find a job? Similarly, what about a highly qualified refugee who faces discrimination by employers and therefore remains jobless? Clearly, employability depends on more than just the person and his or her qualifications.

Key features of employability

Given the inconsistency across definitions, confusion about the meaning of employability among practitioners seems to be quite common. So, let’s summarize some of the key characteristics of employability for a more nuanced understanding: 

  • Not equal to “employability skills”: Employability is not the same as skills. “Employability skills” are one among many factors influencing a person’s overall employability.
  • Not the same as “employment”: Employability refers to the potential to find, keep, and progress in employment – not whether someone has a job. Hence, employability is broader than employment, manifesting itself through various influencing factors (e.g., attitudes, qualifications, networks, family circumstances) as well as in someone’s (changing) employment situation.
  • Multiple target groups and entry points: Employability matters for virtually anyone, such as students/graduates, jobseekers, and workers (wage- and self-employed). This also leads to multiple entry points for enhancing employability, including formal and non-formal education and training, active labor market policies, the workplace, the family, etc.
  • Not fully under the control of the individual: Since personal circumstances and external factors can influence people’s employability, there is only so much a person can do herself to improve her employability.
  • It is relative and context specific. There is no absolute level of employability that one needs to reach. A person may be employable enough for certain jobs, but not for others. Similarly, a person may be highly employable in one context (e.g., industry, country), but struggle in others (a common challenge for people changing career paths and for labor migrants).
  • Changes over time (dynamic): Employability is not static. It changes throughout a person’s professional life. For instance, it typically goes up after completing (quality) formal education or by having a good job that serves as a stepping stone for career advancement. At the same time, it can also go down, either during unemployment (especially if prolonged) or while being in a job where learning and professional development is limited (as skills can become obsolete). See Figure 2 for an illustrative example.

Figure 2: Employability changes over time

Having a sound understanding of employability is important because it influences how we try to enhance employability through policies and programs. For instance, if we take a narrow view of employability being the same as skills and competences, then we naturally think of education and training as areas of intervention, potentially neglecting other entry points. If, however, we adopt a broader perspective, then we may consider a wider set of approaches to enhance people’s employability, including at the level of family, employers, and labor market regulations. Similarly, if we consider the outcome of employability simply to be “finding a job”, then small, ad-hoc interventions that support job matching could be enough. But if we think of employability as a dynamic process that involves being able to manage job transitions and staying and progression in your job over time, then this may lead us to other approaches in order to prepare people accordingly and support these transitions.

Measuring employability

Given the above, measuring (changes in) people’s employability is inherently challenging. For instance, if we don’t have a clear definition, we don’t know which outcomes and determinants to look at. If it is a multidimensional concept that goes beyond skills, then it may not be realistic to measure all those dimensions with reasonable effort. And if employability changes over time, then the timing of measurement is key, and we may need multiple rounds of data collection over a longer time horizon (which is resource intensive).

So, what are our options?

Option 1: Only measure some determinants of employability (e.g., improvements in motivation, skills, networks, etc.). This approach is probably the easiest. However, it relies on the big assumption that changes at the level of determinants will translate into changes in final employment outcomes. Typically, this assumption means that this measurement approach cannot serve as a reliable proxy for employability, unless there is some credible evidence on the link between the determinant measured and the final outcomes. For instance, if a previous survey showed that employers cite the lack of soft skills as the main barrier to hiring, then showing improvements in soft skills could serve as an indicator for increased employability. Similarly, if prior tracer studies showed that beneficiaries of a training fared well in the labor market, then simply measuring the continued quality of the program (e.g., satisfaction, skills acquisition) could be a pragmatic approach to measuring employability.

Option 2: Only measure one or more final outcome(s) of interest (e.g., finding and keeping a job). Measuring final employment outcomes allows us to confirm whether people really improved their employment situation, rather than just making an assumption as under the previous option. However, employment is of course no ideal proxy for employability either. For instance, the “proportion of graduates getting a full-time job” in a given period, which has been a common indicator in higher education institutions, has been criticized by scholars as a “crude measure of employability” already 20 years ago (Harvey 2001). Not measuring intermediate outcomes such as changes in beneficiaries’ skills and behavior also misses important nuances that would be useful for learning and project management (e.g., e.g., how to improve the services offered).

Option 3: Measure selected final outcomes AND selected determinants of interest. By measuring both final and intermediate outcomes, this measurement approach sheds light on the entire causal chain and is therefore most informative. That said, it potentially requires several measurement instruments (e.g., skills test, exit form, tracer survey) and/or longer questionnaires (with different modules on e.g., job search, networks, employment status, etc.).

I have also come across projects that merely measure outputs, such as “number of people completing training”, as an indicator to claim improvements in employability. However, I am not listing this as one of the options since a pure limitation to outputs does simply not meet common monitoring and evaluation standards.

Ultimately, the choice about the measurement approach must be guided by the intended rigor, internal resources/capacity, and the project’s learning objectives. Either way, measuring employability (like most other things) requires careful M&E planning from the beginning of the project to clarify type and timing of data collection, responsibilities, and resources required. Waiting till the project is almost over to measure changes in beneficiaries’ employability is not an option.

Main take-aways

So, what are some practical conclusions we can integrate into our work?

1. Clear terminology: As practitioners, we won’t solve the ambiguity around the definition of employability. But we can be transparent in how we use it. If we choose to use “employability” as part of our project objectives, then it would be wise to clarify and document what we mean by it. Moreover, it may sometimes be better to simply use different terminology that is less ambiguous, such as concrete objectives and indicators related to, for example, improved “skills”, “job search behavior”, “access to information”, “finding employment” or “job retention”.

2. Proper diagnostic: If you accept the premise that people’s employability may be affected by multiple factors besides skills, then identifying the key bottlenecks for your target group in the local context becomes key. Do people hold unrealistic preferences about potential jobs? Are caring responsibilities a major issue? Companies’ recruitment process? Labor market conditions? Identifying key obstacles is a precondition to come up with adequate solutions. This means that a simple employer survey or skills needs analysis won’t be enough (e.g., employers won’t tell you about discrimination in the recruitment process). You need to triangulate different sources of information for a complete picture.

3. Proper mix of interventions: Based on the key barriers to employability identified for a specific target group, we must adopt an adequate package of activities. In the discussions with GIZ colleagues from several countries we noticed that many interventions had some “blind spots”. Projects typically sought to tackle the individual level (e.g., skills) and external environment (e.g., regulatory framework), but commonly lacked concrete efforts to enhance the target group’s personal environment that affects their employability (e.g., access to support networks, supportive environment to work (e.g., family), access to information).

4. Credible measurement: If you pick “improving employability” as part of your objectives, then you should be prepared to do what it takes to measure this concept in a credible way. Typically, this will require measuring a combination of intermediate and final outcomes in line with the specific intervention logic of your project. This measurement approach must be defined from the start, so that the right data collection tools (e.g., skills assessment, tracer survey, etc.) can be put in place. If resource constraints force you to (temporarily) adopt a light touch approach to measurement (e.g., limited to determinants of employability), then at least the assumptions and limitations should be made transparent.


What are your thoughts and experiences on the use of the term “employability”? I would love to hear from you.

About the author:

Kevin Hempel is the Founder and Managing Director of Prospera Consulting, a boutique consulting firm working towards stronger policies and programs to facilitate the labor market integration of disadvantaged groups. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.