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Closing the student employability gap

By Margot Smith FIML

Every student’s goal when completing higher education is to increase their employability. However, the reality for many is that the highly competitive job market, a lack of preparation for the workplace and a gap between leadership theory and practice, puts many students at a disadvantage despite years of education.

Coupled with this, higher education providers and employers clearly need graduates to be job-ready and equipped with the essential skills required to navigate the world of work. For education providers, it means they can improve their programs so as to deliver what students and employers really need. For employers, this increases the value they place on graduates who underwent programs which train and prepare

To that end, IML ANZ led a 12-month research project into student employability. We wanted to understand employer’s needs and the impact universities can have in teaching these competencies. Our research identified the specific skills gaps for graduates who are entering the workforce.

How we identified the gaps

We used a mixed methodology approach, with qualitative research via group discussions, roundtables and depth interviews followed by an online survey (of employers, students and IML ANZ Members) for quantitative data. In partnership with WhereTo, we collected data from more than 800 respondents between June and October 2018.

We asked the following questions:

  • What were employers’ broad expectations of graduates and the role of universities?
  • What were employers’ and students’/graduates’ expectations around leadership skills and the role of employers and universities in teaching these skills?
  • What soft skills were a potential gap for students/graduates and employees?
  • What was the value of employer/industry connections and engagement with universities?
  • What was the role and value of professional associations?
  • What were the impediments to the employability of graduates?

What we found out


According to the results, employers consider soft skills (i.e. communication, time management, effective listening) as essential for all employees. Up to 20% of employers were unsure about their employee’s leadership ability and 72% believe their organisation needs leadership skills development for new entrants.

Students share employers’ views on the need to gain leadership skills with 76% of graduates expecting this from their employer.

Unsurprisingly, 84% of employers agreed that soft skills should be integrated into all degree-level subjects to improve student employability.


Our research revealed that only 50% of employers were satisfied with the standard of graduates entering the workforce. Additionally, 55% felt graduates had unrealistic career advancement expectations. The view was that graduates were ill-equipped for the modern workforce, with little or no understanding of the complex interpersonal dynamics necessary within workplace cultures. There is a fear that students could struggle to transition from the world of theory and neatly constructed scenarios to the constraints of real-world situations.

The Institute suggests that university engagement and collaboration with industry could fill this gap. Students consider industry-based learning (IBL) and work experience as a defining factor for employment success. However, just over half the students (54%) were offered some form of IBL even though 82% said they would likely choose a university that offered it.

Students who had IBL and work experience felt that it helped them:

  • Understand how to navigate the workplace (78%)
  • Increase their confidence about entering the workforce (75%)
  • Identify their development needs (72%)


Students highly valued the idea of a mentor as they are seen to provide an insider’s view of a sector. Mentoring was also viewed as a means to ‘round out’ theory and technical skills.

Students who experienced mentoring felt that it:

  • Taught them about the professional environment (93%)
  • Highlighted personal development areas (89%)
  • Improved their employability (87%)

Unfortunately, only 36% of students surveyed had access to a mentor while at university.     

The role of professional associations is also clearly valued by students, employers and universities. Access to professional development (74%) and networking (65%) were the top reasons employees choose to become members. Interestingly, employers noted that university engagement with professional associations can play a critical role. Staying connected to the broader industry and gaining a perspective on industry dynamics, issues and needs can inform university thinking.


Employers indicated that they prefer university degrees that include professional accreditation. Seven in 10 told us that degrees should include professional accreditation from an external body to ensure they align with the standards and competencies of the profession. Nearly 70% of employers involved in hiring staff also told us that accreditation would provide graduates with a recruitment advantage.

What can we do to close the gap?

  • Universities, professional associations and employers must work together to offer industry engagement, work experience and mentoring opportunities to prepare candidates for the workforce.
  • Soft skills should be integrated into all degree subjects to improve employability and leadership potential for students.
  • Employers should consider putting career-driven employees through professional accreditation to boost individual performance and business results.

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