An Integrative Review of the Employability Literature (2005-2020): How a Simplistic and Individualistic View of Job Acquisition Inhibits Theory, Research, and Practice in Higher Education

Hora, M.T., John Fischer, J., Jang-Tucci, K., & Song, H. (2024). An integrative review of the employability literature (2005-2020): How a simplistic and individualistic view of job acquisition inhibits theory, research, and practice in higher education. Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions. University of Wisconsin–Madison, Division of Continuing Studies.

Abstract: The term “employability” (and its close cousin career readiness) is an idea that is playing an outsized role in shaping the future of global higher education in the early 21st century. In this paper the authors report findings from a critical, integrative review of the conceptual and empirical research on employability, where the primary aim was to evaluate whether recent scholarship has addressed long-standing critiques of the concept. These critiques include its tendency to be used as an ill-defined buzzword, an over-reliance on human capital theory, simplistic views on how people get jobs that over-emphasize skills and overlook structural forces, and ambiguous and/or evidence-free recommendations for campus practitioners. Thus, it is possible that a contested and poorly conceptualized and operationalized concept is driving a considerable amount of educational practice and policymaking in higher education – a hugely
problematic proposition.

The paper calls for scholars to reject the term “employability” in favor of “employment prospects,” as it underscores how job acquisition involves a complex array of both “supply” (e.g., individual student KSAs) and “demand” (e.g., labor market conditions, global pandemics) factors, and how an individuals’ prospects are not solely based on merit but are also shaped and constrained by the structural inequality. It also offers seven methodological questions that future scholars should consider when designing studies of graduates’ employment prospects: varying perspectives on causality, alternatives to human capital theory, methods for capturing multi-dimensional phenomena, the need to foreground student and worker voices and interests, how to engage in translational research, and considerations for framing research that does not solely position the purpose of higher education as a financial return on investment but also as an endeavor to benefit the common good.

Keywords: employability, higher education, career readiness, internships, skills, college-workforce transitions, labor market, workforce development, critical studies, multi-dimensional research.