By Dr Andrea Laczik, Head of Research, Edge Foundation, UK

Skills development in general and employability skills in particular have become buzzwords these days. Universities, colleges and training providers are often measured by their graduates’ work-readiness and how quickly they can add value to their business once employed. However, while employability is important and supports social inclusion by helping graduates into the labour market, we should think beyond employability skills and consider what other skills learners and students need for a fulfilling and independent life. 

Edge’s recent research report offers an interesting example of a new approach that focuses on developing work-ready graduates. The model that the National Software Academy (NSA) in Newport, South Wales has developed supports skills development and enhances student experiences.

At the NSA a group of students sit around discussing and sharing their prototype for a robot, which offers companionship for older people in order to tackle loneliness. Another group showcase their virtual reality headset to entertain and educate children for a local dentist’s waiting room. Yet another team of students explain how their app supports people to make up-to-date and informed decisions about public transport bus routes throughout Wales. 

These are not ideas plucked out of nowhere but real challenges that each team of software engineering students were set by their ‘clients’ – a range of businesses and companies across all kinds of sectors. From large public organisations, such as the NHS and Transport for Wales, to multinational businesses and small organisations, such as local bars in Newport. Working with the brief from their client, the teams of students have gone through a process of designing and developing ideas and prototypes, consulting with their clients, taking on feedback, before arriving at their final presentable product.

Pre-Covid, this was a regular set up for students of Cardiff University’s NSA based in Newport, South Wales. The NSA was begun in 2015 by Cardiff University in partnership with the Welsh Government and local employers. The government was acutely aware of the digital skills shortages, and employers were not satisfied with the computer science graduates that were coming into the sector. CBI (2019) found that when recruiting graduates, employers rank attitude and aptitudes for work consistently higher than any other factor - the importance of continuing to develop the broader, ‘work readiness’ skillsets that employers’ value, such as time management, team working, and problem-solving, is paramount. So, rather than make small tweaks to their existing courses, Cardiff University started from scratch to develop a new BSc in Applied Software Engineering, designed in collaboration with a range of employers. They supported the initial set up of the curriculum design and content and, to this day, continually feed into the evolving programme.

In Edge’s research employers consistently told us that graduates and students on placements ‘hit the ground running’ when entering their business and that ‘there’s a difference, a significant positive difference, between your regular computer science graduates and those coming from the NSA’. These in-demand graduates haven’t just been taught everything they need to know about computers, rather they have been equipped with a wide range of skills that are going to help them fit in and positively contribute to the workplace from day one. 

The NSA model consists of a number of different approaches to teaching and learning that support employability skills development. These include, for example, the continual cycle between theory and practice, flipped classroom approach, the presence of industry tutors within the classroom and client-based projects, and the explicitly taught skills, such as effective presentation techniques. The course gives students the chance to interact with a range of industries and employers, as well as learning how to work together effectively as a team. These approaches support the development of real-world problem-solving skills, communication skills – for both working with peers and the ‘clients’, and enhances students’ confidence. These ‘employability skills’ are also referenced in module objectives to ensure they are developed throughout the course and so that students are explicitly aware of these. Consequently, these skills are then put into practice on a regular basis in both a safe learning space with peers and a ‘live’ environment, such as with the client-facing projects.

The elements of the NSA delivery model are purposefully built into the course to specifically develop student employability. Each element has a connection to employment, employers, and the workplace. They are not unique to NSA, however their combination and intensity within the course may add to NSA’s successful outcome.  

This model of combining academic and work-related study with real world tasks set by employers has real potential to support the development of new industries and businesses.  Approaches like this can also act as a catalyst to ensure that employers are participating in and guiding the training of those they want to hire, tackling skills shortages head on and becoming part of the solution rather than just customers of the skills system.

Read the full report here.

You can hear more about this model and others at the online event: "Choose now, Pay later? How do we ensure young people around the world can make good careers choices?".