Issues Magazine

Ready to Work

By Rachael Quigley

A new online resource – the Work-Ready Wiki – is helping to prepare graduates for the workforce.

Employers are increasingly looking for “renaissance” graduates – prospective employees who have mastered a diverse set of skills in addition to the body of knowledge required for their profession. They are not alone in this quest. Since the 1990s, government and professional bodies have also been calling for universities to better prepare graduates for the workforce.

Further, research conducted by the University of Technology, Sydney’s (UTS) Work-Ready Project team found while large employers perceive the importance of technical skills, professional societies believe companies make recruitment decisions based on work-ready attributes. The prevailing perception is that employers can teach technical skills, but it is “too hard” for them to teach skills such as communication, teamwork and problem-solving.

“So it raises the question: should university education focus on learning the body of knowledge of a profession? Maybe it should also be about learning the attributes in the context of a profession,” says Work-Ready Project leader and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, Andrew Litchfield. “I think that idea actually fits in very well with UTS’s professional-based, practice-based distinction and orientation.”

To this end, the Work-Ready Wiki was created. Initiated by Litchfield and Professor Tracy Taylor from the Faculty of Business, the wiki is a living, online collection of professionally-contextualised learning activities designed to assist academics to foster work-readiness in their students.

The project began in 2007 as a collaboration between the Faculty of Business and the former Faculty of Information Technology, supported by a grant from the Learning and Teaching Performance Fund. The Faculty of IT approached the project with the aim of equipping their students with work-ready skills they had traditionally acquired during a paid professional work placement year. From 2004, this learning experience ceased to be a compulsory component in the Bachelor of IT as the industry downturn made it difficult to find placements. The Faculty of Business was motivated to deliver on its mission to produce forward-thinking, work-ready graduates, part of its prestigious Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business accreditation.

The first step was to identify what work-readiness – or employability skills, graduate attributes and generic skills – actually entailed. “We interviewed all the professional societies in business and IT and found a common group of attributes: global perspectives, ethics and professionalism, communication, teamwork and problem-solving,” says Litchfield.

Also on the list of attributes developed by the project are information literacy and management, initiative, enterprise and creativity, planning and organising, research, self-management and lifelong learning, and technology literacy.

Having identified 11 work-ready attributes, the next challenge was to develop strategies for contextualising and integrating them into the curriculum. “If I asked an academic for 5 hours of their teaching time,” says Litchfield, “they’d tell me to go away. But 50 minutes is sort of manageable. You can’t learn communication in an hour – that’s absurd, but a small part, like report writing, you could learn in that time.”

This approach produced an initial matrix of generic attributes, sub-attributes, understandings and skills which was used to develop individual matrices for the different professions and disciplines involved in the project. Each matrix contains a range of contextualised work-ready learning activities. As of January 2009, the wiki contained 300 activities and it is being used in all core business subjects this year.

Designed to take 50 minutes in a tutorial or laboratory, each activity on the wiki has downloadable teaching support resources such as lecture slides, tutorial activities, case studies, handouts and readings, to assist tutors and lecturers to integrate them easily into their teaching program.

Litchfield underlines the importance of contextualising the attributes and activities to individual disciplines. “Problem-solving in law is different from problem-solving in engineering. There are actually quite different processes and knowledge that are needed to do it. And problem-solving in accountancy is again quite a unique set of understandings and skills.”

As the partnership expanded, the Work-Ready team invited a wider range of professional societies to become involved in the project and contribute their perspective. Academics are also invited to volunteer activities which the Work-Ready team contextualise for other professions.

The Work-Ready Project partners now include the Faculties of Business, Engineering and Information Technology, Law, Nursing, Midwifery and Health, and Science, the English Language Study Skills Assistance (ELSSA) Centre, the Careers Service, and the UTS Library.

In the face of diminishing attendance at their workshops, ELSSA, the Careers Service and Library believe the project offers an opportunity to engage students more effectively. “The project gave them the chance to get their expertise into the curriculum,” says Litchfield, “because students are increasingly time-poor, and time-poor students do the minimum. You can either rail and rant against that and say it’s horrible or you can try to work with it.”

He points out that work-ready attributes have traditionally been part of the “hidden curriculum”; skills that are developed incidentally, citing teamwork as the perfect example. “Although students have worked in teams throughout the 3 years of their degree, rarely has anyone taught them anything about how a team decision could best be made, negotiating what to do when someone doesn’t pull their weight – all that stuff. It can be taught and learnt, but it’s not.”

The Work-Ready Project challenges this model, providing contextualised resources to help integrate work-ready skills into individual course curricula.

First published in U: magazine, issue 2, April 2009. Reproduced with permission.