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Key Skills Framework
Enhancing employability within a lifelong learning paradigm

A working paper by the Skills Research Initiative
A prior version of this paper was accepted for presentation at the International Technology Education and Development (INTED) annual conference 2007.

Author - Aidan Kenny, Ray English, Dave Kilmartin


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Employability (see note 1) has become an area of interest among the general public and policy makers alike, with an increasing number of reports in the general media regarding the need for workers in certain sectors to up-skill due to the possible threat of job ‘displacement’. In addition, there has been an increase in education and training policy documents emphasising that citizens should pursue Lifelong Learning (see note 2) /Life Wide Learning to address the increased job-related uncertainty attributed to the globalisation process and the concomitant competitive threats. Academics such as Barnett (2005) claim that we are living in an era of ‘super complexity' (see note 3) and rapid change where even trade unions are beginning to come to terms with the notion that in the present employment climate ‘change is a given rather than an exception’. Within this framework of change, of global economics, of mobility of capital and labour, and of social flux, the Irish economy has outperformed many of her fellow European Union (EU) member states in terms of both GDP and GNP (see note 4). However, the pertinent question now posed is how will Ireland maintain this competitive advantage moving forward? While the answer to this question is multi-dimensional and complex, requiring expert input from various academics, professional bodies and other interested parties, there is nonetheless a growing acceptance that education and training are fundamental to the development of a sustainable solution. This working paper presents a conceptual framework and signposts a research process presently being utilised by a research team to explore employability and a social construct. As such, the reader is presented with emergent work and invited to contribute to this early stage of the research process.

Conceptual approach

The purpose of this paper is to describe an emergent work from the Skills Research Initiative (SRI) portfolio of research projects, namely ‘Key Skills Framework: Enhancing employability within a lifelong learning paradigm’. The aim of this research project is to develop, pilot, evaluate and then mainstream a Key Skills Learning model for up-skilling the emergent workforce in terms of generic transferable skills, (see note 5) thereby enhancing employability. The intention is to:

  • Critically review and identify the key generic skills that students, workers, employers and experts consider necessary in this new global employment environment.
  • Produce, pilot and mainstream a high-value, quality assured Key Skills Learning module that fulfils the criteria of a Special Purpose Award Type at Level 6 (see note 6) of the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ), as detailed in NQAI policy documents.
  • To use a blended learning methodology to deliver a flexible, user-friendly education and training package which covers the identified key skills.

The function of this paper is dissemination and dialogue. The SRI recognise that research reports and papers are usually presented ex post; here we are presenting work ex ante. By adopting this approaching the SRI is endeavouring to establish a communication dynamic with interested parties external to the research. The aim is to share and exchange knowledge and experience relating to employability with our peers and communities of practice. The three main areas covered in this paper are:

  1. the initial stage of a systematic review of the literature relating to employability;
  2. a provisional outline of a conceptual framework for research into employability;
  3. DIT as a case study site and how employability could enhance the learning and human capital of both undergraduate and apprenticeship students.

The mode of enquiry utilised for this paper is interpretative, the methodology is located in qualitative research discourse and the method consists of literature review, document analysis and ‘critical self-reflection’ (see note 7) as actors in the Higher Education (HE) sector. The ‘multi-disciplinary’ (see Rowland 2006) research team adopt an eclectic position regarding knowledge domains, (see note 8) utilising research from several disciplines in the broad episteme of social science. Within the limited space available here we seek to provide an initial literature review which should be considered as a ‘work in progress’, our intent being to identify what Guba and Lincoln (1989) term ‘claims, concerns and issues’ (see note 9). These will be confined to three areas of discourse. First, policy, or the scouring and mapping out of some of the macro (international), meso (European) and micro (Irish) policy initiatives and reports drafted by governments and policy shapers’ (see note 10) which promote employability; we refer to this cluster of policy items as the ‘official employability discourse’. Second, simultaneously using a ‘snowball’ technique we are trawling through peer-reviewed journals to make visible the diverse voice of academics, teachers, trainers and researchers, a method we categorise loosely as the ‘non-aligned employability discourse’. Finally, we endeavour to signpost some of the views of the more influential lobby groups, students’ unions, professional associations, trade unions and specialist interest organisations, which we will refer to as ‘insular employability discourse’. The literature review process utilised is informed by the work of Hart (2005) and Creswell (2005), namely the five key stages identified as part of a literature review:

  1. identify key terms
  2. locate literature
  3. critically evaluate and select
  4. organise literature
  5. write the review

Other ideas were obtained from Fisher (2006).

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