Embedding Employability into University Courses

Teaching Week session on “Embedding Employability in Our Classes”
University of Canterbury
June 9, 2016

This session was an enlightening experience, with four employers invited to share what they were looking for when they employed graduates. The four employers were Layton Matheson from Moore Stephens Markhams (Accounting), Chris McGuire from MWH Global (Engineering), Graeme Barber who is Principal at Woodend Primary School (Education), and Cam Murchison from Harvey Cameron (Marketing). It would have been nice to have women on the panel, but I understand that the organizers are limited to who responds to the invitation to present at these events.

Their general criticism of universities was that they are not producing enough qualified people, making employers have to look outside of New Zealand for talent. They asked how many teachers have spent any time in the last 12 months in the industry that they are preparing students to go into, and very few people raised their hands. They called for more connection and partnerships between teachers and industry, and reiterated that there is a disjunct between theory and practice, especially in relation to industries that are changing rapidly. They acknowledged that instructors can fall back on how they were taught (19th/20th-century style) and may find it distracting to concentrate on items beyond curriculum and research (the pressures of ranking may take precedence, for example). The example was given of AUT having industry involved in every course in a particular discipline to make sure the link stayed current.

When teachers in the audience raised the issue of a large majority of students not being motivated or having a wide variety of ability levels in a class, some panelists said that you have to teach at or near the pinnacle, not the lowest common denominator if you want to have students succeed. They believed the drive and motivation of some students might be able to positively influence the others who are not as motivated. They said there is a need to uncover passion in students, make analogies while teaching so they see the relevance, and try to connect their learning to things they already know.

There were several key skills that emerged throughout the four panelists’ answers to the questions about what they’re looking for, so I have reorganized what they mentioned into those areas for clarity. They all seemed to be in agreement for most of them, indicating that they are important across sectors.

Flexibility & Ability to work across disciplines

  • Be transformational, not traditional.
  • We can’t afford to hire many or any specialists, so each staff member needs to have flexibility.
  • 20% of skill sets are outdated in 18 months, so we can’t keep people who won’t adapt and upskill.
  • Get out of silo framework/methodology where you can’t cross over and mix ‘n’ match (ex. Moving between data analytics, website, and finance; or visual reality, coding, and data analytics).
  • Cross-discipline awareness – structural engineer needs to know about water, electrical engineering, etc.
  • Break down silos: in the working world we don’t work in disciplines; need more integrated projects.

Strong Drive/Motivation

  • We need HIGH level of competency, not basic. We invest a lot in the first year and need people who can contribute straightaway.
  • We look at academic transcripts and see if they show consistency and that person can meet deadlines, focus, and apply themselves.
  • Are you an ongoing learner? What are you currently reading? Do you have a context for the industry? Keep up-to-date?
  • Looking for a growth mindset and someone who embraces challenges (any step they take is a step toward mastery and success).
  • Looking for people who are curious beyond what’s in the curriculum and passionate.
  • Good attitude, can produce something unexpected, willing to go the extra mile.
  • They need to meet deadlines; not a 40-hour week, you have to meet your deliverables in certain industries.


  • IT has changed enormously over five years; people need to know how to work with software and in a cloud-based environment.
  • Excel and PowerPoint are must-haves and should be standard training.
  • University should be adopting technology faster; research environment should be ahead of industry (like 3-D modeling).

Communication & Teamwork/Interpersonal

  • Communication, written and verbal; Can they present well? Can they be professional?
  • Need a culture fit and ability to work with co-workers.
  • We work with people and need to like people and have a good personality (no more back-of-the-house engineers).
  • People are part of a company’s brand and people need to trust in them.
  • Team player, able to work with multicultural and multilingual groups.
  • Ability to manage others and be managed (not lacking discipline).
  • Empathy: Can you understand what drives other people? Can you see things from their perspective?


  • Able to navigate ‘fish hooks’ and figure things out for themselves (case study analysis and teaching can teach this).
  • There’s no checklist for some jobs; they need to problem-solve and see bigger picture.
  • How do you use your intelligence in a constructive way?
  • We’ll employ problem-solving ability over a straight A academic transcript.
  • Do they know what questions to be asking and can they use technology to solve problems?


  • Attention to detail (errors cost us money and clients).
  • Project management should be a skill for all graduates, as well as terms involved.
  • Ability to use time management tools, handle deadlines, juggle tasks (use Evernote, for example).
  • Business acumen and professionalism (not a day at the beach).
  • Need to be able to sustain 2 hours of analysis, not be distracted by other things (Snapchat, etc.).