Employability appears to be a relatively simple concept. It’s commonly defined as having the skills that would compel an employer to offer you a job. But employability is about more than just the ability to succeed in an interview, beat the other competitive candidates and win the job.
“It’s having the skillset to get into industry to begin with. Then to remain on a growth journey so you’re always employable and able to work in an area that you love and feel passionate about,” explains Melanie Fedderson, Creative Lead at Billy Blue Creative. Ms Fedderson works closely with our design students in Sydney as part of her role, ensuring they have the benefit of exposure to agency work throughout their studies.
That sense of passion in employability is reinforced by Torrens University’s National Campus Operations Director, Ariane Lellmann.
“Employability is knowing you’re doing something that you love, something that you feel that there is a purpose in you doing it,” says Ms Lellmann.
This higher level of employability is a state of being that Torrens University develops in students through Work Integrated Learning. It’s bringing the classroom into the workplace with enterprises such as Billy Blue Creative, The Practice Wellbeing Centre and William Blue College of Hospitality Management.
“A lot of people just think of Work Integrated Learning as when you go and do a placement. It’s actually doing what they’ll do once they’re in that profession, but in a supported environment,” clarifies Natalie Cook, Director of Innovation, Industry and Employability for Health and Education.
However, as Ms Lellmann confirms, Work Integrated Learning is only part of the employability equation.
“It’s really getting out there and applying not just your knowledge, but also soft skills.”
Soft skills essential for employability
After 25 years in hospitality and doing a lot of recruitment, Ms Lellmann says employment or unemployment comes down to soft skills that put the winning candidate ahead of their peers.
“The difference in helping me make up my mind who am I’m going to employ is going to be the soft skills. How are they dealing with group work, or a customer with a comment and working in a team under pressure? It’s those skills that I’m trying to identify and get a feeling for in an interview,” reveals Ms Lellmann.
Soft skills are anything but soft. With more digital automation in the workplace, it’s these human qualities that make students job-ready at graduation.
“It’s all about human connection and how you’re going to work with a team. It’s having the right cultural fit and a good team who are passionate about what they’re doing,” says Ms Fedderson.
The good news is that soft skills can be learned. While some of us may have more natural ability in some soft skills than others, we can all improve our communication, critical thinking, leadership and teamwork skills. The real challenge is being able to put those soft skills to practical use.
“Until you’re actually in a situation, then you don’t know how you’re going to react or actually respond to all of the demands,” confirms Ms Fedderson.
That’s where Work Integrated Learning comes in, sharpening up soft skills to put Torrens University graduates ahead of the pack.
The Practice Wellbeing Centre
Georgie Stephen is a Torrens University graduate who recently won the Emerging Naturopath of the Year award at the Australian Naturopathic Summit. Before graduation, she improved her employability with a placement in Torrens University’s in-house clinic.
“I think I learned just as much about myself as I did about practicing naturopathy during my time in there. The opportunity to see real clients while still wearing your naturopathic training wheels and to have an experienced supervisor helping you through the whole process was invaluable,” recalls Ms Stephen.
The Practice Wellbeing Centre gives students a Work Integrated Learning experience with the paying public in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Ms Cook describes it as a supported environment that brings learning to life.
“It’s one thing to have a case study with a set of facts about a person and a list of what’s going on that you can analyse in an objective way. It’s another thing to actually integrate with a person in real time.”
In the physical clinic, students see patients on their own, then take a break to consult with a supervisor. When the supervisor is satisfied with the student’s treatment plan, the patient and student re-enter the consultation room to complete the appointment.
“It’s almost like a driving instructor. The supervisors are there and they could grab the steering wheel if they needed to,” confirms Ms Cook.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, just like in real-life, The Practice Wellbeing Centre moved with agility from the physical clinic to Telehealth. In addition to supercharging the need for soft skills, this change gave students an opportunity to reflect on the digital experience. They explored how they could compensate for the social and communication cues that were lost in move from physical to virtual consultations.
William Blue College of Hospitality Management
They say that if you can’t stand the heat, you should get out of the kitchen. For apprentice chefs working long hours, with daily deadlines and high stress, those words really burn. Often the perception of the chef’s job doesn’t match reality.
“It actually shows you how the industry is. Cooking is pretty tough,” reflects Catalina Fuentes.
After a healthy serving of Work Integrated Learning at William Blue College of Hospitality Management, Ms Fuentes was well prepared for the role of chef’s apprentice. She says she feels lucky that everyone was really nice to her during her apprenticeship. No doubt she contributed to that luck through her own well-developed soft skills.
The future generation of chefs can share in that luck by honing their culinary and soft skills with a variety of roles at William Blue Dining.
“It’s not just that I can balance more than three plates on one hand. It’s actually having done it and being able to speak with examples as proof and evidence. Understanding what the challenges are, not just from a piece of paper, but the lived experience,” explains Ms Lellmann.
In the midst of a pandemic, that lived experience created great challenges for students – just like the rest of the restaurant industry. From COVID health marshals to social distance dining and contact tracing, students have responded with great adaptability.
This agile response echoes the dedication to continuous improvement at Torrens University.
“You can never say, ‘Oh, I have a great course, it teaches these subjects and that’s going to be it forever.’ Our students are starting a course now, and they’re entering industry in three or four years’ time. So, we have a process in consultation with industry to ensure that what we are developing is what the industry needs in a couple of years’ time.”
Billy Blue Creative
At Billy Blue Creative, Work Integrated Learning begins way before students experience their first day in the job. With limited places, students first have to apply for an internship.
“It goes exactly the same as if they were going out to industry, where they need to send a letter of interest, their CV, their portfolios. We then go through an interviewing process,” explains Ms Fedderson.
Billy Blue Creative is the design agency that inspired the creation of Billy Blue College of Design. It was literally created by industry, for industry. Three decades later, the agency is still servicing clients such as publishers Pan MacMillan Australia and Red Room Poetry. It’s also offering a rare opportunity in Australian education for students to develop soft skills in a supported environment.
“The students see how experienced designers work through jobs and any roadblocks they’ve got. They see how you communicate that, how you collaborate as a team and how to conduct yourself in that space.”
In the third year of her Bachelor of Communication Design, Sarah Varvarian completed her internship at Billy Blue Creative. While she was surprised to learn she could present her ideas to the client, she was even more excited when they chose her design.
“I’ll never forget that day of the client meeting with Sarah. You could see the adrenaline, it was an absolute buzz for her, the first time in a meeting room, real clients presenting her work,” recalls Ms Fedderson.
For Sarah, Work Integrated Learning provided her with hard skills in pitching her design, but also soft skills that increased her confidence as a designer.
“Probably the biggest thing is learning that the first design isn’t always going to be the one. It’s so difficult to accept that, but it’s not the final piece and you can tweak it here and there,” says Ms Varvarian.
Learning while working is a skill for life
So how does Torrens University put students ahead of the pack when it comes to employability? It’s a combination of exacting academic standards, industry connected teaching staff and a unique community network.
What brings it all together is the soft skill of self-reflection – to learn through the process of working. During Work Integrated Learning Students ask themselves questions such as: what worked well; what caught me unawares; and could I have anticipated that?
“You have an increased self-awareness of what you can contribute. Because in the end it is that I need to learn about myself so I can share how I can contribute to any organisation I may wish to join,” explains Ms Lellmann.
In addition to understanding themselves, students get an insight into what the workplace expects from them.
“You’re not expected to know everything. It is a learning thing, even for a designer of, 30 years’ experience, you’re always learning,” assures Ms Fedderson.
By developing soft skills, Torrens University students are actually supercharging their graduation qualifications.
“You’ve got a bachelor’s degree, but actually what you’ve got is an ability through the critical thinking or the communication skills that you’ve developed to adapt that set of learning. You’ve got a capacity to apply that degree in all sorts of different ways,” confirms Ms Cook.
“And that’s employability.”
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