Philosophical Considerations on Employability: That Matrix of Person, Context, and Relationships in the World of Work.

Employability is Not…

  • a shopping list of knowledge, and cognitive and behavioural skills; or
  • the probability of getting a job; or
  • owned by government or industry.

Employability is…

  • person-centred; and
  • context-sensitive; and
  • relational.

Employability is Person-Centred

Employability is a psychological construct comprising a mixture of dispositional traits, characteristic adaptations, and personally definitive life stories that are meaningful to identity construction, among social relationships, and within economic contexts related to work.  As a construct, employability is an intangible notion that is reflected in a person’s behaviour.  One cannot observe employability directly but one can observe its personalized expression in traits, adaptations, and stories in context.

  • Dispositional traits are relatively stable feature of a person are associated with specific behaviours.  Conscientiousness, for example, is a dispositional trait that is observed as a person’s active dedication to tasks and high levels of productivity in work.
  • Characteristic adaptations are relatively flexible and can be learned and developed over time and with experience.  Self-efficacy, for example, is an adaptation that comprises a person’s beliefs about ability to perform a certain task.  Self-efficacy can be learned by quality experiential learning, observational learning, persuasion, and positive emotional experiences.
  • Life stories are the definitive quality of an individual.  No one person has the same life stories; these are the quintessential narratives that make a person a truly indivisible individual.  A person’s life stories engage their past, present, and future, and, moreover, these stories are created in relation to past, present, and future with other people. The themes within a person’s stories make meaning from traits, adaptations, and experiences in the world.  Dispositional traits, characteristic adaptations, and life stories underpin an individual’s employment-related contemplation, decision-making, and actions toward attaining and maintaining a desired volume and type of work.

Employability is Context Sensitive

Employability is context-sensitive and can be understood within a turbulent confluence of factors that influence any given individual’s chances of working. An individual may enjoy great opportunities in one context but very few in another context, at another time, or another place. For example, a person who is qualified to practice a profession or trade in one country may not be in another.  Employability affects a person’s volition to engage with the new context.  In the context of a manufacturing plant redesign and restructure, a person trained in the mechanical operation of one machine requires the conscientiousness, self-efficacy, and meaningful reasons to actively engage in learning activities that enable the transfer of present expertise to another machine requiring additional expertise.

Employability may motivate an individual to acquire certain items on the shopping list of knowledge and skills that are in demand and, thereby, increase the probability of employment.  Thus, employability is reflected in an individual’s contemplation, decision, and actions to evolve as a person by acquiring additional knowledge and skills.  Employability is not the knowledge and skills per se; it is the propensity to understand their personal value and act toward their acquisition for deployment in a specific context.

Context and access to resources in context (e.g., knowledge, finances) may foster or inhibit a person’s employability.  For example, knowing how to acquire and critically appraise information about the world of work (e.g., job market requirements) is dependent on knowledge of context.  Furthermore, discovering information about affordable training and being able to afford it may be attractive to one person who recognizes the potential to personally benefit from the training; but, the same training may be inappropriate to the aspirations and volition of another person.

Employability is reflected in an individual’ characteristic adaptations and narratives that inform knowing the difference between what is appropriate and inappropriate training and, if choice is available, making an informed and meaningful decision and taking actions that benefit the individual. Inappropriate training is that which is irrelevant to an individual’s aspirations and goals that distinguish personal narratives.  Consider, for example, those workplaces in which staff are directed to take mandatory training in some particular topic that is essentially irrelevant to the person’s aspirations and goals, and failure to complete the training results in penalties such as withholding salary increments.  Also consider those governments which direct unemployed people to take on training with little relevance to their aspirations and goals, and instead merely soaks up precious time and resources needed for pursuing relevant opportunities, and then these governments impose financial restrains on the person for not completing the training. In these situations, there is no choice.  Being compelled to training by force of withholding salary increments or unemployment allowance is not a choice—it is conscription—and does little to enhance an individual’s sense of employability.

Employability is Relational

Work is done by people, with people, and for people. At every transaction of work there is a relational moment.  People do work in organizations, small and global, and an organization is a relational matrix. People work to provide for their families and their communities.  The ostensibly lonely solo consultant tapping away at a keyboard is producing something for someone. Thus, work and employability cannot be conceived of meaningfully without understanding the relational context.  An individual’s personally meaningful narratives about work are inevitably about oneself and another.

As an intrinsically relational activity, the meaningfulness of work is embedded in distal, broad spectrum cultures and discourses (e.g., at the level of a nation) and proximal, micro-cultures and discourses (e.g., within organizations, families).  Employment and employability–two ostensibly simple concepts–take on vastly different meanings and actions in different discourses.  The economist who is embedded in political institutions, endowed with power to create policies that affect the lives of individuals, cannot understand and talk about employment and employability in any other discourse than that which empowers him: economics.  This langauge of economics extends into the realm of human resources practitioners whose recruitment mechanisms reify the items typical on the  employability skills shopping list: communication, teamwork, problem solving, etc.  Educational institutions propagate this discourse in their own terms (e.g., graduate attributes) with synonymous meanings and equivalent intents.

An individual has little choice but to learn this discourse and perform with alacrity.  She must engage with the discourse; to do otherwise would cast her as an unrecognizable outsider unable to relate to others.  Unable to imbue herself in a given organizational culture by relational means (e.g., networking), her fettered attempts to secure employment will leave her inexorably dispirited. To this endeavour, “employability”, an individual must bring all her psychological resources: dispositional traits, characteristic adaptations, and definitive narratives.  Knowledge and skills alone will not suffice.


Blustein, D. L. (2006). The psychology of working: A new perspective for career development, counseling, and public policy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge (A. M. S. Smith, Trans.). London, UK: Routledge.

Fugate, M., Kinicki, A. J., & Ashforth, B. E. (2004). Employability: A psycho-social construct, its dimensions, and applications. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 65(1), 14-38. doi:DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2003.10.005

McAdams, D. P. (1995). What do we know when we know a person? Journal of Personality, 63(3), 366-396. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1995.tb00500.x

This article is the first in a series of philosophical musings about employability. The present article is by ACCELL’s Research Director, Dr Peter McIlveen. McIlveen argues that employability is about self-determination in context. Some scholars suggest that his perspective is too individualistic, that it does not sufficiently account for context, and that leads to a “blame the victim” perspective.  What is your perspective?

A Philosophy of Career Counselling

As an intimate act of personal archaeology, career counselling excavates the psychological, social, and cultural past of an individual so as to inductively understand the present. Then, on the basis of this knowledge, the counsellor and client cast their psychological eyes into the future so as to imaginatively co-construct a story that may, or may not, generate active engagement in the world of work.  This creative process of being and becoming can be traced to the philosophical treatises of Kierkegaard, Hume, James, and Nietzsche.

Soren Kierkegaard

Can career counselling be a solution to Kierkegaard’s (1843/1967) problem of living life forward by knowing it backward? It can be; but, only if, paradoxically, one bravely accepts that this putative knowledge of the future that is inductively created on the basis of the past is little more than emotive guesswork, if not a folly that should be tentatively grasped with fingers crossed behind one’s back, hoping that one’s predictions may come true.

David Hume

It was David Hume (1748/2007) who challenged induction as a way of knowing the future. Hume suggested that humans believe in their predictions as result of intrinsic psychological architecture. Humans are inherently disposed toward committing the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc or cum hoc ergo propter hoc (i.e., after this therefore because of this; with this therefore because of this). In other words, that B followed A, is no reason to believe A caused B; and, that A and B occur simultaneously is no reason to draw a causal relationship between the two.

William James

William James (1890/1952) deepened this idea in his argument that humans experience time because they experience thinking, metaphorically, like the flowing of a stream. Furthermore, James argued that consciousness of series (e.g., one event following another after another, and so on) is the source of rational thinking. Humans are not only psychologically capable of discerning series; they aim to do so in order to make sense of events they observe. Storying relies on this sense of time and inductive thinking so as to create connections between one moment in life and the next, ad infinitum.

Notwithstanding the flaw of inductive thinking, it is in existential torment that one must carry on with life, believing, and hoping, that the future can be known, albeit a fiction that is composed as an open-ended story that seems to contiguously follow on from the previous chapter of a life (i.e., post hoc ergo propter hoc). This fiction is exactly what people construct in order to make sense of their past and current phenomenal world, and it is this fictional existence that permits the activity of narrative career counselling as a way of knowing. In this way, counselling produces therapeutic truth—a benign white lie with generative intent. Accordingly, career counselling, especially narrative career counselling because it is the most doubtable form of personal knowing toward the creation of personal truths, has no more compelling a purchase on creating personal truths than psychoanalysis, which is a most exquisite form of personal archaeology.

I use pragmatism (James, 1907/2000) as an epistemology of personal truth, that which I call “pragmatic ideographic truth”. Continue reading