Employability Monsters

Kate Foster is Career Consultant (Widening Participation) and Career Coach (Early Career Researchers) at University of Exeter. 

Background to the Employability Monsters Project

Last summer the Career Zone was lucky enough to secure a small research grant from the Centre for Social Mobility. We knew that students from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups often face barriers in developing their employability, and that the current global pandemic may have created even bigger gaps for these students. Research from the social mobility charity – UpReach (July 2019) highlighted the challenges students from less privileged backgrounds face; ‘(they) have more limited access to careers advice at school, are less likely to have completed professional work experience and lack useful social networks.’

With the funding secured we therefore had a fantastic opportunity to research and to focus on particular underrepresented groups of undergraduates – those in receipt of Access to Exeter bursaries, BAME, Disabled, Care Leavers /estranged and mature students. In particular we wanted to find out from these groups:

  • The challenges and barriers they faced with the development of their employability and career plans
  • How the Career Zone could further develop support to better equip these students to overcome these barriers and challenges – and to encourage them to engage with our range of services.

So how did we do it?
We wanted to make the online experience as engaging and creative as possible, so rather than the traditional focus group format we used the Lego Serious Play® methodology. Participants received individual packs of Lego® to enable them to build individual and shared models which represented the challenges they faced, plus the support that would enable them to overcome barriers with their employability.

The use of experiential methodology centred on liminality research (Hawkins & Edwards 2015, 2017). Experiencing liminality in a workshop through “hands on” activities e.g.,/building representations of “monsters” would offer the students the opportunity to explore challenges, barriers, try out new ideas and identities and reflect on their experiences both individually and with others.

In addition to playing with Lego® (!) students also completed questionnaires and polls asking about the range of employability support they had engaged with to date, plus they all had opportunity to receive a Personal Employability Report (managed up our charity partner upReach), to help them identify strengths and potential areas of development.

Yana is 2nd year Law student who took part. “I have found it highly enjoyable to participate in Employability Monsters in my first year of Uni. As a mature student, I have encountered numerous difficulties researching and planning my career. This is where Employability Monsters have come to the rescue and taught me how to embrace the challenge and build on my strengths. How? By taking a very creative approach: Lego bricks! Throughout the project, I have met many wonderful people from across different faculties, with whom we shared our struggles and uncertainties, faced the fear of barriers to workplace and inspired each other to discover different paths to success.”

Example Monster – build a model that represents the barriers and challenges you face in your employability. “The bricks form a wall, these are barriers to my employability. The red transparent brick represents communication difficulties, like seeing things through a lens”.

What did we find out?
Working closely with 32 x 1st and final year UG across all our campuses – Exeter and Cornwall – the following key findings/themes emerged from the students in terms of challenges and the support that would help them with their employability:
– the need to further develop employability and softer skills
– finance was a barrier to securing professional experiences eg. internships
– an increased in depth knowledge of the graduate level recruitment process
– to gain advice from both peers and career mentors who have similar lived experiences
– the lack of knowledge of the support available to help them with their employability and career planning

What next?
As a direct result of the Project I am pleased to say that a web page is about to be launched – Careers Support | Widening participation student support | University of Exeter which details (in one place!) all the help and support available to students from underrepresented groups – (including funding to set up internships through the Access to Internship scheme. The peer mentoring scheme for students receiving the Access to Exeter Bursary has further developed with final and second year Bursary students “mentoring” 1st years.

The Projects not stopping there though – we’re going from strength to strength! The Team has funding to work with the original participants (some who have now Graduated) plus 100 more undergraduate students this year. So if you’d like to join the conversation and make a difference we’d love to hear from you. Find out more about the Project and how to register here. PS – you’ll get a bag of Lego® and a £10 voucher for taking part!