Lunch with Michael Caine

Last week I was invited to join the judging panel for the Guardian’s Higher Education Awards. On my table were luminaries from academia, industry and the media. As we were introducing ourselves, one of the Guardianistas said to me, “As you’re apparently a guru on the subject, perhaps you’d like to stand up and define employability for us.”

Now hold on a minute, I thought. I’m no guru on employability. In fact, I’m not a guru on anything – it’s one of the reasons why I’m a head of service. Nevertheless, three seconds later, there I was, on my feet, preparing to hold forth on one of the slippiest and most contentious subjects currently doing the rounds.  

I hadn’t a clue what I was going to say. I mean, where do you start? A new definition of employability comes out every week. Some are wordy (HEA, ESECT), some pithy (Val Butcher, Peter Hawkins) others are downright loony (take your pick). The great Mantz Yorke has been working on one for decades; he’s still not cracked it. And now here’s me, poised perilously between the soup and the main course, trying my best to dish up the definitive. What I needed was something brief yet illuminating; a metaphor to convey the meaning of employability without sending them all to sleep.  

Suddenly, from deep in the bowels of the building came a muffled crash, followed by a cockney accent, shouting, “Ere, watch it! You nearly had the bloody door off!”

In a flash, the answer came to me:

Michael Caine.

There is a scene from the 1971 film ‘Get Carter’ in which a gangster is about to throw Michael Caine from the top of a multi-storey car park (crime in multi-story car parks – wrong on so many levels). Facing up to his adversary, Caine says, “You’re a big man but you’re out of shape. For me, it’s a full-time job.”

At least I didn’t do the voice. History is silent on whether Mr Caine has ever visited Liverpool but if he has he certainly hasn’t picked up the accent. But the point is this: just like physical fitness, employability is a full-time job. It’s not something you can definitively ‘be’ or for that matter have done to you. To be employable means working at it all the time, developing your skills, enhancing your experience, adding value to your networks. For me, this is a key message we need to get across to students and graduates – mastering employability, like any other learning skill, is a full-time job.

Not a lot of people know that.

This article was first published by AGCAS in 2013