Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Employability Blog Series: Employability Monsters – exploring the challenges and barriers to employability

  • 22 April 2022
  • By Dawn Lees and Kate Foster

HEPI’s hybrid Policy Briefing Day is on 27 April 2022 and institutions that support HEPI are entitled to a free place.

The seventh in this weekly series of blogs on employability was written by Dr Dawn Lees, Principal Investigator and Student Employability & Development Manager and Kate Foster, Project Lead Facilitator and Employability & Careers Consultant (Widening Participation), University of Exeter.

Students from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups often face barriers in developing their employability as they transition a) into university and b) into their post-graduation destination. The global pandemic may create an even bigger gap for these students as the Sutton Trust found that ‘the majority of students have had a prolonged period of time outside of education… with the largest impacts felt by those from the poorest backgrounds.’ UpReach highlighted that students from less privileged backgrounds will often have more limited access to careers advice at school, are less likely to have completed professional work experience and lack useful social networks. 

Employability Monsters

Career Zone at the University of Exeter secured funding from the Centre for Social Mobility for the ‘Employability Monsters’ project. The project aimed to explore the challenges and barriers which students from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups face with the development of their employability, and to understand how these students could be better equipped to overcome these challenges. 

We adopted liminality methodology to explore challenges to progression utilising research by Hawkins & Edwards. Liminal moments are those during which transition occurs, transporting an individual from one state of being to another. Experiencing liminality in a workshop through experiential activities, for example modelling monsters using Lego® Serious Play® offered students the opportunity to explore challenges and barriers, try out new ideas and identities and reflect on their experiences. 

The project

We aimed to recruit 100 students who identified with one or more widening participation (WP) markers – identified as target groups in the university’s Access and Participation Plan. These markers were Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME), disabled, mature, care leavers / care experienced, estranged students and students in receipt of an ‘Access to Exeter’ (AtE) bursary. Seventy-one students registered an interest: 32 were recruited, of which eight were in their first or second year and 24 were final-year students. Participants were asked to report which WP marker they identified with most, as well as their secondary characteristics. Eighteen students (56 per cent) identified with one marker; 11 students (34 per cent) identified with two markers; and two students (six per cent) identified with three or more markers. The small size of the sample needs to be taken into consideration when analysing the results of the project.  

Another dataset was related to the three stages of career readiness – ‘Decide’, ‘Plan’ or ‘Compete’ utilised in Exeter’s online registration questions. ‘Decide’ refers to students who have yet to consider their career or are exploring ideas. ‘Plan’ refers to students who are seeking out relevant experiences or have an idea of their career goal but are not sure how to achieve it. ‘Compete’ refers to students who are in the process of applying for graduate employment or postgraduate study opportunities.

Qualitative and quantitative data were recorded during two online workshops using Padlets, photos and a Zoom poll. Using Lego® Serious Play® methodology, participants were guided by a trained facilitator to use Lego® to build models that represented the ‘barriers and challenges they faced in their employability’ enabling us to explore their liminality. Participants were asked to share their model with the group and describe what it represented. 

In the second workshop, participants were asked to create a model to represent what would support them with their career decision-making and employability. After feeding back on their models individually, participants undertook a ‘group build’ choosing the most important aspects of their individual models. This methodology enabled participants to further develop each other’s ideas, co-create and collaborate as part of the exploration process, and conclude with an agreed representation of the support that would help them.  

Participants were invited to complete an online questionnaire after the first workshop to enable the team to explore if a student felt supported to engage with the Careers Zone activities. It also gave the team the opportunity to ascertain levels of engagement and other support from which they would benefit. As a partner of the social mobility charity upReach, participants were invited to complete their Graduate Employability Framework (GEF). The online questionnaire consisted of 40 multiple-choice questions enabling participants to reflect on their level of leadership, communication, teamwork, resilience, self-awareness, problem solving / creativity, career knowledge, application and interview skills, work experience, and professionalism.


Key themes emerged from the research. Participants identified developing their employability as challenging in the workshops. As expected, first year students had a lower overall employability score than final year students, which links the Career Registration data with early stage participants in the earlier stages of career readiness (Decide and Plan). In the workshops, participants also highlighted the competitive nature and their lack of knowledge of the graduate recruitment process as a challenge. Work experience, applications, and interview skills scored low across all discipline areas in the GEF. It may therefore be useful to explore how the Career Zone can further promote developmental opportunities, for example through skills sessions, society committees and employability awards through ‘Create Your Future’, which is mandatory for all first years. The overall employability average score for AtE bursary students in the GEF (60.5 per cent compared to 68 per cent for non-bursary students) also re-enforces the University’s need to target activity and reduce the graduate outcome gap for AtE recipients in the Access and Participation Plan.

According to the Bridge Group,

Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds participate less in activities that have greatest currency amongst employers. This includes extracurricular activities (leadership roles in sports and societies, for example); work experience which contributes to career aspirations; internships amongst competitive employers; international opportunities to study and work; and access to postgraduate education.

It would be helpful to further understand WP participation rates in extracurricular opportunities in addition to work experience, international activities and their progression to postgraduate study. 

In the online questionnaire, participants highlighted that finance was a barrier to accessing opportunities, along with finding time to engage in initiatives due to part-time work commitments. Funding would potentially enable them to access longer-term internships and contribute to other costs such as travel to recruitment activities. Research demonstrated that 20 per cent of working-class graduates could not afford to take up a work experience placement during university because of a need to spend the time in better paid employment or due to the cost of commuting. In contrast, 15 per cent of better-off graduates were unable to take up a work experience placement.


Although the Career Zone offers opportunities to interact with professionals through alumni Q&A schemes, mentoring and funded internships, multiple participants cited the lack of opportunity to network with professionals as a barrier to moving forward with their career planning. They also thought it would be more beneficial if these professionals had similar lived experiences and were at early stages of their career. A peer-mentoring scheme is offered in partnership with upReach, and peer mentoring, by students with similar ‘lived experiences’, was suggested as potentially providing support to overcome barriers.  

Participants discussed how opportunities were marketed, the channels used, accessibility and the quantity of information they received. Although students recognised the importance of gaining work experience, these opportunities were the initiatives least accessed with only three of the 32 participating taking part in funded internship programmes aimed at WP students. Students suggested clearer messaging and signposting were required to raise their awareness of all employability opportunities. In particular. it was suggested that there should be use of Instagram, clearer information for WP students on a webpage and a variety of formats including videos. Some participants mentioned that having a ‘named’ person helped them feel supported and able to navigate the information available and support their career decisions. Evidence suggests that the provision of effective career guidance within higher education can contribute to social mobility, improved retention, attainment and progression to employment as well as to enhanced career management skills. 

Key outcomes based on the research include the launch of a dedicated employability-focussed web resource for WP students, and the continuation of a peer-mentoring programme for AtE recipients working closely with upReach. The project continues into its next phase enabling the team to reconnect with previous participants and recruit a new cohort of students to further explore the barriers and challenges faced.

Register here for HEPI’s Policy Briefing Day.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *