PhD-educated employees and the development of generic skills.

Author:Jackson, Denise
Position:Contributed Article - Report


While considerable research on skills and training exists, less is known about employee perceptions of their skill development. This issue is particularly salient among the most highly educated members of the labour market, given the duration of their training. This study draws on survey data of almost four thousand PhD graduates in Australia. We explore perceived skill development and the importance of these skills among PhD graduates, and the factors that influence these perceptions. The findings reveal a number of factors that explain skill development and skill importance including age, gender, and career destination (for example higher education or industry). Perceived skill importance also depends on discipline area, organisation size, occupation, and sector. We conclude that the most highly educated members of the labour market do not always consider that they obtain the requisite skills during their PhD training; greater attention is needed to ensure that skills are better matched to career decisions and to the demands of high-level professions.

  1. Introduction

    The notion of skill has attracted the attention of policymakers, employers, and scholars alike. At a country level, various governments have been interested in strengthening skills policy and meeting skills shortages to ensure national competitiveness, while also providing more employment opportunities (Shah and Burke 2005; Warhurst et al. 2004; Wilton 2011). In this context, the concept of employability and ensuring that people are job-ready has emerged in wider debates to assist with national goals and to satisfy employer demands to obtain people whose skills match their requirements (Clarke and Patrickson 2008). Moreover, it appears that the contemporary requirements associated with employment involve an ever-increasing demand for skilled workers (Kelly and Lewis 2010).

    While a number of commentators have highlighted the complex and multifaceted concept of skill, including the different schools of thought that seek to categorise and understand the notion of skill (Esposto 2008), much of the previous research embraces skills utilisation or employer and government perspectives on skills and skill development. There is far less attention devoted to how employees regard their skills, in terms of skills acquisition and skills transfer. It is acknowledged that employee skill acquisition and transfer are not simple mechanisms, but they can be influenced by various factors including work arrangements.

    Nonetheless, it has been argued that skill development contributes to an individual's human capital, which is one way of highlighting differences among those in the labour force (Becker 1964). One of the most important ways to acquire human capital formally is through education and, in particular, through the university system.

    Much of the literature investigating skill development in universities has focused on embedding generic skills in the curriculum to enhance graduate employability (Dacre Pool and Sewell 2007). Given the large number of people concerned, the majority of studies have examined the employment outcomes of graduates with bachelor degrees (for example Manathunga and Lant 2006). In contrast, relatively little is known about the most highly educated employees in the labour market--those with doctoral (PhD) degrees (Jackson and Michelson 2015). Although possessing a PhD degree does not guarantee job attainment, those trained to this level would expect to have mastered a range of relevant and highly desired skills (Usher 2002).

    Drawing on human capital theory (Becker 1964; Flamholtz and Lacey 1981), the purpose of this article is to: (i) assess perceived generic-skill development or acquisition among PhD graduates from Australian higher education institutions; (ii) measure the perceived importance of skills transfer to PhD graduates' post-degree employment; and (iii) identify the influence of certain work characteristics, individual work experience, and discipline on the perceived importance and actual development of generic skills among PhD graduates. The article therefore focuses on PhD graduates' perceptions of their preparedness for employment in a range of industry sectors and roles. It does not explore industry or employer perspectives of PhD graduate capabilities, or the purpose and value of the PhD degree in different sectors of the economy. The research objectives are examined using national survey data (n = 3829) gathered in the 2012 Australian Graduate Survey (AGS) of recent PhD graduates from Australian higher education institutions.

  2. Background

    Human Capital Theory

    The notion of human capital refers to the accumulation of various competencies, knowledge, skills, and social and personal attributes, for example, that permit an individual to generate economic value. Commonly associated with the work of Becker (1964), human capital theory idealises the labour market insofar as individual differences in terms of access and rewards are linked, among other factors, to higher levels of education and skill. Having high levels of education and skill are believed to increase an individual's opportunities, including their mobility and employability through their working career (van der Heijden 2002). While the theory assumes the existence of employer demand for the new skills acquired, there has been some critique. For example human capital theory tends to ignore other factors exogenous to employees that might potentially influence their remuneration and career options, or it has argued that labour and individual employees are treated as commodities (Bowles and Gintis 1975; Thompson and Newsome 2004). While mindful of these criticisms, in the case of the former this is admittedly beyond the scope of the article, since our focus is on employee perspectives about their skill; for the latter, it is based on a theoretical perspective that places emphasis on different aspects of employment and the labour market. We therefore utilise human capital theory on the understanding that it serves as a very helpful but imperfect framework with which to explain different outcomes in the labour market (Preston 1997).

    One important feature of human capital theory is its distinction between specific and general or generic skills. The former might be those skills that are unique to a single industry or employer, while the latter type of skill has broad relevance to many industries and employers (Kelly et al. 2011). Firm-specific skills tend to be provided by the organisation, yet reliance on them can increase the risk for individuals if the organisation shuts down or if the industry declines. Thus, from the perspective of individual employees, the transferability of skills remains an important consideration in human capital theory. It has been argued, and empirically demonstrated, that the categorisation of specific and general skills is too rigid, and that individuals can elect to invest in a range of educational and training and development opportunities that permit them to move between specialist and generalist roles during their careers (Kelly et al. 2011).

    Given that the formal education system is an important means of building human capital (Becker 1964), the attainment of qualifications at the highest level is believed to improve the holders' benefits from the labour market. In many countries, the highest non-medical qualification is the doctorate (PhD), and the main providers of these degrees are universities. However, which skills should be delivered through a PhD degree programme has been the subject of debate (Craswell 2007). For example the development of generic enterprise' skills can occur through PhD study but others--such as the management of finances and people--generally do not (Lean 2012). Therefore, it is important to examine generic-skill development, and the importance of these generic skills among PhD graduates, as this is important for individuals, and also for organisations and the wider economy (Flamholtz and Lacey 1981).

    While the development of generic or general skills is but one component of the overall human capital of an individual, it is consistent with the theory of human capital that some differences in the value of a PhD education and skills may emerge, and that these could be influenced by, for example, a career destination (higher education, industry), employment characteristics, discipline background, and individuals' work experience. The sub-sections below and the subsequent hypotheses reflect the potential role played by such factors.

    Skill Development among PhD Graduates

    Studies of the benefits of skills and training have largely assumed a relationship between the training and various performance outcomes such as learning, behavioural change, and performance improvement (Santos and Stuart 2003). Heyes and Stuart (1996) examined the impact of training on employee attitudes such as commitment and motivation, while Noe (1986) similarly explored employee attributes and attitudes in terms of accounting for the effectiveness of training. There has been a tendency in the literature to examine perceptions of training effectiveness, rather than individuals' perceptions of skill development. Understanding how such skills are developed in the first place is important, as are the views of those acquiring the skills.

    It is relevant to investigate the skill development of the most highly educated members of society--doctoral (PhD) graduates. Arguably, such individuals provide national economies with a research workforce seen as crucial for advancing knowledge and innovation, and therefore for sustaining global competitiveness and national productivity (DIISR 2011). To achieve this vision, PhD graduates must be adequately prepared to work in both industry and the academy (Manathunga and Lant 2006). While DIISR (2011) emphasises that PhD graduates should have the necessary generic skills to perform...

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