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Opinion International

Translating our employability service

18th August 2023


Dr Claudia Bordogna

Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Business School

Chris Harwood

Lecturer, Nottingham Business School

Nottingham Business School offers a PGT module called Professional Practice (PP), which focuses on student personal and professional development. In induction week, students are introduced to PP and colleagues are invited to talk about employability. Herein I introduce Chris Harwood, a lecturer and Careers Consultant within Nottingham Business School. In September, as Chris was talking, I found myself thinking:

  • “Do our international students really understand what we mean by the term ‘employability’?”

  • “Does the term ‘employability’ easily translate to suit the range of languages and cultures in attendance?”

  • “What happens if the term does not translate well and students are left confused? How might this impact on the utilisation of the service?

Research problem

I wondered if it was possible to make sense of this situation. Subsequently, I contacted our partners at the University of Brescia who teach Business English to their international students. Since they had previously supported PP, as guest lectures on communication styles and techniques, I thought they may provide some insight into language and translation across multiple cultures.

Could their students help us to understand how employability translates in other languages and help us improve how we communicate employability to international audiences?

Research method

In March 2023, Chris and I travelled to Brescia to run a workshop with 30 students enrolled on their Business English module. Students were from a range of countries, including Italy, Serbia, Germany, Ghana, Ethiopia, France, China and India. The session ran for 120 minutes. Initially, students were asked to fill in an online survey and provide three words that they associate with the term ‘employability’. The main words shared were:

  • Job/ Job offers

  • Work

  • Career

  • Quality

  • Preparation

  • A percentage/ competition

  • Skills

  • Hiring/ speed of recruitment

  • Earning/ making profit/ financial freedom

  • Opportunity

  • Passion/ mindset

  • Education/ degree

Once completed, it was clear the students did not fully appreciate our ‘whole person’ development understanding of the term ‘employability’. At NTU, we have created ‘The Developing with NTU’ Framework, which is underpinned by the Employability Redefined Taxonomy of Doug Cole. The framework has four key areas which focus on applying knowledge, learning from experiences, exploring where you want to be and understanding yourself and making connections.

Once completed, students were shown a presentation outlining the aims of the session and why we needed their help:

  • To discuss the concept of employability as a professional service.

  • To provide feedback regarding what you (students) understand by this concept.

  • To provide feedback on how to best support international student employability.

Students split into self-selected groups of five. Each group was given the standard employability presentation, delivered in the PP introduction. Once handed out, students were asked to look at the materials and contemplate the following questions. They did not need to feedback on all the questions (time constraints) so could pick what they wanted to comment upon:

  • What are your initial impressions of the materials presented to you as a second language learner (L2)?

  • How does the word 'employability' directly translate in your language? Do your thoughts on what employability means make sense in terms of the materials presented? Is it even possible to translate the word employability into your native language?

  • Following the materials through, do you understand what the slides are trying to tell you about employability? How easy is the vocabulary to understand as an L2 speaker?

  • What recommendations/ ideas as L2 speakers would you make to help us improve the way employability is understood?

Research Findings

The following outlines issues with the translation of messaging from the employability materials provided, captured via group discussions:

‘Employability’: The term ‘employability’ when presented in English was simple, clear and easy to understand. However, it was hard to decipher what it means in other languages as there is often not a direct translation. For example, in Italian there are alternative words which are more common, such as ‘carriera’ (career), ‘lavoro’ (work) and ‘occupazione’ (occupation). Similar comments when in Ethiopian. In German, ‘employability’ requires two words – one which refers to the skills you have, the other is the ability to find a job.

‘Develop your employability’: This was difficult to decipher as it was hard for students to understand how development was linked to a concept which they already struggled with.

‘Weakness’: This phrase suggested to students that this is a word which needs to be used carefully. Students commented we all have weaknesses, but they need to understand why it was important to identify these and the importance of determining ways of dealing with them.

‘Support’: Similarly, words such as ‘support’ can be perceived negatively within different cultures, as it can refer to not being capable.

‘Live chat’: This was a phrase which students were also confused about, as some suggested that they had not experienced it before within an educational setting.

Other comments regarding the importance of personal employability:

  • A student from Serbia stated that they viewed employability as a rating, due to their experience based upon the labour market in their home country. They had questions such as ‘what sector has the best employment rate’ and what do I need to do to get a job in that sector?’ Therefore, job security was seen as being an imperative, rather than addressing a holistic approach to employability– such as values and passions.

  • A South-East Asian student commented they considered the importance of employability to be highly dependent on external pressures on them, such as their family’s thoughts regarding their careers, the economy in their home country and wider cultural demands.

  • Another international student commented how wider familial and community views override your own desires, stating that they needed to attend university for a reason, to get a qualification which will assist them to gain a role in a high salaried sector, such as in finance, law or technology, rather than a job working in the arts or humanities.

  • Another student did not like the emphasis on the need for ‘showcasing’ their skills above others, as they considered this word arrogant.

Research recommendations and conclusion

Students made the following recommendations to improve the explanation of ‘employability’ and associated services.

  • Utilise an animation to demonstrate the meaning of ‘employability’ rather than words to get the points across. Conversely, if only using images try to add links (to the images) where students can find additional information in their own time.

  • Pair up students from similar international backgrounds to work together on navigating employability in their cultural context.

  • For students joining courses late, make sure the slides are accompanied with a voice recording so students are talked through the materials and emphasise added to places of interest/ importance.

  • Be careful which words are used. Do not use the words ‘diary’ for events. Students prefer the word schedule or agenda. Diary is seen as private not to be shared. Avoid words like ‘support’ and ‘weakness’ unless it is clear on why these words are being used as these words can carry negative connotations. Instead of support for example, words such as ‘guidance’ or ‘advice’ could be utilised. Ensure advice is given to help students once they share their struggles so they can actively overcome them.

  • Do not assume that because these terms are part of your organisational lexicon, that others know what you mean, or why it matters to them based upon their own culture.

We conclude that facilitated explanation of concepts such as ‘employability’ are fundamental in helping international students navigate employability services and recognise its value. Once terms are explained and explored, changes in the students’ understanding of this concept become apparent, as feedback we received suggested.