Understanding skills and employability

Alongside academic and intellectual development, the opportunity to gain skills and attributes and to enhance future career prospects are key factors in selecting higher level study, and we are committed to helping students recognise the value of learning experiences in and beyond the curriculum.


The University of Sheffield’s Vision presents a clear commitment to education and employability which includes enabling all students to access skills and personal development opportunities to enhance their future employability and outcomes.

Skills and attributes

Throughout our lives, almost all of our experiences help us to acquire and develop a range of skills and personal attributes. There is no perfect skill-set - every person will have a unique profile of skills, and everyone will develop, prioritise and apply those skills differently. Therefore, our role as a university is to provide ample opportunities for students to acquire and enhance skills and attributes, alongside developing a deep subject knowledge.

University academic staff might define the skills students need to develop in order to be successful scholars. The University also discusses the theme of ‘employability skills’. Employers, professional bodies and recruiters often carefully define the skills and personal characteristics they seek. There are many lists and definitions and all are open to interpretation and critique.


  • Skills can be technical or intellectual, generic or transferable. Sometimes skills are categorised as hard or soft skills, but a skill is usually more specific and measurable than an attribute. Everyone will develop their skills and abilities as they progress through life and learn through education and through doing and participating. Very often we have skills we’re not even aware of until we take time to review and reflect on what we know, what we do and how we do it. 
  • It’s also important to recognise that everyone's skillset will be different - all your learning and experiences will contribute to a unique ‘toolkit’ of skills, competencies and abilities, and you will keep adding to this throughout your life.

mySkills portfolio

  • One skill students should certainly develop is the ability to review and reflect on their learning and personal development. The University of Sheffield has developed the unique mySkills online portfolio and personal development tool. This is exclusive to our students and provides an easy way to review understanding, record and ‘tag’ learning & development experiences, reflect on progress and set personal goals. mySkills also links to short digital learning ‘pathways’ to help students develop understanding and knowledge about all of the Graduate Attributes. 
  • Using mySkills students can review their personal development over time and develop a portfolio of experiences and evidence to enhance self-awareness and a sense of personal achievement. This self-awareness and ability to articulate skills is crucial to success as a student, and in applications for placements and graduate roles. It’s also a great foundation for ongoing career decision-making and success.


  • An attribute is a quality or characteristic of a person, place or thing. Therefore the word ‘attributes’ tends to be used to describe personal characteristics and attitudes rather than specific skills, but the words skill and attribute are often used interchangeably, and may also be grouped with behaviours.
  • In 2020 the University of Sheffield re-defined its framework of Graduate Attributes, following consultation with internal and external stakeholders including our staff, students, alumni, employers and professional organisations. The framework recognises that attributes, skills and behaviours will be gained and developed throughout a student’s academic and extracurricular activities, and their wider life experiences. 
  • The framework includes a range of attributes often sought by employers who seek evidence not just of academic excellence, but also of students’ understanding of the attributes and skills they have developed during their university and life experience. 
  • The University supports student and graduate success and employability by providing a wealth of opportunities for students to develop attributes, and also to record and reflect on their skills and strengths. This helps students and graduates to determine their future career paths more clearly, to secure the outcomes they seek, and to manage their onward careers with confidence.

  • We also all possess our own set of values that will inevitably impact and drive our decisions in life. 
  • Values are the principles and beliefs that allow us to feel that our life, and work, is satisfying and fulfilling. Identifying your values and what’s really important to you can help you to identify what activities and environment you might enjoy, what you want to study, what your career objectives might be, and your purpose in life. 
  • Your values will also drive your behaviours:
    • It’s not just what you know, but how you apply that knowledge
    • It’s not just what you do, but the way you do it

Definitions of Employability

  • One widely cited definition of employability is that developed by Knight and Yorke (2003): “A set of achievements - skills, understandings and personal attributes - that make individuals more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy”.
  • Dacre, Pool & Sewell (2007), translated the Knight and Yorke approach to a more accessible model for students (and other stakeholders). This CareerEDGE approach recognises that employability relies upon learners attaining confidence, self belief and self esteem through their reflection and evaluation of:
    • Career development learning
    • Experience gained from work, academic and life situations
    • Degree subject knowledge understanding and skills
    • Generic skills
    • Emotional intelligence

Trends in employment and employability

  • In today’s world graduate careers and skills needs in almost every profession are in a state of almost constant evolution. In many sectors of the economy changes are happening very rapidly. Many graduate employers report that the skills and qualities they look for have changed significantly in the past few years. This evolution is often in response to advances in technology, such as artificial intelligence, big data and new materials, the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR). 
  • These factors are impacting the way jobs are done and changing career pathways in nearly every sector. New graduate job roles and job titles are emerging every year, with many that simply didn’t exist even two years ago.
  • A further development (5IR) is now emerging as the world seeks to manage the ethics and impact of the technology developed during 4IR. This focus on making the world ‘better’ rather than simply more productive is also linked to many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).

Preparing for careers of the future

  • Predictable linear careers are almost a thing of the past, so preparing oneself for a single known career track is an increasingly risky approach. Careers are now increasingly unpredictable, so we all need a range of appropriate, and possibly new, skills and attributes to navigate these more complex career trajectories.
  • So, employability is also the ability to review, reflect and possibly redirect one's career; to have the personal and career resilience to cope with what is now a fast-evolving career landscape; enabling individuals to continue to “gain employment and be successful” (Knight and Yorke (2003)).
Attributes and employability in the curriculum 
  • Students should recognise that skills and attributes can be developed in many different settings, however their academic programme of study will provide a wide range of opportunities and activities that will stimulate the development or enhancement of skills and attributes.
  • The English HE Regulator, the Office for Students, expects HE providers and courses to enable students to develop intellectual and professional skills and that they will have appropriate skills from their course to succeed and thrive once in employment.

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