Capital gains: There’s more to employability than employment

Monash Lens

Over the past two decades, the number of international students studying abroad grew an average 5.5% a year between 1998 and 2019. As a destination country, Australia has a very well-established education industry, and is the second-most-popular country with 8% of the global share, behind the US, with 15%.

  • Melody Tang

    PhD Candidate and Research Assistant, Faculty of Education

However, there’s a large gap between the high popularity and employability outcomes of international graduates after they graduate in Australia.

For example, the full-time employment rate of international graduates had decreased by year from 58.6% in 2019, to 53.6% in 2020, and to 52.1% in 2021.

Additionally, these full-time employment rates of international graduates were one-third less than the full-time employment rates of domestic graduates. It’s been found that international graduates were underemployed, and were doing low-skilled jobs.

Chinese international students represent the largest proportion of all international students here, but they had the lowest employment rate among all international graduates. This issue raises a need for more attention to an important question: What contributes to the employability of Chinese international graduates in the Australian labour market?

Capitals and employability

A range of resources is essential for international graduates, at the individual level, to navigate the labour market in the host country.

These resources include – but aren’t limited to – active self-reflection, adaptability, career goals, cultural competency, cultural confidence, English proficiency, interpersonal skills, interview skills, passions, proactive actions, professional skills, qualification, resilience, social networks, visa status, and work experiences.

These resources can be categorised into six capitals: human (professional knowledge, professional skills), cultural (cultural competence), social (effective networks), identity (professional identity, career aspiration), psychological (resilience, flexibility, adaptability), and agentic (the capacity to interlink and strategise various resources).

Evidence shows these capitals influenced international graduates’ employability in different ways.

For example, international graduates lost job opportunities due to limited English proficiency, failed to compete with their local counterparts due to the lack of relevant local work experiences, and progressed slowly due to the lack of a clear career goal.

These capitals have also enabled international graduates to navigate a range of challenges in the labour markets.

For example, an increasing number of graduates physically mobilise across the countries to pursue their career aspirations. In addition to qualifications, if they have social and cultural capitals in the destination country, they could find job opportunities and adapt more easily to the new environment.

Woman sitting on a couch with a laptop, holding a graduation cap in on one, and books beside her

How do these capitals benefit graduates?

In 2020, I conducted research on further exploring the role of capitals in employability trajectories of Chinese international graduates in Australia. Through the online survey and the follow-up interviews, several empirical findings were revealed.

Firstly, many capitals can’t be immediately translated into employment.

For example, social capital in terms of social networks is evident in bringing graduates closer to job opportunities, but the job referrals from the participants’ social networks didn’t automatically lead to job offers; they still needed to demonstrate their capacities in the official interviews.

Likewise, identity capital in terms of professional profiles on social media make graduates more visible to potential employers, but the participants couldn’t obtain employment without proving their competence during the official interviews.

Secondly, apart from gaining employment, these capitals benefited the participants in other ways – for instance, greater wellbeing was achieved from social, psychological, and identity capital.

Although the survey results showed respondents least acknowledged the usefulness of social capital to their employment outcomes, they realised its importance to their wellbeing from the genuine relationships they developed with peers and significant others.

Likewise, in regard to psychological capital, although resilience didn’t lead to job offers, they stated they were less stressed and less likely to lose hope, because it enabled them to recognise adversity was a normal, temporary part of their employability trajectory.

Similarly, identity capital improved their wellbeing after they formed their career goal and changed paths.

Identity contributed to the participants’ career sustainability – they could better-perform their jobs when their goals aligned with their passions. They emphasised the need to pursue their career aspirations, and find a role that was meaningful.

Regarding agentic capital, while related behaviours didn’t necessarily lead to a job offer, they noted the obvious professional growth through proactive actions and strategising resources.

For example, participants enhanced their interview skills by practising with local companies months before graduation. Self-reflection and self-evaluation also improved their professional skills.

Employment versus employability

The study’s findings further highlight the differences between employment and employability.

Although the capitals don’t necessarily lead to immediate employment outcomes for international graduates, they improve the key wellbeing, sustainability, and professional growth aspects.

Return on investment of international education should not only be measured by immediate job offers or salaries, but a range of qualities that contribute to graduates’ holistic development.

This research will help international students and graduates gain a better understanding of developing and utilising these resources to overcome challenges, and to better-navigate the Australian labour market. It will also provide higher-education insights into maintaining the competitiveness of Australia in the global international education market.

/Public Release. View in full here.