UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The road to employability : student voices amidst institutional discourse Bobadilla Sandoval, Catalina


The prevailing beliefs and discourses on employability, in Canada and across knowledge-driven economies, consider that peoples’ potential to be employable depends on their capacity to adapt and invest in their human capital (Brown et al., 2003). Higher education institutions often adopt the self-investment narratives to enhance the profit capacity of graduates (Boden & Nedeva, 2010). One group exposed to these perspectives are undergraduate university working students. Many of these students find employment on-campus (Carnevale et al., 2015), rendering their learning institutions also their employer. Working students’ experiences inform the way they see themselves as workers; however, students’ employability has been under-explored and loosely articulated (Burke et al., 2017). This study seeks to discern how three university-employed working students approach their current and future work and understand their employability. It also explores the beliefs about student employability communicated in university documents by one Canadian higher education institution that provides on-campus employment. The conceptual tools used in the analysis offer critical perspectives to explore language-in-use as a social practice and interrogate taken-for-granted notions of employability. The study’s findings identify that participants’ on-campus work experiences influence how they approach their current and future work. For them, work was a space not only to develop career-relevant skills but also a site of struggle and unequal access, largely affected by workplace conditions and relationships. As such, participants view the road to employability as messy, changing, and affected by personal and external circumstances. Although participants displayed goal-oriented behaviors towards work, contrary to mainstream employability discourses, they saw it as more than a productive practice and desired socially valuable and meaningful forms of work. The university as employer portrays work as a productive activity for students which requires their proactive engagement. It thus communicates an oversimplified perspective of employability because it underdevelops the complexities of workplaces and differences of working students’ circumstances. The juxtaposition of the university’s beliefs and working students’ ideas about work offer a discussion about employability as constrained, political, and relational. This study concludes with ideas for future research considering the diversity of working students’ lives and intricacies of the current world of work.

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