Swinburne Emerging Leader Program: Leveraging Leadership Activities to Build Employability


Tina Papadakos is a careers consultant in Swinburne University’s Careers & Employability service, as well as running her own practice, Psychology for Careers. In this article, she describes a program set up to encourage university students to leverage their leadership activities to build their employability.

Photo by Tobias Mrzyk on Unsplash

Today’s labour market is increasingly competitive for university graduates. Many express immense frustration when applying for jobs, often told they don’t have enough work experience. They also report a lack of confidence in articulating transferable skills, responding effectively to behavioural job interview questions and navigating the complexities of video interviews.

Graduate employers talk about seeking a well-rounded candidate, not just one who has performed well academically. In fact, some leading employers, such as National Australia Bank and PWC, have made the decision not to request academic transcripts as part of the graduate selection process, deeming them a less reliable predictor of a good worker.

So what do employers want? What does a future-ready graduate look like? Employers report the attributes that enable a candidate to stand out include:

  • self-awareness
  • emotional intelligence
  • resilience
  • agility, and
  • adaptability

In turn, such factors enable an employee to navigate the ever-changing and dynamic employment landscape in which we operate.

At Swinburne, we want to prepare students to self-manage their future careers and life: this includes facing adversity, building resilience, branding themselves and developing the capabilities to share their talents, skills and stories. The Swinburne Emerging Leader Program was developed to encourage students to participate in and complete activities to enhance their university experience and to develop marketable employability skills. It provides formal recognition (by way of micro credentials on academic transcripts) for valued skills developed through activities undertaken alongside, and during, studies. It includes a ‘reflective practice aspect’ to assist students to cultivate language to present skills and accomplishments to employers and networks with confidence.

As a careers adviser at Swinburne, I play a role in assisting students to plan their participation in the Emerging Leader Program by aligning the skills they choose to demonstrate with their career aspirations and related industry expectations. How? By encouraging students to:

  • conduct industry research – view job ads, and company and aligned professional association websites, to understand corporate values and skills sought
  • network and conduct information interviews with professionals immersed in industries or roles of interest
  • attend industry events, seminars and conferences, both at university and externally
  • stretch beyond what they can do readily to build further skills that appeal to the market

Program outcomes that enhance employability include providing a vehicle for students to promote themselves, beyond their academic results, as well-rounded job candidates. By participating and practising the art of reflection, students build their language to share their experiences and stories with employers in ways that are aligned with industry requirements, and to draw links between their activities and employability. Such reflections provide valuable content for employment applications or as responses to job interview questions. When an employer asks an applicant to demonstrate how they have developed a particular skill, Emerging Leader reflections provide the mechanism to do this with ease. Often students don’t take the time to work this out on their own. So, students who can articulate what they have gained from these activities are at a distinct advantage in the employment application process. They can demonstrate their value proposition. This builds confidence and mindfulness as to what they can offer, and creates ‘employability thinking’.

An evaluation conducted at the end of 2017, collected data from students who completed their degree at least six months prior. The evaluation was a matched control study, with the independent variable, whether the participant had completed the Emerging Leader program or not (Emerging Leaders, control). Results reveal Emerging Leaders were more likely to have been employed since completing their degree, with a significant difference (Table 1), and were also more likely to be employed at the time of the evaluation (Table 2).

Table 1

Have you been employed at all since you finished your degree?

  Emerging Leader Control
 Yes 92.2%  81.2% 
 No 7.8% 18.8% 


Table 2

Are you currently employed? 

  Emerging Leader Control
 Yes 90.8% 78.3% 
 No 9.2% 21.7%


The experience of participating students also revealed a positive impact on confidence, employability and leadership skills, with an additional 43.5% of Emerging Leaders reporting that employers had directly asked about the program on their resume. Results indicate the effectiveness of the program and reinforce the importance of providing students with work relevant experiences and the incentive to document such experiences.

The program delivery and orientation has expanded and evolved in exciting ways beyond voluntary uptake by students, thanks to the inspired efforts of our appointed Employability Programs Coordinator, Janet Jensen. There has been recognition that the benefits of this program are not just to enhance a graduate’s job search. Early participation in the program provides a competitive edge for students by preparing them for applications to industry internships and professional placements, often taken in the penultimate year of university study. Hence, there has been a strong push to embed the program into a number of first year undergraduate degrees, with successful implementation into business and engineering.

Other developments have included uptake by a community engagement partner with Swinburne University to re-design their existing mentoring program around a version of Emerging Leader. In addition, industry partners have expressed interest in recrafting the program to meet industry-specific skills and capabilities to hone well-prepared future graduates. The challenge for Swinburne is to continue to innovate the Emerging Leader program to be relevant and responsive to future workforce advancements and needs.

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