Saturday, December 08, 2012

Education to Employment: A Flawed Prescription

McKinsey published a report on 'Education to Employment: Designing A System that works' in an attempt to draw attention to an urgent issue: With 75 million young people unemployed around the world, and twice that number unemployed, this is becoming one burning issue and indisputable proof that the current system does not work. Mckinsey argues that educators and employers seem to live in parallel universe, and this causes the problem. Their solution is to bring the two together: To make more employers educators, and educators employers, which roughly translates into more vocational education. However, I shall argue, that the problem runs deeper.

First, educators and employers indeed reside in parallel universe and would always will. Educators' job is, or at least should be, to enhance the capability of the learner, so that, if employment is the goal, their earning potential could increase. However, the employer, usually a business, wants just the opposite: His profits are based on availability of cheap labour who can do the job. They want skilled machinists, but in such abundant supply that they don't have to pay more. In fact, it would be great for them if they can get a steady supply of shop-floor ready machinists every year, so that they can replace the previous years recruits, who would by now want a salary increase, with a new intake of recruits. 

Second, the employers are focused on today, as they should be. They require people who can do the job today, and do not care about whether their skills are future-proof. If the technology changes, they would want to discard most of the old hands and move on to the next crop of the graduates. On the other hand, educators, For-Profit or not, have an obligation to upskill their charges with something that works for them, regardless of who they work for, and ability to adapt as technology changes.

It is therefore a surprise that the contrasting attitudes of employers and educators come as a surprise. Besides, pinning down the youth unemployment - and its consequences, such as wasted lives and various untimely springs in the Middle East - solely on the education problem is not exactly accurate. If we haven't noticed, we have replaced any job that could be replaced by use of machines. We have made capital flow more or less freely, latest is the Government of India wanting investment in retail sector so that efficient, read jobless, supply chains could be built; but on the other end, movement of people from one country to another have been severely, and artificially, restricted. And, finally, using a flawed vocational education system, something that is usually touted as a panacea to all our jobs problems, we have built an army of people with dead skills, and used them as canon fodders of our industries of the day; as the jobs disappeared, we have left a whole generation stranded, and labelled them, at our convenience, as 'benefit scroungers', 'takers' or now, the '47 per cent'.

McKinsey's views will carry weight, and The Economist has indeed jumped into the fray with this article, pointing that the government spending in the universities and the latter's growing prominence is part of the problem. However, as with these things, the unspoken bit is what the employers do. Like every other debate in our societies, while there are two sides of the debate here - employers and the educators - we can't really examine who the employers are and what they do. It becomes really simple to say that we have a jobs problem because, apart from various structural issues cited above, the employers are not interested in employing. Most employment happens in For-profit organisations, which are run with two principles, that they must maximise profit, and less employment = more productivity = more profit.

The jobs conundrum, therefore, needs to be recast: We indeed have a problem of wasted lives, but that can't be solved with jobs. Educators have a problem, and that is not that they don't focus on employment; it is rather the opposite, that they do. Almost oblivious that there are not enough jobs in the market, they buy into, rather uncritically, the mantra of a better job for a better life, only to leave their pupils with disillusionment and self-blame. It is a time for collective wake-up and call the bluff, as some researchers have already done (See Brown et al, The Global Auction, 2011), but that may be unpalatable for those who can really write and publish these concern-raising reports. However, as long as we continue to self-delude, we are unlikely to do anything till the members of the broken generation take it upon themselves and change things.

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