Thursday, December 26, 2013

Education for Employment: Finding the T-Skills

I was recently at a seminar where IBM's Global Head of University Partnerships were speaking. In an insightful talk, he outlined the profile of an ideal candidate that IBM wants to recruit: This is a person with T-Skills, one deep skill but a broad range of interests, he said. This is quite common among employers, hence worth exploring. However, whether or not an employer defines this in such precise terms as IBM, this is still worth looking at, because the break between education and employment may be seen as a T-skills conundrum.

The desire for T-Skills can be somewhat obvious: Work in business organisations today are defined by an unquenchable thirst for greater efficiency and to infinite flexibility to ward off uncertainty. To achieve efficiency, they are increasingly specific, demanding in their job adverts an absolutely ready candidate who can add value right from day one. This is more true because most jobs are created today by start-ups and SMEs, which are under even greater pressure of efficiency than the large corporations. On the other hand, the bigger uncertainty makes employers demand soft skills, ability to communicate, learn and be flexible and adaptable. On this, perhaps, both the big corporations and SMEs are on the same boat, though one may argue that SMEs are slightly less focused on the uncertainty bit than the efficiency bit, many SMEs being a business of the opportunity of the time.

On the other hand, most educators grasp the T-skills idea intuitively, but somewhat believe that the employers are not serious about it. The idea that one needs to have a broad range of ideas and interests is indeed the core of a liberal education, and the deep skills, in an educator's playbook, is the outcome of the development of disciplinary thinking. However, the reason why the educators treat the employers' notion of deep skills with suspicion because they see this being about 'mere technical skill', a domain of 'training' rather than education.Consequently, most of the debate and the disconnect between the educators and employers concern itself with the notion of deep skills.

It is natural in a way because there is only one deep skill for any given employer - the one that is related to their business - whereas for the educators, the deep skills are often those which create the students' ability to be flexible between employers. To fit the T-skills paradigm, the educator's T is really a reverse T, with what is supposed to be 'deep' in the mix is really a 'transcendental' protruding part, the disciplinary pride seeking to advance the boundaries of knowledge. This is why, I shall hypothesise, while the ideas of deep and broad knowledge is shared between employers and educators, the ambitions are inherently different.

There is also a disconnect in the nature of broad knowledge. For the educators, the breadth of knowledge is designed to deal with the known, the informational, the basic building blocks of an academic personality. For the employers, however, the breadth of knowledge is primarily needed to deal with the unknown, precisely what the educator's deep disciplinary knowledge is designed to deal with.

Now, one way to resolve this difference is to subject the educators' perspective to the employers', as is usually done by popular media and politicians. However, the problem with accepting the conventional wisdom about educators being placed at the bottom of society's 'knowledge feeder chain' is that this may essentially be degenerative. In successful societies, educators play a central role in creating employers, facilitating knowledge creation and entrepreneurialism that in turn creates jobs and opportunities: The other view may mean that the education system is simply being driven around by businesses who, by definition, must minimise uncertainty and merely accept flexibility as a way of life. The business' view of T-skills would give us prosperity only if we can hold everything else in a freeze, which, as we all know, will never be the case. So, in a way, the society's requirement of T-skills, if one is ever articulated, may look somewhat akin to the educator's, rather than employer's, and indeed examples from silicon valley may present evidence to this view.

The usual retort to this argument, but one is usually left unspoken, is that not all institutions are the same, and it is possible to build a hierarchical structure of institutions to serve different purposes. Indeed, the model draws upon California, despite its current broken state of affairs, and its system of Higher Education: However, this is the model practiced in most countries with a tiny-at-the-top system of education, with highly selective, high prestige institutions being helped out with more than proportionate resources to serve the most talented, who are somewhat pre-selected to lead the social advances and push the boundaries of knowledge.

This is as beautifully and logically conceived as the Soviet Five Year plans were, and seems to be having a similar consequence. Systems always assume a life of its own, and its rules diverge with social realities very rapidly. In fact, development and institutionalisation of this system not only causes a divergence from social requirement of skills - any system is self-preserving and therefore seeks to minimise the possibility of disruption and uncertainty - but also drives students to focus on skills and abilities different from those the employers may want. The system's own schema of T-skills is constructed upon a deep understanding of the system itself, and its breadth becomes basically about playing the system.

The essential divergence between the employers' requirements and the educators' agenda may be emerging from the persistence and ubiquity of the industrial era Post-compulsory education system, its value system, institutions and entire supply chain along with test provisions and ranking mechanisms. Without the meddling of this elaborate system of privileges and resource allocation, even with the reverse T, the educators' priorities are well poised to serve the society, by spawning entrepreneurialism, by creating knowledge and by enabling the convergence of interests in creating opportunities. Indeed, this is not to claim that everyone should have, or even, need the same education: But the answer to this diversity of requirements is not to create a stratified system of privileges based on pre-selection, but a flexible schema based on equality of opportunity but diversity of outcomes.

To visualise how this could work in practice, consider a technology-mediated Post-compulsory education schema, where everyone receives 10 or 12 years of compulsory schooling, providing literacy, numeracy and liberal arts and sciences foundation. After this, everyone goes to work, and an open system of two-year undergraduate education is constructed around practical exposure and experience (which will essentially construct the breadth of skills and abilities), alongside development of reasoned critique and reflection on practice. Completion of this education is achieved through additional one or two years spent in either a discipline-based studies, setting out pathways for research, knowledge creation and thought leadership; or a Professional route, studying technical skills and abilities. This exists today, in spirit, in many countries; in practice, however, this system is trumped by a ranked university system which operate within silos, promoting 'social life' above all else, and expecting employers to recruit on the basis of name-brand recognition. So, this call for T-skills is nothing but a call to deliver what education is designed to deliver, opportunity, by escaping the industrial era legacies of social engineering, stifled mobilities and irrelevant game-playing. 

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