Saturday, October 11, 2014

Education-for-Employment: The Shape of The Problem

I was in an Education Symposium in Singapore last Saturday and had this moment of truth: As one of the speakers were complaining about the lack of employer engagement in education, someone sitting next to me turned and whispered, "those who complain that employers don't care about education may not have met a real employer yet".

The latter is indeed the correct position to have, at least in a conference such as this, which is somewhat focused on the Education-to-Employment gap. The unannounced assumption behind such gatherings are always, as fashionable today, that education is out of sync with the wider commercial realities of the day, and there is a real concern from the employers that the modern education does not deliver the skills they need. The students, whose primary motivation for spending additional years in college is to have access to middle class life, are worried about it too. In short, whoever delivers a more relevant education for employment, wins.

So, to complain that employers are not interested is somewhat counter-intuitive. This is not even rational, because why won't they be as they have nothing to lose. Besides, employers keep talking about talent problem, and talk to any of those overworked, desperate recruitment managers, and you know how much they care about colleges delivering better graduates who meet their specs accurately. 

However, as one would suspect, the speaker's position in this case was based on his personal experience, and so was the commentator's. The 'theory' that employers must be interested in educational output may need to be re-examined in the light of the practice, and it is perhaps sensible to accept not all employers are the same. If that sounds too obvious, one must add that there may be some rational basis for some employers to be less concerned about the state of education than others. And, rather than being an invitation to drop the subject altogether, this understanding may form the basis of engagement with employers.

So, why wouldn't an employer be interested in educational outcomes?

Indeed, the most obvious answer is the concerned employers' business model and competitive position. Some of it is obvious: Some employers are competing for talent, such as Google, but others are dependent on warm bodies, which are more or less available. The former gets to be the employers' voice at conferences more often than others, creating the impression that employers are desperate for talent, while what happens in the ground can be quite different. And, indeed, it could be quite different from place to place within the same organisation: What Accenture does in United Kingdom can be distinctly different from what they do in India.

Take, for example, the BPO industry, and we always seem to talk about the BPO industry in the context of education-to-employment gap in developing countries, the model is often bulk recruitment of relatively lower skilled workers. There is an established machinery not just for recruiting thousands of people, but also for rejecting many of them within the first few months, and only retaining a tiny proportion of this huge mass through promotions and development. In short, BPO employers are somewhat positioned as the earthworm for the modern economy in the developing countries, lowest in the food chain and in a brutal and roundabout way, a part of the educational value chain itself. A twenty-five year old with a couple of year's of BPO experience is the one who is in a real mess in the developing countries, and the education-to-employment talk is often more relevant to this person than the ones who have not been through the BPO grind yet. In short, education-to-employment gap sure exists, but it is at different places in different sectors and economies.

Besides, there are indeed cultural approaches to expertise and credentials in different societies. In theory, credentials should adequately reflect expertise. However, in post-colonial societies, where social power is closely linked to articulation because this connects one to those holding the powers (in the colonial tradition), the credentials may often be designed to reflect the ability to articulate than to do. In short, there may be an institutional divergence between credentials and expertise, and a socially accepted one. And, indeed, the societies which maintained a cultural continuity from the colonial times, expertise is less valued than credentials, because it used to be so. [Take, for example, India, where the greatly skilled Muslin weavers were systematically decimated by unfair trading systems imposed on it through the indigenous traders importing machine-weaved clothing from England: The first group's expertise was no match for the second group's ability to speak in English and closeness to their English masters] Within such cultural context, even the most competitive employers will be credential sensitive, but care less about the relevance of education (not surprisingly, the Indian government's groundbreaking idea for expansion of education to match the needs of the modern economy is to extend its flagship brands of IIT/ IIM to many more institutions, just as the application numbers to IIMs are at an all time low).

This may sound like a basic segmentation of the employers, and it is surprising how many of us just live in a bubble of our own empirical and cultural experiences. The education-to-employment gap exists, but it is far more complex than one would like to think. I have met many Foreign providers who believe that it relates to the quality of undergraduate education in developing countries and focus their efforts to solve this problem. These efforts are usually misdirected, because if the students speak good English, which they have to in order to get into these foreign education courses, they don't have an education-to-employment gap even after high school: They can get themselves into a BPO churn immediately. The big education-to-employment gap, instead, arise when they have emerged on the other side, cynical and brutalised from their BPO experience: In their mid-twenties, still living with parents or in a hostel, either without a job or in a hopeless one, they often seek to find a meaningful route back into life. The usual Western educational model wouldn't fit them, and venture capitalists are usually daunted to consider them as a target group because of their cynicism: But this is where education-to-employment gap is at play, not outside but perhaps even inside employment. This is the big hairy problem for the educators, and whoever solves the problem, wins in these markets.


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