Thursday, December 11, 2014

Global Workforce Crisis: Education As A Solution

I recently wrote about the 'Global Workforce Crisis' (see here). This issue, from my perspective, is both self-evident, because there is no denying of the age curve, and limited, because there are so many other issues, political, social, environmental and even emotional, that need to be dealt with before we can even start talking about 'workforce crisis'. The world is more than one giant factory, and pursuing problems such as these make us overlook that.

However, it is also equally important, before we indulge into any of those 'soft' aspects of the Workforce crisis, to appreciate how important 'economic growth' really is in the system we live in. Small is beautiful may be a great motto, but in the wider economy, with constant growth, there will be no 'credit'; and without credit, there will be no economy. The economic debate is not about how we can keep things the way they are, but how we can keep moving forward - because the modern economy we have built, depend crucially on our view of the future.

From this limited, economic, perspective, some solutions to the Global Workforce crisis look attractive: Migration is one of them. In a simple supply-and-demand world, where the age curve is turning real nasty in some countries with high level of economic activity, one can't fail to spot other countries, with relatively limited economic opportunities but really promising demographic profiles. However, as we all know, migration has its limits: Just as the industrial economies have started automating and limiting employment, one can't start importing software engineers from other countries without upsetting a lot of people. And, migration of this kind has a domino effect: The narrow right wing politics of the kind we see in Britain is somewhat a direct reaction to migration. 

If migration is so difficult, and ultimately self-defeating, how about non-geographical migration, such as offshoring? We already live in the age of global workflows and supply chains, so we may have embraced this solution already. However, we have also tested its limits, as we have seen a wave of near-shoring in the recent past, triggered by a myriad of factors ranging from cultural differences to the knock-on effect of the racial politics triggered by greater geographical migration. However, the biggest reason behind the relative decline of offshoring is automation - we have started replacing the very jobs with robots which we used to offshore - and our workforce crisis is indeed being most acute in the jobs which require human presence. 

Similarly, the other solutions to the question of workforce crisis, getting more women in the workforce, or extending the retirement age, have been tested to its limits. The richer an economy becomes, people want to retire early: Indeed, that's a part of the middle class dream. Bringing more women to the workforce, at the time when the working cultures become meaner and the Welfare State all but disappears, may mean lower birth rates and a worsening of the problem. 

All of which leads to point to education, both as a means to create a more productive workforce, and an enabler of a value system fit for the 'future', as the key to the solution to the workforce crisis. Despite its common sense appeal, however, we have done little, and in fact done harm, to our education systems and limited its ability to help solve the Global Workforce Crisis.

For example, with globalisation, we have assumed that the world economic system will be modelled along the lines of the old colonial past, some countries will be the source of raw materials - people in this case - whereas the others will do the value-added activities. Accordingly, we have built education systems, rapidly as it happened in the last couple of decades, to train people for process-based, lower in the value chain jobs, in the countries with large population, precisely the jobs that we may not need once the automation sets in. 

We have also systematically destroyed or underfunded the public education system in most countries. Particularly in Higher Education, the effect would have been disastrous. The For-Profit alternatives that we are so much in love with, by nature, focuses on the immediate needs of the market rather than taking a long view, as they must prove the 'pay-out' for the rip-off they are; this, in turn, means training people narrowly, and indeed, not preparing them for the changing workplaces. 

Some governments, like India's, have responded to the 'workforce crisis' precisely the wrong way, by taking a rear-window view and framing policy, and directing public investment, to train people for jobs that do not exist anymore. India's 'skills initiative', which is all about preparing people for low-end work, is based on a tired, static view of the world, and was outdated at the very moment of its conception. At the same time, the country allowed its higher education system to degenerate, and its public school system to disappear. 

For me, the talk of Global Workforce Crisis highlights an urgent review of these educational approaches. The key question perhaps is how does one prepare a large number of people with the creative and imaginative abilities, traditionally assumed to be reserved for the privileged, at a low cost. This flies in the face of all the educational assumptions we have made in the past, and even upsets the world view that we have entertained over past few centuries. Yet, this must be done, because otherwise we would wreck our future under the weight of our mindsets of the past.  



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