Thursday, January 22, 2015

Who Wants to Remedy Graduate Unemployment?

Graduate Employability is a big problem. Depending on who you ask, we are looking at 30% - 40% of the graduates not being employed within a reasonable period of time after leaving college. The problem is so bad that we are inventing ways to hide it. Instead of bring it to the fore, we club graduates who get a job and who go to post-graduate education together, and ignore the cases of underemployment, so that we get some respectable data. The granular data that we may really need to address the problem, such as how many of our graduates are working in fast food shops, may present us with a bigger problem, that of busting the myth of the college altogether. We would instead focus our attention to other soothing pieces of data, such as the existence of a college premium. It is soothing but problematic because, people going to college earns more than those who dont, the gap is widening only because people who dont go to college have seen their incomes collapse, while the premium has been propped up by the million-dollar bonuses of some superstar professions. The fact that an average college degree for an average student gets one nowhere is a story that everyone wants to hide.

A large section of the academics, though by no means all of them, treats all the discussion about graduate employability as some sort of neo-liberal conspiracy, blaming the lack of jobs because of automation and offshoring practices of the employers. There may be some truth in this, but at the same time, the availability of educated people in a certain geography has known to have attracted investment and jobs to it. So, while employers may be guilty as charged - they are indeed looking for better profits by shifting jobs to areas where costs are lower - the academic institutions may be better served by trying to integrate themselves into an overall economic strategy of their host regions and making their students employable and attractive to the employers, rather than rejecting such notions out of hand. Automation, too, has its own lessons. Automation is destroying certain kinds of jobs and threatening middle class lives, but it is also opening up other opportunities. The employers are looking to automate, true, but the educational response is not to sink deeper into insularity but rather seeking to educate their students to be fit for the automated future.

The employers, and the powers-that-be, also need a bit of introspection on graduate employability. Educators get blamed for everything, from the students lacking communication skills to the ISIS insurgency in Iraq, but all this is happening in the context of a prevailing business doctrine that no taxes should be paid and the state should do as little as possible. The alternate to state funded education, the private alternative alongwith the perpetually indebted students, has not proved to be any better than the public ones. The private players talked a good game on employability, but have failed to deliver anything significantly different. The rapid disappearance of good public education at all levels have worsened the middle class crisis.

So, we might see the graduate employability as some sort of perfect storm, where all the problems of modern society, academic insularity, tax-dodging employers and government fudging of statistics, come together.  One can also argue that this is at the bottom of the big crisis we are facing, that of the disappearance of the good old middle class. President Obama may have finally come around to raise the banner of middle class economics, but the old middle class, committed to social mobility and hard work, may already be dead as a Dodo. The newer middle classes, which has inherited the label but little of the values, may be informed by a consumption ethic, which discounts all the commitments of long preparation and laps up the doctrine of being at the right place at the right time. A slew of technological and social factors, but also the education practices that we championed, have brought about this just-in-time education philosophy, which may sound nifty but at the same time, causes a number of problems that we see with graduate employability. While there is a broad point that what educators are doing may be at odds with what employers want, we also have an issue that students are not learning much anyway, as detailed in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksas work. So, this may be the fourth dimension of our problem - that not just the whole underlying system of middle class economics is broken, we are adding fresh problems everyday by sustaining a system that undermines even the middle class word and all it stands for. 

Can anything be done? One gets to see a number of people attempting to do something about it, not least because they see the opportunity to make big money by solving a big problem like this. However, whichever angle one wants to approach it from, it is like encouraging turkeys for Christmas. Employers can not be talked into paying higher taxes, educators can not be asked to give up their privileges and ways of life, governments can not be expected to publish data which will make them look like failures, and the students can not be expected to put in the hard work and learn something when everyone else around them dont see any value in doing so. 

However, a conversation must emerge and will emerge. Whatever Margaret Thatcher might have thought, there is a thing called society, and it has so far proved to have a wonderful mechanism of self-healing. The search for profits by the entrepreneurs is one part of it, but this is supplemented by many other feelings and motivations, including the urge to do good, commitments to people we know, desire to make our own lives and communities better, which make individuals to attempt more and achieve more than they are mandated to do in their prescribed social roles. This is what is happening to education today, as one sees a lot of people, from different professions, who seem to commit themselves to educational work without any clear motive or profit. Indeed, the solution needs more than just well-meaning individuals, and this may involve emergence of a platform of some sort to string together all these individual efforts into something meaningful. This is what is happening to graduate employability, as we see the start of many conversations, many ideas, and many linkages, all attempting to solve the problem. 

On a personal note, this is what I am attempting to study. This is indeed my day job, but also the key to all the ventures that I am looking at and working on. I may indeed report some of the work I am doing on this subject here. This post, in that sense, is a prelude.

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