Tuesday, September 08, 2015

What Employers Want

Employment may not be the only goal of Higher Education, as some educators will justifiably claim, but it is certainly one of the goals. 

A good Higher Education have a great impact in building character, making one free, able to appreciate beauty, cooperate with other people and bring change. Wesleyan's Michael Roth will say that the goal of education is to liberate, animate, cooperate and agitate, and Howard Gardner sum it up as the quest for Truth, Beauty and Goodness. But, beyond this ideal of education, the political nature of the education enterprise that also must be acknowledged. After a century and half of expansion of public Higher Education, Higher Ed has a clearly embedded political purpose, that of lending legitimacy to the governments as they thrive on the idea of a Middle Class society, where everyone has access to opportunity in life through Higher Education. Consequently, the enrollments in Higher Education have expanded rapidly, and in a way, what used to be the bastion of privileged youth has now been flung open to everyone. As long as one accepts this as a good thing - there are some, like Charles Murray, who think there are far too many people going to college, but that is a politically incorrect view - one must be prepared to embrace the new aspirations, of jobs and better life, adequately.

In order to do this, however, one must treat Employers as an important constituent part of education and develop a fuller understanding of their needs and wants. I use 'constituent part' rather than the more officious 'stakeholder', as to fully serve the aspirations of the students, one may integrate the employers closely enough into the process of education rather than keeping them at the arm's length and treating them as consumers of education. Given that the employers are used to this consumer role too, such a transformation needs active engagement from the side of the educators, reaching out, as they say. Indeed, many educators feel that there should be a reciprocal reaching out from the employers' side to make this work, as they struggle to find the right employees. In fairness, some employers are trying, particularly the large companies, reaching out to the good universities and designing innovative programmes to engage students early. However, these programmes are conceived to attract top talent rather than to educate the multitude and make them employable, a task that the educators are expected to accomplish by the Governments that fund them.

The task of the educators is, therefore, cut out quite clearly - develop a fuller understanding of what the employers want and find a way to satisfy these needs. This may sound like common sense, but there is a yet-to-be-resolved dilemma that muddies the water somewhat. Do employers care about good education, or they are focused on narrow skills? And, if they are only looking for narrow skills required for today's jobs, isn't it self-defeating for the educators to focus on those given the fast-changing nature of skills and jobs? Hence, comes the laboured distinction between education and training, knowledge and skills, university teaching versus professional qualification, etc. Justifiable as these concepts may be, the central point in all these ideas is to keep the employability question outside the university gates - leading to some kind of denial of the link between education and employment.

There is a simpler way, though. Having engaged with employers of various sizes and industries over the last five years, I feel educators should feel reassured that employers care about good education and all the benefits that brings. In fact, if I attempt to summarise the main problem employers have with the 'Freshers', it would point to their work ethic, ability to do professional work, ability to meet deadlines, ability to understand the requirements etc. This can range from just turning up on time to attention to details and doing one's best work, but these are things which a good, rigorous education should enable students with. In a sense, students become less employable because they are often getting an easier ride through the system - the central point of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift - and because in their zeal to treat students as paying customers, universities are serving their demands, of getting a degree, a little too well.

What about technical skills and this claim that the employers only care about narrow technical skills required by their businesses and nothing else? Having spent time with employers, I believe the focus on technical skills is somewhat misleading. Most large corporations have facilities and programmes to train their new staff on the specific technologies that they need. But their recruiters, who are usually the people one gets to talk to when asking the question about organisational requirement, tend to over-emphasize the technical skills requirement. This is because the recruiter roles exist for the sole objective of finding the right fit (and reduce the organisational efforts to develop skills later) and in their world, perfect fit, often expressed in terms of a list of technical skills, is the only thing one needs. The message is very different if one engages at a different level, and particularly with business managers, because they face the problems of professional shortcomings of the candidates more acutely than anyone else. One does care for relevance of education at all levels - a job requiring technical competence is likely to go to people trained to do technical jobs, engineers, while a job requiring complex communication may go to rhetoricians - but the narrow technical skills conundrum arises out of a flawed engagement model solely focused at the recruiting end of the spectrum. The paradigm that education ends where employment begins, educators as producers and employers as consumers, dictates it to be such, but the model is essentially broken, as could be empirically observed within the twin phenomena of unemployable graduates and unfilled jobs occurring simultaneously.

Being at the sharp end of the education-employment interface, I reckon the key to solving the education-to-employment gap, as McKinsey calls it, is to see it not as a gap at all, but a false divide between education and employment. Good education does not end with school completion, and work ethic does not need to wait for the start of work. Employer engagement is not about merely taking employers opinions about curriculum, as it is done today, but working with them to eliminate the false dichotomy between education and employment. There are several things in the educators' toolkit that may help in changing the conversation.

For example, imagine how a university would certify a student, listing out the subjects and examinations s/he has successfully completed. A little more effort, and one could draw up a list of things that the certified student is able to do - can design, plan and execute large scale social research involving diverse group of participants and write coherent reports arguing clear action, would say a transcript of a good sociology student - and the employers would be able to assess the student better.

Also imagine what involving small and medium businesses can do in this context. The small businesses are amoeba of the world of work, both in terms of being the bottom end of the talent food chain and also being on the cutting edge of innovation. The world of small businesses is excellent as the in-between world, a world of work that can be integrated into the education as most small businesses would love conscientious interns who work for free. However, this work can help build the portfolio of real work as a showcase for what the students can do.

These are easy steps, but enough to turn the new hire into an experienced hire, and to escape the sieve at the recruitment end of the businesses, where definitions are far too specific, and engage at a more strategic level. Good education, work ethic and character matters there more, just as good educators predict they would. Apart from doing the educators' job well, which is a prerequisite, being strategic in engaging employers may help education-employment divide disappear.

























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