Saturday, October 31, 2015

Inverting The Education-to-Employment Debate

The Education-to-Employment transition is one hot debate worldwide, with a host of endeavours, both within traditional education and outside it, directing enormous amounts of money and innovation towards solving it. And, despite all these efforts, gap is just getting wider, and more and more people are completing education but not getting a job. And, besides, if one looks at starting salaries, the problem is even worse - underemployment is rife and level of jobs that these candidates get often do not need the education they have got.

All of us possibly know people who did not get a job after finishing education, and indeed, people who are underemployed. But, chances are, we also know people who found their groove, as one would say, after a few years of drifting around. I almost see a pattern with people who come out of school with a degree in, say, Arts, that they would have a succession of poorly paid jobs and internships, and then, the most resilient of them, would actually start off on a promising career. So, while the education-to-employment looks severe if we solely focus on the fate of recent graduates, but it may not be quite so bad if one takes their longer term prospects into account.

I have been working on the Education-to-Employment fault-line for many years, almost two decades excepting a few brief stints in technology. Most of it felt like a combination of banging my head against a brick wall and trying to talk about a problem that no one, those who are really concerned, really cares about. Consultancies may do, as they have to sell their reports to governments, but the educators, who think, rightly, the end of education should be more about mere employment, and employers, who really see them as consumers of talent but do not want to have anything with educating them, couldn't care less for this transition. 

However, my feel is that there is more than just indifference. For one, the For-Profit schools, whose business model really depends on getting their graduates jobs, have not done too well either. In fact, the For-Profit schools have made the loan default problem worse in the United States. Employers, who chronically complain about talent shortages and pour money into universities to help create talent they need, have had limited impact. It seems that we need a complete paradigm shift if we have to problem substantially.

One such paradigmatic question is to ask whether it is relevant to talk about Education-to-Employment anymore. This implies a sequence, which may or may not be valid any longer. It is definitely not valid for those early-career drifters who really learn from those years of drifting before settling into a career. And, indeed, the growing wave of boot camps and uncollege movement, is directly challenging the traditional sequence of life. One could claim that these are still outliers, and more and more people are going to college, but the point is to think whether the traditional assumptions about stages of life is still valid.

It makes sense to point out that what we just called the traditional assumptions are not that traditional. Even in the eighties, the expectation was that High School would develop job specific skills, and the college, both in Europe and North America, would develop leaders, entrepreneurs etc. Somewhere in the nineties, this switched to the modern idea of mass Higher Education, primarily because of the expansion of technology jobs (and growing automation in other jobs). Thinkers like Charles Handy may have predicted it (different types of organisations and careers that start and end later), but college was not about entry-level jobs at all. Since then, we have had enormous expansion of college infrastructure, without necessarily updating the mindset. So, if the entry level jobs still remained at High School level, but now took in graduates because they were abundant, it is a self-inflicted problem. We may find Charles Murray elitist, but this is the point he seems to be making - too many people are going to the college - and we need to think whether we can do better.

One idea for doing better is to invert the Education-to-Employment conversation. Why does it have to be education first? Lifelong Learning is now a known concept, at least in Europe, and we have learned to accept education as a continuing process. Building an intertwined education-and-employment process may be one solution to the equation we are trying to solve. 

In practice, this would look like a sequence of boot camps and employment for people coming out of High School, all of which will earn college credits. This is not about simulations, project placements or internships (most meaningless of all), but real work, for which one gets paid for. This should be employment leading to education, rather than the other way round. And, indeed, education, in this model, would mean more than getting a job, as the students would be in employment first, and more than job skills, because one has to do more than just learning the technical and professional skills to get a degree. 

One could question whether employers would readily participate in a scheme like this. This is a question of design, as this model is more relevant in some sectors than others. It is indeed a question of carefully mapping labour markets, projecting demand and focusing on areas of high growth, rather than going after jobs that exist today. This is indeed where private capital fails to see this model, in its quest for scale, and it is only visible from the vantage point of an educator. My work in the last few years have convinced me that even in more traditional countries like India and China, employers are ready to participate in such projects, if, instead of starting with academic subjects, the educators are ready to start with their needs - and look to top up a students readiness for life with academic abilities. 

One can possibly see this idea to be consistent with the culture of vocational education, a predominantly European theme increasingly popular in the developing world. However, because the model is broken, the conversations about vocational education has been more like the higher education, scholastic and classroom-based, without its prestige. In some ways, inverting this education/employment conversation is also about ending the false divide between vocational and academic education, and creating, at once, a more unified but a more nuanced structure.



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