Monday, October 19, 2015

On Open Frameworks and Talent Exchanges

In my work at the fault line between Education and Employment, it seems obvious that we have this problem in the first place because of the closed frameworks we have built. In Education, the accreditation has become an end in itself, and educators try to solve all the problems with a course, a big hammer no matter how tiny is the nail. Employers, on their part, are focused on identifying and attracting employees who have specific skills as required, another closed framework with a tiny opening. 

At one level, everyone seems to be happy with the situation as it is. Educators are intent on building a complete person who does not need a job, and employers are happy with that perfect employee whose education does not matter. At another level, this is a big social problem, as politicians sell their middle class economics on the basis of education-to-employment transition. They usher in globalisation at will and hail technological progress, and promise the magic of education to make this all work. They court new investments, which often threaten or at least transform local livelihood, and sell it to their electorate with the promise of jobs. When a company closes shop, they appear teary-eyed on television denouncing job losses, and promise better education as a path to new economy.

All of this fall apart in the world of closed frameworks of education and employment. The public policy, recognising this chasm, has tried to prise open the boxes, either by tying public money to employability of students, and creating incentives for more apprenticeship offerings by employers. But these solutions often indicate rear-view thinking, a sense of nostalgia rather than practicality. These solutions are designed to keep the boxes as they are, and ignore the emergent realities of global work or man-machine competition. These solutions often fall short of the requirements of a fast-growing population of job seekers, powered by demography in the developing world and by the loss of welfare state in the developed. These solutions, therefore, are often too little, too late.

The talk of Open Frameworks, which would perhaps be the logical way-forward, is an anathema. Educators can not see how it can fit into their world of degrees and courses. Even those who claim to be innovative, their innovation is limited to creating a better box - rather than not having to have the box at all. Employers, in their turn, are increasingly in love with a mythical ever-better mousetrap, one that attracts Mr and Ms Just-Rights into their fold, creating a super-star culture that push them more into a superstar culture and the search for automation. And, in the meantime, the education-to-employment conversation, despite its political potency and social impact, is reduced to meaninglessness - Educators resorting to voodoo of soft skills that they claim can just make anyone succeed, Employers obsessed with their sieve so that they can catch the tiny flicker of talent from anywhere.

And, besides the political problem this creates, there is the question of waste! The employers, though they never may fully appreciate the absurdity of the enterprise, often recruit people to find out they do not fit - more than 50% of the new recruits falling into this category, as some employers report. The educators, at great expense of students time and money, labour with concepts and ideas that go nowhere - and report the students to be disengaged. The poor students, caught up in the triple whammy of middle class dream, scholasticism and commercialism, end raking up student debt, waste years of figuring-out-what-to-do and get a poor start, if at all, in a career.

Contrast this with how the Open Frameworks could work. This will need, to start with, a social consensus around the importance of employment, which is the difficult bit. But if we all agree that a healthy society is one where all members are gainfully engaged or employed, we need to integrate various institutions of that society, political, academic and commercial, in the pursuit of that goal. This means rolling back some of the practises that we have become comfortable with - the political rhetoric without substance, narrow bureaucratic focus of Higher Education accreditation and the tyranny of the stock-market analysts who endlessly punish companies if they raise their head above the parapet and look out to long horizon - and thinking about new habits and practises. 

This leads to the point, the starting point of creating an Open Framework for Education-to-Employment transition, that thinking about Education-to-Employment gap is a wrong start. We should recognise, and reconcile, the three other chasm that put our society under stress. 

First, the chasm between Political Reality and Educational Practise should be resolved. Educators should recognise the centrality of work in our daily lives, and its meaning, not just in terms of economic sustenance but also identity. The monastic dream of education, of quiet, disinterested pursuit of knowledge should be reconciled with the modern peak experience of the Flow, defined and sustained by work, rather than leisure. 

Second, the chasm between business rhetoric of investment needs to be aligned with political requirement of full employment - a society that succeeds, and one can produce historical evidence for that, is the one which engages and employs its people as broadly as possible. So, it is not any investment, and not a meaningless number of jobs quoted at every pretext, but investments that create capability should be invited in. This means many things and may require elaboration, but at even the very superficial level, exclude the pursuit of hazardous industries, or those automated factories which gobble up land in turn of some hand-outs to destitute local population, often aimed to create incentives to never return home again.

Third, and this follows from the one immediately above, once we start recognising the social goals of commercial activities, we should be able to reconcile the educators goal of creating functional communities with the commercial goal of turning profits. The current export-led economic development often create an imbalance, as it is predicated on cheapness of the resources of the producing country and the affluence of a distant land. However, we may be experiencing the limits of this model, with the oncoming automation but also various social and cultural shifts, and in any case, such models of development have proved transient. The commercial models that served the local market, gained expertise and created clusters of experience, have proved to be much better value, and this may be perfectly consistent with the educational ideas of community and sustainability.

Taking all these fault lines together, rather than in isolation as we tend to do now, has one benefit - that it allows us to see the benefits of exploring an Open Framework, as opposed to currently closed and defined boxes that we tend to put economy, community, education and employment in. The basic issue, the disconnection and misalignment of various parts of an organic system, is somewhat obscured when we talk about education-to-employment gap. It is no wonder that we believe a better course (or content or pedagogy) can be the solution without having to change how we do things.

However, once we take all these various aspects of our broken social arrangement together, we should be able to see that the solution may be in designing Open Framework talent exchanges. This is about putting work at the core of the educational proposition, aim of capacity creation and utilisation as the core objective of social policy and creating sustainable, community oriented business models as the way of doing business. In this framework, students should be able to work on various projects available with employers and be able to claim academic credits using a framework available from the educational institutions. The employers should open their doors to students as much as possible - which is not very different from what small and medium sized firms do all too often, and apprenticeships are all about - and educators should take responsibility of their students working within the framework set by employers. In this, the employers should not just pretend to set up a campus and rather behave like a campus, and educators, instead of seeking out placements and hankering after employability, just recognise the value of real work and produce frameworks of learning around that.  Once this happens, instead of billeting for superstars, the employers will find it more attractive to continually engage and fund the talent exchange itself, hopefully lessening the debt burdens of the students. And, indeed, the governments would, should, do the same, facilitating it by tax credits to companies for helping the full employment come about.

This may all too utopian now, but as the pace of globalisation and automation quickens, we are in a brave new world, when closed frameworks will indeed come under stress. And, all closed frameworks, including the artificial dichotomies between skills and education, higher and lower education, apprenticeships and degrees, education and employment being one of these.



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