Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Designing Talent Exchanges

I have spent more than two decades exploring the Education/Employment divide.  Starting in 1995, when I signed up to set up networks of IT training centres across small-town India, I have been chasing this idea of seamlessly transitioning students from the world of learning to the world of work (a set of terms I picked up on the way). Along the way, I have spent time doing various kinds of training and education - IT Training (1995 - 2004), e-Learning (2004 - 2007), Language Training and Recruitment (2007 - 2010), Higher Education (2010 - 2012) and finally, Competency-based Higher Ed (2012 - 2015) - in various geographies in Asia and Europe. Of all these different experiences, being on the other side of the table - in global recruitment - perhaps had the most impact on how I think about the issue of Education-to-Employment transition. In fact, my engagements in Higher Education started precisely with this agenda - I was employed by a private Higher Education institution to build their Placement Cell and I ended up actively transforming the education proposition of the college - and this remains central to my concerns till date.

But before I try to sum up all this experience and draw conclusions, I need to state the obvious - that this is personal. I grew up in pre-liberalisation India and studied Economics, going all the way through to a Masters degree without thinking about what job I would get thereafter. I would admit I was in a comparatively privileged position, but the realisation did come most suddenly - and my answer to that was to sign up for something outside my university studies. I learned Computer Programming in one of the institutions that I would later work for, and that got me the job even before I completed my Masters examinations. It was seamless, in a way, but may be not, because I have to actively construct my career moving from role to role for the first few years, as well as retraining myself with a business degree early in my career. 

All this, and later experience, inform my view about education-to-employment transition, including the following beliefs

1) The big problem in education-to-employment transition is that we have a closed system of education and a closed system of employment - two sealed boxes - which do not talk to each other that well

2) Despite the common sense logic, it is not easy to open these boxes, as there are powerful interests that would want to maintain the system as it is, claiming that it is tried-and-tested (though tried-and-failed, going by the number of unemployed youth, is more apt)

3) On the education side, regulators want to maintain the closed box by the sheer force of habit - the Degree being the ultimate closed system there is

4) On the employer side, the marquee employers, because of their relatively privileged position in the Labour market, maintain the proxy of degrees (and its prestige) to recruit, though they would retrain the candidates at great cost after recruitment

5) The demand from big employers ensure that the degree lives on as a closed system, though the small and medium sized companies, though they employ more people collectively (and lack the resources needed for retraining), struggle to find suitable candidates, creating the education-to-employment gap that we talk about

6) For-Profit Education, despite its key promise of finding people jobs, gets blinded by the lure of the degrees, simply because it is easier to sell because of the sponsorship of big employers, and indeed wants it to remain a closed box to maintain the barriers to entry in the sector.

What follows is that we have (a) big company recruitment system locked in to degrees from prestigious universities, which (b) leads to a degree fetish among students even if they do not go to the top universities and therefore, have little chance of getting a job, which (c) leads to more supply of sub-par degrees from For-Profit and other colleges, which create unemployed graduates, a problem (d) that newer investment aims to solve by providing more degrees. All these indeed build a huge pool of the educated unemployed, people without hope that is, while, in the meantime, people who did not have a degree, flock to the same colleges in the hope of salvation through a degree - and in the end, join the army of educated unemployed. However, while I found my salvation through non-degree skills training, and indeed all the new movements of DIY education, bootcamps and uncollege movements, point to the same direction, the closed system of degrees, tradition of college are very powerful, and immediately put everything else in an inferior category. Particularly illustrative are the efforts of developing countries, and India prominently among them, to establish standards of vocational education, which was doomed from the word go as this was seen as a second class education.

One way of trying to resolve this dysfunction is to think in terms of Open Business Models. It is difficult, particularly because Open Business Model thinking runs counter to the ideas the investor community is comfortable with. The education investment philosophy so far was centered on extracting efficiency. The approach of education investors is just like other investors who seek to extract value by privatising public utilities, by breaking through supposed inefficiency of tutor bench time (or research time as one may call it) or enhancing the Tutor-Student ratios by imposing uniform processes. Education innovation, in this context, means imposition of factory system on a sector which is, to a degree, still guided by pre-industrial value systems, and employing technologies to build cost savings. The exploration of Open Business Models, now a common theme in many of the more competitive and innovation-driven industries, is alien to education, which is still guided by a regulated public utility (regardless of whether it is run with public money or private investment).

So, in this me-too space, I see an opportunity of building what I am calling, provisionally, talent exchanges. These are not colleges, and they are not close-ended systems trying to educate any learner. But, rather, these are Open interfaces for educators to interact with employers, and employers to create opportunities for students to know real life work. These will be different from typical sandwich courses, popular as they are, as the talent exchange should provide real work opportunities that could be turned into academic credit. That way, the existing degree fetish can be reconciled with the emerging need of skills education. And, indeed, this talent exchange, which should attract big employers because of the availability of talent, but serve small and medium sized companies and employers more commonly, should create an alternative currency in recruitment - talent exchange experience and portfolio - which could sit side by side with the revered degree.

Admittedly, this is very much work in progress, but this may very much the next experiment that I want to set myself up for. The reason I like the idea of talent exchanges built ground up with local employers is because this escapes the top-down global education models that the developing countries, where this education/employment dichotomy is playing out most earnestly, do not need. Most other attempts at better education, including my own attempt at UAspire, become, fairly quickly, attempts at selling developed country degrees, with little or no relevance to the host country. This talent exchange model allows one to construct locally relevant models with local or global qualifications, as may be needed.  

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