Two conversations in a space of a few days give me an aha! moment: A vexing problem seemed to have become clearer. This is what I intend to write about here.
The first of these conversations happened in Delhi. I was speaking to a senior official in one of the large employer organisations. The Indian government, after blundering around with vocational training and wasting huge sums of money on it, has recently asked this employer organisation, along with other similar organisations and trade bodies, to set up sector skills councils. The idea is to focus on the skills needs of India's most promising industries, and draw up some kind of list which the education providers could follow. Such specifications, concluded the policy makers, will remove the ambiguity that educators face, and hopefully bridge the education-to-employment gap.
The person I was speaking to, a senior Director of the organisation leading one such project, recounted to me how difficult it is to draw up such a map. His point was that the industry did not know what it wanted. There were job descriptions, yes, but no skills map. It was impossible to translate the employers' requirements into some kind of model which could be followed by education providers.
The next conversation happened in London, on my return. When I recounted this experience to one of my senior colleagues, someone who has worked at the Employer-Educator interface for many years. Recounting my conversation in Delhi, I presented this as a particularly Indian problem, stating that Indian employers did not know what they wanted. My colleague, however, disabused me of my misconception immediately. Almost preempting my full description of the problem, he pointed out that in his experience, gathered over the years in many countries across the world, employers almost never had a skills map: They had job descriptions. The employers' life is full of vexing real life problems, which need attending to using a variety of approaches. It is not their job to come up with 'skills specifications', a task bureaucrats want them to do.
Every employers he had ever spoken to, my colleague said, wanted about five things in their potential employees. They wanted them to be good communicators, good with customers, organised and motivated, problem solvers and able to learn on the job. These are generic skills, and every employer may have a slight twist on what they exactly meant. But the employer requirements were almost always expressed in these terms, rather than any detailed skills maps.
I recount these two discussions because these were enormously instructive to me. I have gained several insights from these:
First, what I thought to be a peculiar Indian problem isn't really an Indian problem. My colleague never interacted with an Indian employer before. There may be peculiar Indian slants - the 'good communicator' in India may mean good spoken English - but the problem that employers don't know, or don't care much about, skills and competencies is perhaps universal.
Second, the reason the policy-makers drive enterprises such as 'skills councils' because they are thinking 'like a state'. As James Scott argues, this is why most bureaucratic arrangements fail. The bureaucrats automatically assume that the life of the employer is planned and organised in a certain manner, perhaps in the way their own lives are. However, the employer is out in the field dealing with ever-changing realities full of agents that they don't control, not something the bureaucrats can comprehend even remotely. The employers don't know about 'competencies' because it keeps changing: Besides, they often have to make do with competencies they have. Competencies, from the bureaucratic vantage point, are something to be planned and created; for the employer, this is something that emerges.
Third, the generic competencies that the employers want don't translate well to specific educational objectives, because these are often behavioural traits that need more than just classroom intervention. They often concern the general approach of the individual, not something educational institutions want to get involved into. They are sort of 'graduate attributes' than 'learning objectives'. The way education is sold, a laundry list of various 'modules', can not capture the employer requirements well - except for one motherhood module of 'personality development', which, in any case, obscure more than it says.
Indeed, these problems are well known. This is why several ill-fated 'finishing school' programmes get conceived, which acknowledge, if inadvertently and as an exercise in self-defeating, the limitations of the educational institutions to provide what the employers want. The primary reason is that these 'finishing school' programmes are conceived mostly superficially, based on assumption such as doing some powerpoint on what to wear may make one dress smart! But even if they did things more sincerely, the model is based on flawed assumptions - and this is really the reason why even the most committed educators also often fail.
These flawed assumptions, my colleague pointed out, are based on misunderstandings based on the languages educators and employers use. They are often using the same terms - like 'critical reasoning' - but meaning different things. In that example, the educators may develop 'critical reasoning' as an approach to question the status quo, whereas the employer is using the term to mean a pragmatic approach to resources and constraints. Same may be said about 'communication': The educators take great pains to develop rhetoricians, skills to persuade through superior rationality, whereas the employers are looking for empathy, persuasion through understanding of others' point of view.
Indeed, one can endlessly argue the superiority of one approach over another, but that would be missing the point. Indeed, the employers' limited goals may not replace the educators' goals of developing the whole person, but the whole person can't be complete if she does not have the wherewithal to deal with the commercial and material realities of everyday life. Besides, if we put the poor learner in the middle, who is anxious about paying off his debts and make life better for herself and her parents, one needs to pay heed to all the things on the table, and can't afford to ignore what the employers may want. There is a lot that gets lost in translation, and the bureaucratic intervention, based on flawed understanding what the employers want, makes things worse rather than better. This is where innovation in education must happen and indeed, this needs to be more than listing out a few skills which would be outdated sooner than they were even put on paper.
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