Rethinking Education-to-Employment Transition

Since October, as I walked out of my job, I have been looking to fine-tune my ideas about Education-to-Employment transition. 

The first step of this was to look at the experiences of last six years, which I spent developing, first,  an online competency-based education programme and then on building employer-engaged online project-based education. These were all good ideas, and the reason that I am not doing these any more are partially operational: The first business was underfunded, and the second one was poorly conceived and implemented. But those are discussions for a different day. I am focusing currently on understanding the key conceptual elements - what works and what doesn't work - of a successful education-to-employment transition.

Indeed, the claim that we can make a student employable with a few months of training is apparently pretentious. The years of schooling, family background and the students' dispensation, and luck, plays a much bigger role than any training can. And, while we may claim that we can make a difference 'all things being equal' - well, they never are.

So, once we accept that there is no secret sauce, the best an educator, intervening for a short duration at the interface between employment and education, can do is two things: Equip the student with a self-awareness, so that she can find a suitable path for herself, and to expose her to real work as much as possible, with the objective that she can develop a real taste of working. 

But, as I figured out, none of these are easy. The problem of creating self-awareness is that most of the academic education works against this. The colleges have commodified degrees, which agents and admission officers sold vigorously, and any truth-telling after the fact is likely to be unwelcome. This self-awareness eventually comes, after the student has tried and failed; but actively trying to facilitate its development is risky business.

The problem of exposing people to real work, within the well-worn path of internships or outside, are two-fold. First is that one can have only so many internships and only a handful of students can really be given opportunities. Besides, internships are often free labour, and the learning opportunities are limited. In fact, the conversation about internships is often counter-productive, as the glamour internships at Investment Banks are hardly the experience most interns have. For most interns, it is a very expensive, and often unaffordable, way to get lucky.

I am, therefore, back to where I started - into competency-based education. What I am looking to do is to build competency models which are open, rather than made to order for one industry/ company or another. I know this is not what competencies are understood to be - they are specific by definition - but my argument is that the workplaces are rapidly changing and the competency models must adapt too. My inspiration is, as is obvious, the Dynamic Capabilities models that was developed in the 90s, which looked at organisational capabilities in a dynamic manner (how does the organisation respond to rapidly changing external environment by combining internal and external resources). I am hoping that this would move the argument forward from the woolly 'soft skills' - and adequately take into the reality of the workplace where nothing is certain and everything is possible.

The other important aspect where I have moved on from my earlier attempts at this is that I have abandoned the flat world assumptions that the earlier businesses were based on. The pitch for both of those businesses were for the global middle class, and the preparation for global work. But the experience has now taught me that education is a culturally specific activity, and underlying global work is a well-defined model of international division of labour. So, IT work in India is not the same as IT work in China or in Israel, and the Construction work is different in Malaysia and Dubai from what it is in India. And, methods of learning are also different - ranging from, if I use a known model, principles-first approach in India or China to applications-first approach in England or America. Indeed, once I abandon the assumption of the possibility of global education and global work, my model becomes locally defined and globally enabled education (rather than the other way around), with a significant brick-and-mortar component in the mix.






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