Employability and the whole person

We needed an ugly word like 'employability' because we have a crisis: Despite all the promises and all the efforts, an unacceptably small percentage of people that we educate in our schools and colleges find the employment they expect, aspire for and deserve.

Never mind the statistics here. I am weary of it though there are plenty of 'studies' that will confirm the observation above. But the trouble with these studies is they are often motivated, and make big claims based on small efforts. It is easy to make headlines such as 'Only a quarter of engineering graduates in India are employable' but dig deeper and you will see that the basis of that is some executive's offhand remark, which ascribes all the blame to the graduates and their educators but says little about what employability meant in context.

Ask the educators and often they don't see what the fuss is about. It's a bit dated, but there was one McKinsey study, perhaps very skewed on US data (as these studies often are), which showed a big gap between the perception of the employers and that of the educators on their students' employment prospects. Again, indeed, such data does not explain the differences in disposition: Educators, who know their students, are more likely to take a positive view than the employers, who are talking about abstract students or only have a superficial view of the person. 

But, then, universities regularly fudge the employability data, mixing up how many of their students go into employment with those who continue their studies at a higher level (often because there were no interesting jobs in sight). Universities also make the big claim that graduate employability is higher than non-graduate employability, forgetting to mention that graduates often do non-graduate jobs these days and once they are into one, they get stuck there. The lifetime earnings of a graduate tower over nongraduates, but again, that data reflects broader social inequality (as some professions earn a lot more) than the magic of the university.

And, with so much fudge, the way to see the employability problem is not in the statistics, but on the street. It's in those broken promises of college transforming lives and the struggles of those first-generation college students. And now it's manifesting in other areas, in declining standards of life, in extremist politics, in shrinking productivity data and the constant struggle of businesses to find and retain employees. And, indeed, this is now showing up in stagnating college enrollments, drop out rates and, most importantly, in the cluelessness of the institutions about how to make the students employable.

It's this last bit that I wish to write about here. I can classify all the discussions I have had on the subject into two categories: First, there are those who consider employability an information problem. Students don't know where to find jobs, how to write their CVs, how to prepare for and approach an interview, etc., and therefore, they are not employable. Second, there are those who see employability as a structural problem. They hold that the workplace is changing faster and demanding new skills, whereas education, higher education in particular, is not changing fast enough and remain too academic and focused on knowledge acquisition. This mismatched approach makes students less employable, they hold.

So, the first group emphasize the style and presentation over substance and education. The finishing school may be a detested and elitist concept in Britain, but that's the buzzword in education in the developing countries, where employability problem is the worst. There are whole two year curricula focused on preparing the student for the interview etc. Style over substance, these efforts show that they are getting students jobs, though they are often riding onto the trend of hiring graduates for non-graduate jobs. Their graduates speak better English and get work in call centres, making this a very poor return on time and money spent. If we define employability in a broader sense as I tried above - not just of getting a job but the job the person deserves and can do well in - these efforts make the problem worse.

The other group, the neo-liberal, market fundamentalists among them, know the limitation of the first approach and therefore, seek redemption in skills training. Their method is to get students into internships, practical situations and additional micro-degrees, and to discount what public education does. As expected, they forget to see that this approach really works for the socially privileged, building on their existing strengths. The poor boy with the wrong accent only reconfirms his inferiority in these sink-or-swim enterprises. The educators' trade, that of creating possibilities, is abandoned swiftly in the quest of an employer-led flat world, where the students exist only to be pawns of the big businesses. It's the latter that defines what counts; the students' aspirations do not matter. And, as is expected, these enterprises only favour the privileged and solve the part of the problem that does not exist.
So, the first group, which operates primarily in China, India and other developing nations, want to export their 'success' to the West and believe that making graduates in England speak in correct English is the solution to the problem. The second group, primarily the 'disruptive' venture-funded American start-ups, believe that they can solve the developing world's employability problem by training a segment of its graduates - the IT-savvy English speaking segment at that - employable. Indeed, in universalizing the employability problem, they discount both culturally-specific individual aspirations and unique structures of national labour markets. Their failures, if these did not have such tragic consequences of broken lives, would be good comic stuff. 

In my practice, I want to go beyond the hubris of global transformation and yet address the employability challenge. I am yet to figure out how to build a business model out of it, given that I believe that this needs to be solved one person at a time. This is not about the slickness of presentation or skills injection; it is more or less what any educator's mission should be - helping the person find his place in the world. Employability is not about employment; it could be about a whole host of things - charity, enterprise, creative independence, migration included - and it's both about the search and the destination. 

In this quest, I know the solution lies in cultivating the whole person, as an educational engagement rather than outside it. There is no 'royal road' here (as Aristotle told Alexander) but a gradual exploration: Like happiness, the overt pursuit of employability is often self-defeating. Esoteric it sure sounds, but I am on the quest of a whole person 'employability' solution, rather than the superficial and meaningless ones that I have so far come across.   





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