The Search for Employability

In a previous post, I questioned the notion of employability training as it is practised now. The subsequent discussion on Linkedin on the subject was illuminating. One of the contributors, Graham Doxey, who set up Neumont University in the US previously, had this to say (I quote him in full):

"As you know Supriyo I have been addressing this very issue for over 10 years now. I am impressed with the insights that this conversation is drawing out. I have thought of responding to some very specifically, but there are now too many so I will have to consolidate my thoughts. With my co-founders at Neumont University we set out to address this problem specifically in regard to computer science education in 2002. I personally met with dozens if not hundreds of CEO's and corporate leaders to get their buy in on this new approach to CS education. We got these companies involved in the education process from the first semester with increasing involvement such that by the last 2 semesters students were working in teams inside the companies building real solutions to real problems. We got rid of the agrarian calendar based system and were in class 10 weeks and off 3 weeks all year round. Students were in class from 8-5 Monday thru Friday. 70% of the curriculum was in a Project-based learning format and 30% focused on classroom based theory.

Companies were interviewing our students at multiple points in the educational process and giving us feedback as to how they valued them well enough in advance for us to adjust to improve the outcomes.

What were some of the results from this experience?
1- Students learn most effectively by doing and then teaching what they learned to their peers
2- Students didn't need 4 years to earn 120 semester hours of credits and master the content
3- The first graduating class had an average of 3 job offers each and were 100% placed before the last day of class in 2006 at an average starting salary of $63,000.
4- 10 years later the placement rates are still in the mid 90% range.
5- IBM hired more graduates than any other employer in the first year (when we had no reputation at all). That year they hired 13 Neumont grads, 2 from Carnegie Mellon and 4 from MIT. 1 year later they did a tracer study and found that the Neumont grads were in more senior positions and customer facing positions than grads from ivy league programs.
6- A majority of Neumont grads chose to work in small or medium sized companies and were hired into positions that required 2 years of experience.

What have we learned?
1- From working with hundreds of employers there is almost complete unanimity about what skills they value most, and it hasn't really changed over the last 10 years: Teamwork, Oral and written communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving skills, understanding of business processes, and then technical skills.
2- Education is a learning process that involves Acquisition of knowledge, Assimilation of knowledge, and Application of knowledge. Research is a learning process that results in new knowledge. Both discovery of new knowledge and learning about and mastery of existing knowledge to solve problems for others (employers or otherwise) are important to society.
3- A great irony of our expanding knowledge/service based economies is that information and knowledge itself is less valued than during the industrial based era. Today our society expects to find information and knowledge 24/7/365 for free. Conversely, the value of assimilating that knowledge and information and then applying it to solve problems is going up. Perhaps we are more of a solutions based economy than a knowlege based one :)
4- You cannot teach softskills in a classroom. The highest priiority skills are not technical. Teamwork, communication, conflict resolution, leadership, assertiveness, etc are all things are are learned best through doing. Hands on learning is a critical element of 21st century education.
5- The historical role of universities as repositories of knowledge (in their libraries and faculties) is changing. There needs to be research universities to explore and discover new knowledge and there needs to be universities that are excellent at helping students learn to assimilate and apply knowledge to solve problems. These are two very different learning processes and functions. I believe the innovations in education we see today will impact the later and not so much the former.

Sorry for the long response, but I feel like what we learned might be good to share and is relevant to this conversation in that I would suggest that relevant education enhances employability and enables students to competently contribute to their communities upon completion of their course of study. I am not sure that is education = employability but perhaps education should enhance employability."

Many institutions, in my experience, talk about employer engagement, but this hardly goes beyond inviting a few people for guest lectures or an odd lunch. Some institutions set up boards including employers, and then these boards meet once in a while. The kind of close integration Neumont had achieved is quite special. Most institutions base their strategy on a large professional team of placement professionals, continuously knocking the doors and securing interviews, and then preparing students for the same. Many institution leaders feel comfortable with the latter structure, as this makes tangible marketing object: It is much easier to say that the college has a big marketing team rather than it offers good education. However, this is precisely the kind of flawed strategy I took issues with in the 'employability' business: The question of 'employability' needs more effort than just setting up a placement team.

The insights highlighted in Graham's response would therefore be counter-intuitive: Employability is not a magic potion, but surprisingly sound similar to plain good education. The employers seemed to be after the students who can think for themselves, take the responsibility and develop continually. If these are the abilities most connected to employability, the current employability training, which is mostly about how to dress up and what to say in the interviews, is doing a great disservice to the students. Besides, these are skills one can't teach within the classroom and with a limited intervention. These ideas must be embedded in to the curriculum design and helped through creation of a conducive learning environment, things that get missed out when institutions treat 'employability training' as a panacea and focus elsewhere.

Set in this context, one must start distinguishing 'employability' from 'placement': If a student is employable, given the usual health of the economy, they would be 'placed', but being 'placed' does not necessarily signify 'employability'. Employability, once we accept the notion and start living with the word, is a strategic ability in the student to anticipate, develop and demonstrate knowledge, skills and aptitude as required by the economy, and continuously move forward in a direction that is professionally rewarding and personally satisfying. 

Seen this way, there is no conflict between the 'employability' credo and the objectives of a good education as more traditional educators will perceive it: It is about being sentient citizens, who contribute to the society and the economy and takes the responsibility of one's own well-being. Even if the employer engagement of the level and scale of Neumont's cited above may not be possible for some educators, sticking to these principles should be easier. However, while these may sound like common sense and fairly traditional, many educational institutions struggle to 'empower' the students to think and act for themselves.

This is where the employability problem really comes from. During my visit to Indian colleges recently, I was amazed to see that the colleges run taught classes six days a week, seven hours a day, even for Masters programmes. The students have no time for independent study and collaboration at all. When I asked, I was told that parents expect their children to be engaged full time! Despite the fact that they were being treated like infants, when I met the students, they appeared normal - conversational, addicted to their phones and pragmatic - leading me to conclude that it is the college which disempowers, rather than helping, them. Indeed, the same colleges are keen to enhance students' employability, in fact, they regard employment record as critical to their strategy and marketing, but they take a placement centric view of the problem, and then get mired into the problem of finding employers.

The college leaders who see the lack of student employment as a problem arising out of lack of placement efforts forget that employers have no incentive to get involved unless they see an appropriate educational proposition which can prepare the kind of students they seek to recruit. The placement centric approach is also likely to push the students in a reactive mode, just opposite to what they would need to be to be employable. So the strategy is flawed from the word go, serious employers don't recruit to do personal favours or just hire students because placement teams were persistent; they hire students because they have the right abilities and can do the job.

Education, in developed as well as in the emerging economies, is approaching a break point. Several factors, cost of delivery, political agenda, student demography, industry expectations, nature of knowledge and academic work itself, are changing at the same time, creating a crisis, but also space for innovation and new thinking. Employability, a label loved by everyone involved in education, is both summative and subversive: It captures the changing priorities, but brings into focus the values and nature of education. We have the opportunity to define the new agenda of education around the banner of employability, and this means we must go beyond the indulgences of 'placement' and try harder to create a meaningful strategy.


suresh said…
As you said most of the graduates are unemployable,because the present education is like making the students learn those things which are discovered centuries back,then what about the technology developed few year back.The content must be updated from time to time,year by year,this is the fault from the education system.

When we see from the students perspective,they are learning things just be listening,not be doing.The way they learn the content must be changed.I suggest ever y student to follow in such a way like : First learn a technology or a concept,then frame the merits and demerits,then question what the previous technologies,why we opt that now.

What do you say SUPRIYO CHAUDHURI sir...!!

Thanks - indeed, we are now firmly in the 'Learning By Doing' age, and your suggestions resonate well. Also, that your suggestion that we are critical about technology is absolutely essential: One of the great risks of practical learning is that one can become prisoners of their experience. This may mean they fail to anticipate change, miss out on opportunities and resist progress, unless they have learnt to continually and critically evaluate their practice. So, I agree with what you say. You will see elsewhere on this blog that this is exactly what I am trying to build at my work, a competence based system of learning, where the students focus on what they can do rather than what they just know.


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