Education-for-Employment : The Imagination Gap

As we search for a formula to make our students ready for a productive engagement in the economy, we are thinking of an 'economy' as a static thing. It is an industrial age construct of production and consumption, a system of hierarchical roles and proportionate rewards, with a somewhat predictable future. However, this is not the economy we live in: The economy, as we know now, is like a conversation rather than a structure, and it is those who change the conversation, rather than follow the structure, win.

The main thrust of our attempts to make our students employable today is on the unity of rhetoric, on making sure that our students talk the language of the workplace. The formula we are seeking is based on an ever-closer integration with workplace: However, the poverty of such formula may be quite obvious once seen in the perspective of the squeezing of the middle class and rise of the superstar economies. The elevator of the middle class life is jammed, in the West and everywhere: The persisting dream of a predictable life-cycle may be the staple of our education system, but it is gone for ever.

The gap that we are dealing with then is one of imagination, rather than one list or the other that we get to deal with in the conference circuit. The rhetorical expertise works in relatively structured economies, but not when the chaos has set in. If there is a choice between continuing to arrange deck chairs and looking to find a lifeboat, we are at that moment of the lifeboat, in the developed economies as elsewhere. 

Employers today express very valid concerns about the ability of the students to productively participate at work. The limitations of this view comes when they try to break this down into what it really means: They talk about 'problem solving abilities' whereas 'Problem Finding' may be a bigger problem now. The structure and processes are already so mature in most workplaces that they may obscure the assumptions underlying them: That they expect the whole world behave in a predictable way to keep the company's structures and processes workable. They don't expect, for example, a building in the outskirts of Dhaka to collapse, resulting in the death of thousands of poor people, and then a few dogged bloggers to tear through carefully crafted supply chain and land the blame on the doorstep of some of the best regarded brands in the West, which pride themselves on social responsibility. In cases like this, 'problem solving skills' may be directly at odds with 'problem finding abilities' and it is plainly inconceivable, particularly in the context of the risk society we live in, not to focus on the latter.

This is just one example of the limitations of the formulaic approach to productive engagement. We may find similar gaps elsewhere in the discussion too. Employers may talk about 'communication skills' but they may simply be talking about mastering the PowerPoint, which, in the context of their meeting room behaviour, is a key skill: However, unacknowledged but inevitably, dealing with diversity may have become a bigger challenge. The imagination gap is at work here: In fact, that English is fast becoming World's common business language make the challenge of diversity worse, not better. This may sound counter-intuitive, but using English does not mean signing up to Queen's English but rather making it one's own, which means that the same language sphere is now laden with diverse cultural nuances. Dealing with diversity may not feature in any of the employers' skills lists, and yet this may be the critical ability for one to succeed anywhere in the modern economies.

So it goes with ethics: The employers live in a post-moral world, defining the purpose of all commercial activities within a narrow framework of shareholder value maximisation. However, this puts them at odds with not just the rest of us, but also with their employees, where such framework, at some stage or the other, falls short. Besides, the same ubiquitous social media, which makes moral posturing and pretenses easier (and make corporate social responsibility feasible), can turn brutal fairly quickly on ethical failures: Too many organisations are now discovering yet again the folly of trying to fool all the people all the time.

All this, and more, leaves us with the proposition that employers know everything what people may need except what they themselves need and whether they will be around even in the future. Smart employers, those that imagine the future on an ongoing basis, would rather want imaginative students over those who followed the rhetorical formula. Indeed, such imagination is more disruptive than we would like to believe: No one wants grounds up strategy and clearly divide the domains of strategy and practise, an assumption we carry unquestioningly and mistakenly into our education. However, bottoms up imagination is what may keep those employers in business. 

In the end, then, what we need is pragmatic imagination, and yet, this is almost impossible to do within an institutional structure that must be built around stability and predictability. This is why even when we know the problem, we tend to choose the lazy solution around rhetorical competence (which is what competency based models increasingly focus upon), making, in turn, the problem worse as the students seek to find solace in dogma and formula. There isn't a easy way out, and search for an easy way just reinforce the wrong message.


Karunesh Dev said…
From an Indian perspective, the problem is that companies which can afford to, tend to ignore graduates from lesser known institutes and hire from grade A institutes. This seems to be an easy choice and also is a no brainer that a person who is capable enough to crack a competitive entrance exam must be, otherwise , a good learner and in turn, a better performer, as compared to others.In India, we do not have "Market Ready" professionals. Some banks, manufacturing houses, engineering groups, fashion houses have come up with courses in collaboration with colleges to bridge the gap between what is required and what is available. However, there is still a long way to go. Skill development has to be taken up with a lot of caution and also at an industrial level.Government focus and help is available and it is a welcome move.However, private partnership is the need of the hour and apart from CSR, it should be the mainstay of business performance measurement and a driving force in developing the workforce as well.

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