Education-For-Employment: On 'Demand-Led' Education

The policy-makers conceiving grand vocational education schemes in developing countries often talk about 'demand-led' education. While their policies are almost always focused on the supply-side - the provision of money, creation of infrastructure, curriculum and teachers - the dream is that the employers would join in and indicate what kind of people they need. Consider India's 'skilling' initiatives: Millions of dollars were spent for 'capacity creation' before figuring out whether and what vocational training is needed, and then, creation of 'sector skills councils', apparently to work with employers to project skills requirements, happened. It was an afterthought, indeed, but seen as the panacea: A 'demand-led' approach will solve the 'education-to-employment' gap.

While this may sound common sense, this is as much a good thing as centralised five-year plans would be in today's world. It indeed makes sense for educators to prepare people after knowing the employers' needs to solve the education-to-employment gap, just as it was a good idea to direct resources to national priorities before the age of globalisation. The problem today is that employers have a limited perspective, and the students' lives are too dynamic. So, regardless of the appeal of the idea, demand-led model has not taken off. I would often meet policy-makers who will blame the apathy of employers; in fact, I have now come to equate the two - those who complain that employers don't want to engage in education are usually trying to take a demand-led path.

I have indeed seen this play out at the individual enterprise level. Ever so often I meet vocational education companies whose great strategic leap-forward is to create a 'demand-led' model, where they train towards employers' specifications. Indeed, these models don't work too, even at that small scale. At that level, things go wrong differently: Employers may indeed engage and give the specs, and the training company may indeed turn around quite quickly, by recruiting learners and training them over a relatively short period, but it falls apart thereafter. Often, after the training, the learner discovers that she does not like the job. Other times, employers discover that they were not adequately trained. 

The employer apathy that one complains about and the failure of 'demand-led' models to deliver the goods should be naturally linked, but this is not the way officials think. Indeed, the whole proposition that the government can effectively do the skilling is informed by a 'planning mindset', even if the approach is fully endorsed by the anti-planning World Bank. That the economies will follow a certain predictable path is inherent in these policies, and they overlook the incident of globalisation altogether. On the other hand, for the World Bank type policy-makers, who are only too keenly aware of globalisation, such predictability stem from fixed models of the world they work with, in which the developing countries would follow the path of industrialisation and development following the classical models seen in Europe and North America. For them, globalisation is supposed to ensure such staged model, rather than allowing variation, and they forget to take into account local aspirations, which may often veer away from the predictable path. So, we return again and again to this elusive quest of planning, of establishing the shape of the demand, but no one really knows what the demand for skills will be 12 to 36 months from now.

Long before I got interested in education policy, and when I worked in recruitment, I tried and failed in combining training and recruitment businesses (See my earlier post from 2009). The reason, plainly, was that the time horizons for training and education are evidently different from those of recruitment. There was no silver bullet for getting a person trained. Recruiting to train on a mandate often meant bad recruitment and bad training, because of the time horizon mismatch. And, education, which is expected to prepare people for a longer period of time than just a job requirement, is completely out of sync with this model. 

So, the 'demand-led', to me, seems like a misdirected rhetoric, creating an illusion of control for the policy-makers and an illusion of strategy for individual firms. A more sensible strategy to bridge the education-to-employment gap is to try to bring them together, through project-based learning. This is what I do now. This is about achieving educational outcomes through completion of real life employer projects - the opposite of the demand-led model - and in doing so, exposing the student to the language and the practices of the employers. This is the free market approach as opposed to the central planning of demand led approach, involving no guarantees but allowing a dating process through which the students may find the best opportunity and the employers the best students. The trick here is to reduce the stake of the employers - making this a low-exposure involvement rather than one where they have to commit significant resources to design projects for students, and to take that responsibility as an instructional design opportunity. Surely, the challenge of this model is that it can only work at a scale, one needs many employers and many projects for this to be sustainable (so this model may be born-global by definition) but this is indeed more in sync with globalisation than the 'demand led' talk that we are so much in love with.


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