Employers and Education - A Strategy for Engagement

There is an Education-to-Employment gap, numerically speaking. But it is more - a social problem - when education is sold as a way to middle class life and fails to deliver. It is therefore worthwhile to identify the reasons for the gap - and to rectify it.

McKinsey, which coined the term E2E gap, sees employers and educators taking parallel paths and not talking to each other. This is rather strange, given the interests of both parties in working together. Some observers blame this on the educators, and bring up the age-old Ivory Towers accusations. Others, educators, blame the employers, as they demand very specific skill-sets and experience, and are more interested in poaching from each other rather than participating in education process. 

There are different attempts to address this gap, and mostly, these attempts seek to engage the employers as closely as possible with the education process. By way of disclosure, I am professionally engaged in one such attempt. While it looks straightforward in theory, just as the starting proposition of educators and employers talking to each other was common sense, the actual engagement is far more complex - and requires a strategic approach, rather than case-by-case persuasion, from the educators.

However, before we speculate what this strategic approach could be, it may make sense to clarify another point. It is a mistake to see educators as mere suppliers to employers, despite the relative balance of power in the conversations. Educators have a job to do, and despite the lack of acknowledgement of the role of education (outside its economic worth), one must not lose sight of it. The thesis that the Middle East troubles (Egyptian revolution, ISIS etc) are due to Education-to-Employment gap is only partially true, and the more plausible explanation is that education in these countries failed to foster democratic thinking and leadership. The point made by Matthew Arnold, that, all liberty and industry in the world will not ensure high reason and a fine culture - they may favour them but they will not produce them - and indeed, they may exist without them, remains valid - educators have a job to do even if we had a full-employment society (like Kuwait, where everyone gets a job regardless).

The starting point of a strategic approach, therefore, is about acknowledging this expanded role of the educators. While one must build the bridges between the parallel paths of educators and employers, education is not just the bridge but the territory of culture and reason that lie beyond it. This is exactly the difference between a case-by-case view, persuading the employers to employ the students (which fits more a ferry metaphor than a bridge metaphor), and a more strategic view of building an attractive territory on their side of the divide, so that the employers meet the educators half-way down the bridge.

This attractive territory, however, can not be built without understanding the employers more fully than the educators do now. One unacknowledged reason why students do not find jobs is because they are often poorly educated. Most people come out of college with none of the High Reason and Fine Culture that Arnold talked about. They can not even write appropriate reports, read complex texts or negotiate ideas and concepts, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa show. The educators are indeed in some kind of ivory tower, though this is about denying the accountability for student learning and not merely about talking to the employers. Once the educators have owned up the students and assume their responsibility of making him or her successful, talking to the employers will come naturally to them.

Once educators assume this responsibility, it becomes easier to engage the employers. In such a setting, the conversation with the employers is not merely to understand their requirements so that such things can be added to the programme and the students can become employable, but rather a genuine collaborative conversation to understand the needs of the practical work life, which should play a role in the curricular approach. This is indeed a patient, long-term conversation, allowing the employers a close view of the learning process and drawing them closely into it through conversations, student projects and mentoring conversations. This close engagement does not mean surrendering the educators mandate for developing reason and culture, but rather doing so not in isolation from messy realities of everyday life. 

What does this mean in practice? Several things, perhaps. First, this may mean assessing the learner skills and abilities in the context of work skills and abilities that would be demanded. The examination system may demand resilience, discipline and quick thinking, which are all useful real world abilities, but miss out on assessing practical wisdom, leadership skills, collaborative ability and communication skills in the broader sense. Understanding the employer perspective may indeed inform a new approach to assessment - and this is the easiest thing to engage the employers into. Engaging in assessment is far more familiar territory for an employer than engaging in education. On the other hand, employer engagement in assessment is perhaps the most useful thing that the educators could hope for. The problem, of course, is that assessment is sacred territory, a source of power that the educators have cherished holding - and despite its obvious appeal, opening up this territory to outsiders is a difficult thing to do.

Second, this may also mean looking at Project-as-Content in the education process. This is an old conversation drawing back on Dewey and Kilpatrick from the last century, but such thinking is still exotic among the Higher Ed circles. The idea that the learning can be driven by projects, which may become the integrative platform for all knowledge, skills and abilities that the educators wish to develop in the learner, and that projects can indeed be closely linked to the learners own interests and abilities, create a possibility in education like none other. It allows the learning to be democratic, open, collaborative, context-sensitive and even research-based, combining the favourite keywords from the world of education with those of the world of employment. To play on the metaphor, the project is indeed the bridge that could be built and employers can meet the educators half-way down.

Third, constructing the language of education side-by-side with the employers language is also helpful, and allows employers to be easily engaged. It is not about accepting the employers language and mimicking it, but rather critically engaging with it and being able to understand and use it - is the key here. Indeed, this is a fine line and most educators try to teach a few keywords, to be used without context, to their learners in the hope of better employability. But the employer engagement in assessment, and project-as-content method, would hopefully circumvent such superficiality. 

Finally, constructing an education around the employers language, projects and assessments may still fall short of the mark if the educators failed to provide a safe space for the learners to reflect, to critique and to grow from the boxes that one gets to be put in while at work. This is the educators role - High Reason and Fine Culture, to invoke Arnold one last time - and the learners should be able to dissect their experience, distill it with reference to culture (the accumulated experience of the humankind, Dewey would say), and reflect upon it to grow as an individual both inside and outside the humdrum of daily chore. 

Constructing such an engagement has proved to be difficult, not because it does not make sense, but because this flies in the face of power equations that both educators and employers indulge in. The strategic approach, then, is to step outside the comfort zone of each individual silo, which progressive employers and educators indeed do, and to proactively engage into a common language, allowing a more rounded approach than would be otherwise possible. In this approach, educators would not just be a supplier of talent to the employers, but a critical partner, a mirror of reflection and improvement, a safe place of thinking just one step removed from the intense world of action.    


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