I have spent the last four years working exclusively on the faultline of education and employment, and it is time to take stock.
I could perhaps claim that I have been doing this for much longer, indeed, my entire working life of 23 years, except for a couple of years when I was exclusively focused on learning in employment, or corporate training, as it is called. All my work in IT Education in India and then South and South-East Asia, to build English Training Centres globally and even the quest for a new kind of Business School in London, the point of all that was an employment for the learners. The starting point of this reflection is to recognise the distinction between what I did then, and the work afterwards, as I stepped outside employment and tried to set up U-Aspire and then took on a project to establish Knod in Asia: This was about looking to solve the problem, exclusively and with singular focus, rather than theorizing about it.
This distinction is important as it illuminates what I was doing wrong. This should perhaps have been clear to me previously, and one moment in particular, in India in 1998, when I took on myself the job of finding employment for a group of students who completed their courses with one of the training centres I was managing then. It was a successful enterprise and that work, outside my job description, had all sorts of positive impacts on my career: But I still missed the lesson. In fact, I learned precisely the wrong lesson, as I see it now. I went out, made lots of cold calls, and found placements in companies big and small, but, in the end, this was more about my sales and relationship skills than the education these students received. And, sure enough, I never paused and reflected that this could not have been a large scale solution, nor a sustainable one: I moved on, and did not know whether the next person who replaced me could find jobs for students who came along.
There were more such lessons. I focused on content and certification subsequently, making the assumption that currency of knowledge, and right certification, is the key for securing employment after education. This indeed became the pre-dominant idea in IT Education around the turn of the millennium (as the business of Y2K fixes were plateauing and dotcom bubble was building up), only to have suffered a crisis of confidence when the bubble bust. But, those ideas remained: When I was put in charge of re-engineering a business school in London in 2010, I was still spending time on getting great teachers, establishing and adhering to admission norms and creating libraries and textbooks. In fact, most of my effort went into these things. I created an Industry Engagement team, who started a regular evening event with employers coming to speak to students - and some people got jobs through the connections they made in these events. But, again, it was too few - left to chance and individual initiative!
My more recent experiences, when the focus is exclusively on education-to-employment transition, expose to me the limitation of these standard tools - placement efforts, industry interactions, better certification, better content - in preparing employable students. Here is what I believe the issue is: Over time, perhaps with the creation of a specialised business function to recruit candidates - rather than business managers recruiting the employees directly - the companies have narrowly defined what they need (looking for a 'purple squirrel', as one recruiter called it), whereas post-secondary education, with expanded access and spiralling costs, tried to address these apparently impossible demands without changing its structure (refusing, in most cases, to acknowledge that employment should be a legitimate goal of education) but by relaxing its standards and allowing grade inflation. This caused many levels of dissonance, and the recruiters generally lost faith of education credentials, which led them to device their own toolkit to screen candidates, creating an even greater faultline between education and employment.
Symptomatic to me is one aspect of this disconnect - the coinage of the term: Soft Skills! Popular as it is, it is one of those attempts at interpretation that came to mean everything, and therefore, became a meaningless term. The history of 'soft skills' is yet to be written, and I am not brave enough to try. However, I have come to believe that this term captures the disconnection most acutely, the 'soft' being an acknowledgement by the educator that they do not know (hence, a lot of them would claim to have a 'secret sauce'), while for the employer, the 'soft' stands for trivial or secondary. That fresh recruits often lack professional working practices and struggle to integrate in teams is undeniable, but employers seem to have to come to accept this as a fact of life, something that is remedied through work in their own environment (provided they have recruited right) rather than in any classroom. Indeed, there is a huge industry of 'soft' skills, dedicated at defining, developing and certifying it, and the employers have persistently commented on the lack of it in the candidates they recruit. However, one of the biggest paradoxes for someone working on education-to-employment transition is the recruiters' indifference to the claim that education can imbibe 'soft skills' - it rarely warms hearts and feature in 'hard' criteria for recruitment (except language skills, which is a hard rather than a soft skill by definition). Because of this, soft skills are always poorly defined, and despite the educators' enthusiasm, it remained a conference circuit term with little or no practical utility.
Over time, I have learned to steer clear of any discussion about the magic of 'soft skills' and rather explore another interesting idea: Working Identity! I found it in business literature, from INSEAD's Herminia Ibarra. Writing in the context of Career Change, Professor Ibarra argued that the best way to do this is not to take courses or read books or desperately knocking doors, but rather the pursuit of a 'working identity'. This roughly translates like this: To be a writer, start thinking like a writer, be a writer - Write! As I diagnose a deep disconnection between the world of learning and the world of work, I came to believe that the big problem for students is that they are not developing a professional identity while in education. Educators' job, of helping students construct an identity, is insufficiently done when we obsess with essays, text books and presentations, treating aceing examinations as the be-all and end-all! The promise of the magic of placement - that we would find you jobs - and even worse, the classes to teach soft skills, as if it can be injected in, undermine the development of this identity, rather than fostering it. That education-to-employment transition is less of a problem for those who work part time, or had good internships, tells us that the best way to tackle this is to help students develop an Working Identity, to work, to act like a professional and develop values of one. Conversely, the collapse of the part-time job market for younger students, the hoarding of good quality internships for socially privileged, most apprenticeships becoming a government funded scheme provided by education providers (rather than being driven by business requirements and offered by employers) and inward-looking diploma mills that treat the awards an end in itself are the reasons why we have such a big problem of education-to-employment transition.
One could argue that this 'Working Identity' is only about soft skills in another form: Yes, but language matters. The 'Working Identity' may sound academic, but it conveys the idea better than the meaningless, overused, soft skills. Besides, identity is more than skills, a form of being rather than of owning, something that to be developed rather than received. The focus of my work is now to create education experiences that help develop working identities, by bringing together work opportunities and learning and reflection together.
Popular posts from this blog
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation." The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which
Nations are ideas. We try to fashion them as territories. But how can a river, a mountain ridge or sometimes an imaginary line in the middle of a field can explain the wide division in the lives, thoughts and futures of the people who live on different sides? Nations are not the people too. Indeed, people build nations and become its body. But the soul of the nation is an idea: People come together on an idea to build a nation. While that's what a modern nation is - an idea - and that way exceptionalism is not an American exception, very few nations are as completely defined by an idea as Pakistan. There was hardly any political, geographic or military rationale of Pakistan other than the idea of an Islamic homeland in South Asia. [In that way, the ideological brother of Pakistan in the family of nations is Israel] This, abated by the short term political calculations of some backroom colonialists, created a modern state which must be solely sustained on that singular idea. Religi
This post is a reaction to Aatish Taseer's evocative obituary of secular India in the Atlantic ( read here ). While I agree with it mostly - and share the reservations about the direction and the future of India - I differ with the author on one key aspect: I do not agree with his portrayal of a resurgent Bharat eating up a secular India. In fact, I believe while Mr Taseer regrets the Indian elite's loss of connection with the realities of day to day life of the country, his very presentation of Bharat and India as oppositional entities stems from that incomprehension. While I understand that he is only using these categories as RSS uses them - to effectively other the English-speaking elites and non-Hindus - I believe it is a mistake to describe the profound changes in contemporary India as the ascendance of Bharat. I grew up in Bharat. I never learnt English until late in life, when I started working. My growing-up world was one of small-town India, vernacu
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper et al , 1991). Arunthanes et al (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something). The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive s
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime was to carry out a year long lesbian affair with one of her pupils, who appeared in the court and admitted that the affair was consensual and it was she who pressured Helen into the affair. For Helen, a bright musician and a devout Chistian, this is an extraordinary lapse of judgement. Also, she was teaching in the £13,000 private girls only school in London. She was surely aware what the consequences of her action will be. The fact that she still could not stop herself tells us that lovers do not always act rationally, something we always knew. There is more in this affair than personal tragedies. For a start, this has all the dramatic elements: a bright, beautiful teacher more in Julia Roberts mould [as in Mona Lisa Smile], a stiff upper lip school [not unlike Wellesley] and a story like Notes On A Scandal with an added twist. Indeed, Helen was gui
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago. Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so. Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself. Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was, as
Introduction Erna Petri née Kürbs, a farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, arrived in Ukraine with her three year old son to join her husband Horst in June 1942. Horst, an SS leader inspired by Nazi ideologue Dr Richard Walter Darré, settled in the plantation of Grzenda, just outside today’s Lviv, to become a German Gentleman-Farmer. Erna saw Horst beating and abusing the workers in the plantation within two days of arriving there, which was, as Horst explained, necessary for establishing authority. Erna joined in enthusiastically, settling into a combination of roles of ‘plantation mistress, prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave labourers, infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau.’  However, there were clear rules in the plantation, and Erna was very much expected to play the woman’s role of being a Cake-and-Coffee hostess. When four Jews were caught in the estate while trying to escape from a transport to a death camp, Horst told Erna and her female
A lot of conversations about Kolkata is about its past; I want to talk about its future. Most conversations about Kolkata is about its decline - its golden moments and how times changed; I want to talk about its rise, how its best may lie ahead and how we can change the times. In place of pessimism, I seek optimism; instead of inertia, I am looking for imagination. It is not about catching up, I am arguing; it is about making a new path altogether. It had, indeed it had, a glorious past: One of the first Asian cities to reach a million population, the Capital of British India, the cradle of an Enlightened Age and a new politics of Cosmopolitanism. And, it had stumbled - losing the hinterland that supplied its Jute factories, overwhelmed by the refugees that came after the partition, devoid of its professional class who chose to emigrate - the City's commercial and professional culture evaporated in a generation, and it transformed into a corrupt and inefficien
Introduction: Hastings in the history of Indian Education Whether or not one includes Warren Hastings in the history of Education in India is a matter of perspective. If writing the history of education means writing the history of schools, the impact of Hastings' administration would be quite limited. If anything, the rapid implosion of local rulers in Eastern, Southern and Northern India during Hastings' tenure had meant a bleak period for the indigenous education system, as patronage and funds would have dwindled away for many of them. The Company administration really concerned itself with the schooling of the natives only after 1813, as Nurullah and Naik rightly pointed out ( see my earlier post ) and one can legitimately start the story at this point. However, if history of Education in India is to encompass the transformation of Indian Scholarship, on which foundation the new, colonial, system of Education would be built, the story must start with Warren Hast
The story of British influence on Indian Education, to which Macaulay's Minutes of 1835 belong, has been told in six distinct phases. Syed Nurullah and J P Naik's very popular and influential History of Indian Education calls these 'six acts' of the drama: From the beginning of Eighteenth Century to 1813 The British East India Company received its charter in 1600 but its activities did not include any Educational engagement till the Charter Act of 1698, which required the Company to maintain priests and schools, for its own staff and their children. And, so it was until the renewal of its charter in 1813, when the evangelical influence led to insistence of expansion of educational activities and allowing priests back into company territory. From 1813 to Wood's Education Despatch of 1854 The renewal of Charter in 1813 re-opened the debate, which seemed to have been settled in the early years of the company administration, between the Orientalis
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.