Mind The Gap: An Education for Employment

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.


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