The business of employability

Employability training is big business. 

As the disconnection between education and work gets wider, the efforts to bridge the gap moves from the fringes of the education enterprise to its centre-stage and even emerges as an independent form of Higher Ed by itself. In fact, making students employable at scale is the most favoured education model for venture capital backing, spawning a range of models and ideas, each claiming to be the ultimate global solution for employability.

These global models have failed rather miserably, but new ones still keep coming. This may seem counterintuitive, but this is where ideology trumps rationality and experience. A walk through the graveyard of failed ideas should point towards two key problems: One, that there is no 'global service industry', the foundational assumption of doing employability at scale, and two, that employability, even in its narrowest sense, requires personal transformation, not just acquisition of skills or techniques. 

That there is a 'global service industry' is conference staple, an everyday term fundamental to our thinking about the global economy. However, the truth is that the 'global service industry' is a tenuously interlinked web of the regional and local labour market. Each of these labour markets is both spatially and temporally defined, shaped not just by its place in the global supply chain, but by health, climate, customs, culture and relationships with one another [and their relative place within the respective national economies]. The 'catch-all' vision of globally scalable models and their 40,000 feet views miss all these details and yet claim to have some 'secret sauce' to make everyone employable.

The second problem, that employability is a complex personal attribute rather than a tangible and measurable skill, is intentionally overlooked. Instead, employability education operates at two levels. In some cases, it focuses on personal and the superficial, treating employability as a style problem: The education proposition focuses on presentation, doing how-tos of CV writing, interviewing skills etc. In other cases, employability is meant to be universal and specific, and the emphasis falls on aligning ever closer with employer job specifications. What gets missed is the person of the student, his psychological history and aspirations. Because employability means not only cracking the interview by keeping a job, which requires the job to be aligned with one's ability and aspiration, is missed in the discussion.

Indeed, such granularity is discomforting and that's precisely the point. The disruptors' claim that the modern education system is worsening the employability problem has some truth in it, but uncomfortable truth: The education system fails as it ignores the dynamics of the labour market and the person of the learner, the same two omissions the disruptive enterprises in the field are designed to make. That AI will personalise and offer differentiated paths to employability underscores the blindness to the local labour market variations and that employability is not an external 'mindset' to be injected but one to be achieved through conscious transformation of the whole person.

To sum up, I am arguing that making a student employable is a slow, local and personal affair, best achieved through the years in college rather than outside it. It's too granular for the person from the air-ship to grant the grateful recipients; there is no magic formula or secret sauce. Instead, it's groundedness that is key to employability; iteration, experimentation and approximation being the mantra. To be employable, the students require confidence but not a certainty, but rather the flexibility; they are not to see employability as a fixed thing taught in a class, but engagement that needs to be continuously honed. The education for employability is often predicated on the opposite - and hence it does more harm than good.



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