Beyond Employability

It's time for educators to acknowledge what even a first-time recruiter knows - that Purple Squirrels do not exist.

Employability has become a buzzword in education for several reasons. Governments want to measure and employability - both how many students are getting jobs and at what starting salary - is a neat metric to present to the taxpayers. Private investors in education know that employability - private benefits from education - is the raison d'etre for private education to exist. Whether the faculty, or for that matter, the students, at least most of them until the final weeks of their final year, care about employability is a matter up for debate, but this is definitely the big topic in the Education Conference circuits.

But, sadly, purple squirrels are not real. Employability is an empty goal.

Part of the reason for this is the same as we can't always find the right people for the right job. That gap is both spatial and temporal: As we would say colloquially, one has to be at the right place at the right time! It's a game of Chance, like it or not, as well as of the geographic distribution of talent. The delta effect on employability the right educational offering can make is much smaller than - as we know - being at the right place at the right time. In one sense, freeing up global migration (admittedly, impossible in the current political climate) will have a much greater effect on employability than any transnational education plays.

Moreover, the structures of the economy are changing. 'Skills gap' is local and specific, and in most cases, impossible to bridge with a closed economy mindset. For example, Kenya may have a real shortage of systems architects and the emerging new service industry may be crying out for the same. But, in such a scenario, even if an institution seeks to create an educational programme to bridge this skills gap, those efforts will be stymied by lack of qualified tutors (there is a skills gap, remember) and the fact that most adequately trained graduates would prefer to migrate to a location where the requirements for systems architects are better established. You may not want to be a cyber-security expert in India, despite the obvious need, because the government's cyber-security programme is too limited and obscure, and being seen as a 'hardware guy' may not be an asset in a marriage. In fact, the (again, impossible) solution to skills gap may indeed be sending home all the qualified immigrants in developed countries and a complete ban on skilled migration, which, in turn, will break the global trade and economy. Whatever it is, it is beyond an educator's power to solve.

Then, there is that awkward question of aspiration. How many times have we heard placement staff in private universities complain about the students who don't want to take jobs that are offered to them? Aspiration is a virtue that motivates the student and makes education possible; however, it works against the real business of getting a job when most of the mankind is overeducated for the jobs that are really available. Graduates settling for jobs that do not require graduate-level skills or aptitude drives the national job figures and the route to 'employability' may often lie through the stripping of the aspirations.

That may sound horrible, but the reality of what goes on as 'employability training' is often just that. Imagine attending a college course for several years (and paying thousands of dollars for this) before being told that you will need to be made 'employable'. At that moment, if you are not getting angry and questioning whether you will be swindled all over again, you have to scale down your judgement and sit in a class which will, in all likelihood, centre around telling you to accept your limitations and crawl in front of the first employer who will have you. 

This is indeed a bad place to be and one would argue that the whole point of the 'employability education' is that no one really has to get to that situation. It will be in situ and not after the fact. Employability intervention will not be, in their vision, a remedial intervention, but the entire point of education. The curriculum itself will be aligned to what 'employers' want and the rest will automatically follow.

The trouble is with this mythical, disembodied employer who always knows what she wants, can communicate this in the language of the curriculum and doesn't change her mind after the educators have produced the purple squirrel she wanted several years ago. [At this point in the argument, I insist that I was merely being politically correct in my use of gender and not sexist as, Quelle horror! employers do behave like prima donnas all too often]. Curriculum, however it's designed, is a fixed thing, designed with the goal of standardization, stability and measurability, and is always an awkward fit for the modern work-world of flexibility and continuous learning. Its ability to capture, articulate and examine employers' ever-changing priorities is very limited indeed.

This challenge is well-recognised and the whole argument about employability being about soft skills come from this. But this takes the soft skills argument too far: Soft skills are critical for employability only in their absence and allocating overt priorities to it result in superficial education. The whole soft skills business, as it looks to bridge the gap of social capital, is, by definition, remedial; detaching it from the social and economic contexts, which is what usually happens, produces the opposite of the intended outcome: An inauthentic personality ever insecure about one's own self.

In summary, therefore, there is no educational secret sauce to the 'employability' challenge. No AI, no curricula, no personal branding would solve an issue arising out of fundamental structural change in middle-class life and work, globalisation and technological change. One should recognise that universities have always been about jobs - be it for lawyers and clerics in the middle ages, administrators, managers and engineers in the later ages - and they have, contrary to claims, evolved with time. Rather, the challenge represents a systemic shift and the solution needs an approach that combines an understanding of local and global work trends (and the interaction between the two).

This is why we need to go beyond the shallow discussions about employability. I have met people who thought they had a global solution to labour market based on their survey of a few American IT companies; we need to go beyond such nonsense as any solution needs a clear understanding of local job markets and all the nuances of geography and culture that comes with it. Besides, it needs to be solved at a personal level, by engaging the 'whole person' of the learner (which is, perhaps, the point missed by process-based bureaucratic universities). Impersonal, ignorant claims about employability through teaching of soft skills have had their day; we now need more serious and engaged approaches.

Therein lies the case for looking beyond 'employability'. 





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