Designing Education for 'Employability': 2 Illusions

I wrote earlier about my recent experiences regarding the design of education for 'employability' and the field of constraints that any design must consider (see here: Limitations). 

The focus of that earlier post was on the educational side of the equation, which is not the only constraint for consideration. In fact, an even bigger challenge is right at the centre of the employability initiatives - the myth of the employers! 

The mythical employer (employers, more correctly) who is invoked all the time in the employability talk has one problem - she does not exist! The logic of the employability initiatives - that employers demand certain abilities which universities can not educate for - is based on employers being fully aware and being able to fully articulate what they want. However, it is time to say, after Steve Jobs, that employers do not know what they want.

This may seem anachronistic: After all, employers are the customers for employability initiatives, right? But apart from Steve Jobs' broad point that a good proposition is not about slavishly following a customer's stated needs but rather anticipating and creating them, it is important to recognise that designing for employers create several problems for an 'employability' initiative.

One side of the problem is what I shall call three illusions: 

First, there is the theory of unity of expectations - the mistaken assumption that there is a thing such as 'an employer', or a small group of people, drawn mainly from large companies, can express correctly the broader needs of the job market. Research reports abound and the consultancies have created a cottage industry of employer insights, but if one looks beyond the slides and infographics, most reports tell similar stories. Such as, no one bothered to ask the small companies, no one looked at the self-employment trends, no one really polled different departments and functions of large companies to compare and contrast the information. In my experience, the Head of Strategy, Business Unit Head, Team Leaders and people in the recruitment functions often have very different expectations. For example, it's great to speak with the Business Unit Head and understand the criticality of soft skills, but the Recruiter out in the field might be very narrowly focused on a checklist of specific expectations: Now, who would you treat as your customer if you are designing an employability programme?

Second, one has to deal with the theory of uniform labour markets - the view that all labour markets are the same or at least converging and therefore, there is such a thing as 'employability skills' independent of location and culture. Apart from the obvious demands of local culture, same companies are different entities in different parts of the world. The nature of a global value chain is that it looks to make the best use of the local talent pool and breaks down work to align with the talent available there. So, when one says IBM (to take an example) says that the IoT jobs will be most in demand, they are referring to IBM in a specific country or context. Therefore, local labour market context - rather than research reports handed down from corporate headquarters - is far more important for designing employability initiatives. But this is harder and usually such details bore - rather than excite - VCs and other boardroom dwellers who deal in generalities. 

Third, it's easy to buy into the theory of the rational employer - that all executives in any given company have their ideas and interests perfectly aligned and that they act without any bias in the best interest of the company all the time. It's a ridiculous assumption, but employability initiatives avoid any discussions of race or gender bias because such a rational employer is assumed to exist. Should the training for employability be the same across genders, same for domestic and international students and for people with different accents and backgrounds? It indeed is, as we believe that recruitment is a rational value-free process.

This last point also should tell us what the key problem with most 'employability' initiatives are: We wrongly define who the customer is. We approach it assuming that the 'employer', a mythical entity, as the client - and the students as our products. But it's the student who is paying for it and putting time into it, whereas the employers usually have very little stake in it. Meeting the employer expectations is the wrong benchmark for success here - it's the students whose expectations we should meet. However, the reality is that we assume employers to have perfect knowledge and the students to be helpless individuals to be fitted into some job - and therefore miss the mark more often than not.

This design error  makes most employability initiatives focus on the transactional end of the spectrum - doing a CV, performance at the interview - and less on the value for the students, that they can be confident professionals, ready for a professional career. The way we approach it, the way we measure success make the focus shift from fulfillment of one's potential and progression in life to merely getting through the door. Again, another assumption is at play here: Once you get through the door, you will progress based on your ability. Of course, this doesn't happen - not any more! For me, the design for an employability programme fit for the twentyfirst century must start by exorcising these illusions.

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