Who Should Equip Learners for the Job Market?

Special Focus : What is the Value of Higher Education?
World of Work October 19, 2015

Globally, study after study is coming up with one message: graduates lack essential skills to get by in the workplace. They lack skills like communication, teamwork, critical thinking, the ability to work under pressure, and even punctuality! In a global survey of business leaders by Hult International Business School (2013), one of the key insights was that leaders held mostly negative views on both the process and products of business education, noting that students lack ‘real world’ experience; both in terms of experience and learning from faculty with real world experience. The survey noted that same missing skills [namely self-awareness, comfort with uncertainty, creativity, and critical thinking] while noting that education systems overemphasize functional knowledge.

This has become a ‘global gap’, and the search for ways to close the gap are afoot; in early 2014, the Economist teamed up with Lumina Foundation to launch a global challenge [with a reward to 10,000 USD] to find solutions to bridge the gap between the workforce and higher education. The central question in this competition is: How can companies work with higher education to ensure that the higher education system better prepares workers to be successful on the job and teaches skills that will remain valuable in the future[2].

After all these years of investing in higher education, across all governments around the world, many are wondering: how did we reach this stage? Is anyone to blame? Is this a generational issue? Do employers have the right expectations? How can this be fixed?
The more challenging question seems to be, who should fix this? Whose responsibility is it to equip learners for the job market? Many would say universities – that is, after all, why we fund these institutions. Some think this is the employers’ responsibility – they are the ones who benefit commercially from having well trained staff. Others look at the students themselves; surely it is their responsibility to ensure their own employability.
In my view, it is the shared responsibility of all three parties; and each has their own ‘failure’ points. However, if we had to choose a ‘starting point’ it has to be the university.
In the heat of the debate, some have gone as far as noting that schools and universities are not worth the time and fees invested in them[3]. Others wonder what happened to all the education reform initiatives promised by governments around the world, backed by major public funding[4].
In my view, we are facing a ‘complex system’ challenge. The answer can be found in the ineffectiveness of current government architecture that leads to silo-policy thinking and short term solutions producing sub-optimal results.
The key question remains, are schools and higher education institutions doing enough to prepare students for the world of work? Isn’t it their role to equip students with the skills that employers demand? Why are employers not doing much about it, and should they do more to smooth the student’s transition into the work life?
I argue the answer to these questions is ‘simple’. The world of work has changed so fast in the past 2 decades, and the higher education system simply did not catch up. We have 20th century higher education systems, institutions, and faculty, trying to prepare students for a 21st century world of work.
According to Forbes Magazine [2013] the six highest paying jobs in the future in the US will be: Logistician (big data analyst), Ethical Hacker, Actuary (Risk Analyst in the age of complex problems), Epidemiologist (Disease combatants), Front End Engineer (Internet of Things), and Food Chemist. Most of the jobs (and job titles) did not exist 10 years ago.
Today, more than ever, the only constant is change. Strategists and futurologists estimate that the next decade will bring about more change to our lives and business world than the whole of the last century. The world of work is changing so fast, in terms of job content, labor market mobility, and the nature of jobs themselves. This is driven by an unprecedented pace of technological advancement (from the smart phone global spread, to advances in robotics and analytics). Every job in today’s world is being transformed, even those of the university faculty.
We might disagree on how to prepare students for such a dynamic world of work, but we all can (and should) agree that a degree is no longer enough to guarantee a graduate a satisfying future career. In many sectors, recruiters are looking for ‘work-ready’ graduates with clear evidence of job specific skills in addition to high level graduate attributes.
In this context, there needs to be a paradigm shift in how we look at education and employment. Students themselves have to start embracing a new mental model: ‘to be employed is to be at risk, to be employable is to be secure’ [5]. Educators have to help them adopt this mentality, and support them to develop their ‘employability’ throughout their time at University – and beyond – to have a competitive advantage in the job market.
This needs to be embedded in the curriculum, extra-curricular activities, learning methods, and in those who teach. We need to embrace two central notions: life-long education, and the “practitioner faculty”.
Much has been written about life-long learning, but much more thinking is needed in that regard as it is not yet clear how one can manage that, how it can be funded, what is the role of government, and what is the role of the private sector. In fact, at one point we should consider funding schemes similar to healthcare insurance; a way of funding life-long learning, at different stages in life. The aim is continual employability. This will be the subject of many future blogs at WISE.
The other area that requires a new paradigm is to accept that we need a different approach to recruiting educators (faculty). While many colleges and universities claim focusing on employability through ‘new’ learning and teaching strategies, the old (and well enshrined) model of the ‘university faculty’ remains unchanged for decades.
Innovative learning, life-long employability, and engaging the new world of work must be guided by people who embody these traits and live them day-in day-out. It is no longer enough to have full time professors at universities who research and teach. ‘Real-life’ experience should be a pre-requisite for the university faculty position. As an academic myself, I am firmly against the old line of ‘those who can’t do, teach’; but I am firmly aware of the limitations of the ‘university system’. We can’t equip the youth of today with the skills needed for tomorrow’s world of work without living these challenges ourselves. I still attend some conferences and university lectures where someone reads out an entire lecture verbatim from their notes. Is there anything more pointless? To prepare students for 21st century world of work, faculties have to come from that world.

[1] Young Global Leader, World Economic Forum; Partner, Bain & Company; see www.yasarjarrar.com
[2] The Challenge was launched in the Economist on 4 June 2014
[3] “Is College Worth it”, Higher Education, The Economist, April 5, 2014
[4] “Education and Skills Survey”, CBI/Pearson, June 2012
[5] The Art of Building Windmills, Peter Hawkins (1999)