The Onus of Employability

13 Apr


Meeta Sengupta
11 April 2012, 05:01 PM IST

It is not a given that the purpose of education is employability. Education is a broader term that enables a person to cope with, enhance and enjoy life experiences. The discussion on whether schools should teach to exams or teach to enable exploration is eternal. As is the purpose of higher education – is it to create competencies, deep knowledge or further the body of knowledge in the world? For many teachers, the purpose of their teaching has been predefined in the curriculum. Their job is to deliver it well while managing the people dynamics around them. Many skills are imparted by default this way, embedded inadvertently in experience.

And yet, a holistic education often may be a slow wander around the garden of knowledge, which is great, but does not always feed the family. Historically therefore education was available to the rich, while the poor learnt a trade. This distinction seems to carry through even today however much we fight it. The two streams met in more egalitarian times, thus putting dual pressure on education systems which now had to deliver both for self actualisation and for the daily grind. This is what schools still try to rationalise, working their way through basic and life skills while trying to find ways to reward longer term values.

Often dismissively referred to as ‘soft’ sikills, there are a number of competencies that are required to become a contributing memebr of society. Basic skills, life skills and employability skills are among the many types of abilities that enable us to navigate our lives. Basic skills are those that are traditionally denoted by the three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic, skills needed to survive the various contracts we negotiate. Life skills include social skills, critical thinking, problem solving, self awareness and fosters mature interactions for mutual gain. Employability does depend on both life skills and basic skills, but goes much further.

Can employability even be defined by any one other than the employer? Can a teacher or an administrator designing curricula and process even begin to understand what industry needs from a potential employee. It is a tough call to ask a teacher to fathom what may be required for the future, in an industry and context alien to them. While teachers and educationists may look around themselves and deduce or assume what may be required of a student in working life, this is certainly not a reliable way of understanding employability. It is neither standardised, nor replicable and thus of little value to employers. The lead on this has to come from industry, and as this fact becomes clearer, industry engagement on this has improved, if slowly.

There are of course skills that make people employable across industries, and at the junior level, they are pretty universal. Employers first and certainly need their potential candidates to have domain knowledge. If they claim to know a subject and a skill, then they must be able to prove it – both at the interview and on the job. This very basic requirement is often not met. Surveys and stories abound on the cocky oversure candidates who have no more than a surface level knowledge of their area. Probe in depth and the gaps in learning and application are exposed.

For previous generations employability skills were largely restricted to competence on the job. Accountants needed just to know their accounting principles (and laws), chemists needed to know their laboratory and materials. Jobs were normally task based and the only expectation was conformity. Conformity is a spectrum these days, and the expectation of obedience has given way to the more adult alignment. Employment structures are not as patriarchal as they used to be, thus putting the onus for employee growth and development back on to the individual in exchange for greater mobility in response to opportunities.

But if the organisation is not going to take on the full responsibility (read – does not have control) over the future growth of the employee, then the nature of the social contract becomes more short term. This does not give either the employer nor the employee the luxury of grooming and training – it becomes too much of an investment for the employer if they are not certain of the payback. But if the job is to to be done properly, they need competent capable staff who can deliver value as soon as they start. This then squarely puts the onus of employability back on to education institutions, especially for that crucial first job.

Employers do not ask for much by the way of professionalism from young candidates or junior positions. Good communication skills, thinking through a situation and being able to manage it rationally and mindfulness are the least one should expect from those hoping to lead independent lives. Teamworking, organising and planning their work, meeting deadlines and asserting themselves without being aggressive are all crucial to the simplest of goals. Being reliable, being there and being presentable are not unreasonable demands. And yet employers struggle to find such people.

Educators do know that it is possible to embed these experiences in the learning process at the cost of efficiency in the traditional school. It is far easier to create a regimented system than to create and sustain an environment driven by the attitudes of self discipline and self motivation. It is easier to set tasks and manage the delivery than it is to foster teamwork and hand over the responsibility of achieving goals to the young student. To be honest, in most cases the latter method will lead to a series of failures before success is even sighted, and that may be too much of a risk. The question for educators now is –  Can we manage this risk?


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