Much has been written and discussed about Covid- 19 causing a downtrend in employment ratios and cutting down opportunities globally. But the scenario necessitates urgent action for upskilling the youth to prepare them better to benefit from new sets of opportunities arising thereof. Needless to say, our youth education has limited focus on technical skills, digital technologies and innovation.
At a time of rapid digitalisation, when employers are evaluating employee performance with digital tools, the imperative to impart soft skills or skills to enhance job prospects among degree seekers cannot be questioned. Plans of action, at times, are thought through but, in action, they are far from being implemented sincerely. The Modi government tried to give shape to the rhetoric of Skilling India within 100 days of its formation by creating a new ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship, in combination with youth affairs and sports. But, in practice, there is growing mismatch between the capacities of an aspiring employee with the need of an employer with diverse expectations and requirements.
Why do we strive to be educated? Why do we spend the best years of our lives slogging behind closed doors, mugging for exams? Why must we, among the poorest of nations, spend such astronomical amounts of money to educate our children, often even depriving them of their other basic necessities? In fact, the common parental hope boils down to “Rahul will go to school and college; Rahul will learn; Rahul will earn money.”
This is the objective from the individual point of view. From the standpoint of society, the idea is to make the individual a more useful and compatible member. Sadly, the education system in India is an anachronistic and counterproductive ritual – a few hundred million blind followers dedicating infinite man hours, huge amounts of money and even countless lives every year to produce precious little of real use to either themselves or to society.
At the tertiary levels, students are given to understand that they should earn a higher education degree to have a successful career. But after fetching a degree they soon are faced with the reality that degrees do not generally lead to jobs that enable repayment of educational loans or higher education debt.
Almost all office assistants are graduates. While being recruited they are not, in fact, needed to answer phone calls, coordinate schedules or file papers. But because most employees require it, the candidate would have to perform these jobs well. Not only is he to be in charge of all the minor clerical duties, but he would be working with executives and taking care of human resource needs of the company. One may think these tasks do not require an undergraduate degree. A report said that companies that insist only on a college degree deny themselves the untapped potential of eager-to-work youth as well as experienced older workers.
Of course, there are jobs that require specific training. In such cases experience might have mattered more than the bio-science classes that one attended in college. The higher education system, then, fails to provide students with proper value for money they spend. There is an unfortunate gap between what they learn in college and what they are actually expected to know.
Meta analytic reviews have long revealed that the correlation between educational level and job performance is not strong. Researchers have established that intelligence scores are a much better indicator of job potential. Academic grades may indicate how much a candidate has learned from books, but his performance on an intelligence test may reflect his actual ability to learn and reason. Our universities hardly focus on nurturing distinguishing attributes like EQ, resilience, empathy and integrity, which the employees often seek in candidates while offering them jobs. In this age of artificial intelligence and disruptive technology, candidates who can perform tasks that machines cannot are becoming more acceptable.
Employees today are more likely to recruit candidates for their adaptability, culture fit and growth potential as for in-demand technical skills. It is observed that ordinary graduates neither develop the capability for abstract thinking nor learn useful skills. The Knowledge Commission was expected to provide a sense of direction, but it turned out to be a house divided.
An overriding ideology today influences our economy, polity, technology, society and culture as well. This is the ideology of marketisation, globalisation, privatisation and liberalisation that tends to influence our education system. Making a commodity of everything including education has made educational institutions shops where ‘education’ has to be bought and sold.
It is not for nothing that many companies are setting up special training facilities to teach their employees the skills they need. Also, corporate universities are increasingly becoming common as they bridge the gap between the skills with which fresh graduates come into industry and the skills actually needed. They believe that it is better to groom and upgrade the internal talent of candidates rather than pick them up from traditional educational institutions.
They offer a lot of activities like workshops, presentations, group publications and so on, as opposed to obsolete chalk-and-talk lessons.
Most graduates from technical and business schools also do not pick up the necessary skill sets. According to a study by management consultants McKinsey & Co., only 25 per cent of fresh engineers, 15 per cent of accounting graduates and 10 per cent of college graduates are adequately prepared to work in multinational firms.
This mismatch between education and employment has been, however, baffling us for a long time. With the advent of the industrial revolution, it was not an easy task to organize disparate and illiterate villagers to work in factories with rules and regulations as industrial production started getting complicated. Literacy was also needed to spread the benefits among the rural poor of agricultural and veterinary innovations. Free and compulsory public education was introduced. Japan initiated primary education on a large scale in Korea during her occupation. By the end of the occupation, South Korea increased its free and compulsory education.
Also, there was a rapid rise in the field of secondary education chiefly leading to vocational training for the sake of sophisticated production. Japan came forward with its drive for universal primary education. South Korea enthusiastically opted for free secondary education and vocational training.
As for our country, we have only lately embarked on free and universal public education. Moreover, we are yet to develop a suitable model for secondary-cum-vocational education. Education was focused on acquiring knowledge rather than skills. The primary goal of our education policy continued to be expansion of this system.
Since education is responsible for the refining existing talents, the cause of our failure, especially in the human resources sector, must be the prevalent education system. In order to be effective towards societal needs, the system must incorporate the mechanism of focusing on skill development too. Arguably, training in soft skills may be best imparted through professional institutions, such as polytechnics rather than general colleges that deal with conventional courses. This makes it imperative that we focus on skill development at the professional level as well.
Most colleges may be transformed into professional institutions developing required skills in diverse fields. If Germany has perfected this two- tier system of skill development, why cannot we?
The writer, a former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata, is presently associated with Rabindra Bharati University.