Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at meetawsengupta.wordpress.com/about
The phone rang mid morning.
“Madam, you teach. I need advice. My son has just finished his B.Tech. Can you tell him what he can do now?”
The mind boggled.
A trained engineer, presumably above the age to vote did not know what to do next to find himself a job. Which could only mean that he had no idea of why he did the B. Tech engineering degree in the first place, and that nothing in the four years had prepared him to understand the industry he was supposed to be studying. It seemed that nobody was helping him find his feet in the world of employment. Nor had anyone helped him understand what it would take to become employable. His education barely connected him with employment opportunities.
Surveys have placed the proportion of employable graduates at about one fifth of graduating candidates, or even lower. There is a large body of anecdotal evidence that has potential employers shaking their collective heads in frustration - they cannot find the right people to fill their vacancies. On the other hand, myriad business schools churn out graduates who sell music door to door. Very little to do with what they might have expected or thought they were being taught.
Do kids know what they are getting into when they choose an area to study? Probably not in the land that is barely managing to outgrow the ‘I shall make my child into a doctor or engineer’ syndrome.
I scroll through rants - ‘they are qualified engineers, and they cannot do simple puzzles”, says one. “I interviewed graduates and they could not put together a simple sentence”, exclaimed another. “Its not just about English, the students could not even discuss an issue in their own language”, despaired a third. “I have no idea what they are taught, but it does not show up in their interviews”, said a fourth kind person.
Do professors/institutions have any idea what they are teaching to?
The gap is clear, and what is even more clear is that this as much about the future as it is about the present. Bridging the gap is challenging governments across the world, but no other country has the surge that we call the ‘demographic dividend’ like India. This is a global problem that seeks global solutions.
Schools and colleges offer structured environments, stable power systems and clear reward mechanisms. Real life is clearly not like that. Task based work is slowly being passed on to machines and will continue to be transferred to lower cost devices. Stenographers and short hand artists have transitioned to assistants who deal with the chaos of diaries and travel. Employers need people who can deal with chaos and with uncertainity. Schools are not geared to such flexibility.
Do employers know what they want?
Employers are in the business of demanding skills and competence. They seek three clear types of skills - Technical or content is the first. This cannot be compromised on and clearly has been in recent years. Thus the rant against educational institutions who seem to have dropped standards, often for commercial reasons. The second skill they need is clear and consistent communication. Graduates really must be able to build and put forward a cogent argument with near perfect grammar. Language is about precision in meaning - poor language will always lead to confusion and loss. Thirdly, employers need their employees to be aware of the people around them and be able to work with them. Working through people is often categorised as a ‘soft skill’, though personally I see nothing soft about it. It takes nerves of steel to work with people who may or may not see things the same way.
Really the solution seems to be very simple. Employers need to tell educators what they need, and educators need to show their students how to navigate this brave new world. Problems arise when Employers realise that this is not as easy as it looks because they are expected not only to create norms and learning outcomes for current needs but also forecast their needs decades into the future. Very few sectors can really predict what they will need in the future. Educators too must admit to being a bit lost - how would they know what employers want unless they are told? How would they be able to predict the learning needs of the future unless they invest in it? Would they be ready to teach those new skills?
Looks like there is a bit of work ahead.
Post Script: There is work being done via sector skills councils, National Skills Development Council etc. but it is a long road to travel.