Monday, January 20, 2014

Education for Employment: Facing Up The Future

In my previous work on Education for Employment (links below), I pleaded the case to shift focus on to the goals and aspirations of the students, most of whom come to education with at least an implicit objective of getting into employment. My argument was primarily that Universities are designed, at least in a large way, to serve themselves, and all too often, the academia's focus is out of sync with that of the students. As a solution, I was arguing about a new paradigm for engagement with employers, keeping the student as the core focus rather than academic ambitions or the immediate needs of a particular employer. 

The arguments from among academic colleagues rightly challenged the plausibility of such a shift, pointing that most businesses are driven by here-and-now requirements, while the academia may essentially need to take long run view for the sake of its students. There is indeed some merit in this argument, as the failed attempts to create a successful vocational training provision in many countries often show. However, one must not also lose sight of successful experiments - there are indeed very good examples of universities and employers working together not just to give students jobs, but to work towards long term developments of the students focusing on development of T-Skills. In this debate of particular versus the general, it seemed, each one of us seem to be confined by one's own immediate experience, the very thing I wanted to raise through these posts.

However, there is more than just academia's willingness to look beyond itself and employers' desire to engage with a long term view: Beyond the control of both, technology is shaping how tomorrow's jobs will look like. Hence, while a progressive university and a socially minded business must work together to create the education-employment interface, the enterprise will be better served if the trajectory of technologies and businesses are taken into account. The recent issue of The Economist presents a very good summary of recent research on technology's effect on jobs, and my intention here is to summarise some of the key factors that an educator must think through in his/her quest to produce employable students. ('The Onrushing Wave', The Economist)

To start with, it is best to accept that we are in the middle of a profound change in the job market, a moment when the Information and Communication Technologies seemingly reached a tipping point and started eating into middle class jobs and careers which appeared solid only a decade ago. Indeed, the ability of technologies to replace labour have so far been put in check by the constant supply of cheap labour through the expansions of middle classes in populous countries such as India and China, and by the political imperative of protecting jobs in the West. However, this is a losing battle and it seems that we are reaching an inflection point of some kind: The supply of cheap skilled labour is now proving to be finite, as the emerging economies fail to expand their education infrastructure effectively enough. The political imperative of protecting jobs have been undermined by the pure economic pressures induced by the recession, and the rich country governments have become bolder in making deep cuts in public services and making people redundant citing the case for austerity. 

This presents a confluence of factors, rapidly improving technology, constrained skilled labour supply in emerging economies (and the political issues related to offshoring jobs) and the weakening of public argument for protecting jobs, which may set in motion a profound shift in the labour market, and it is already happening. A study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University studied the effect of computerisation on jobs (cited in The Economist, the original study here) and came up with a list that may frighten many. Primarily exploring on the basis of three 'compterisation bottlenecks', Perception and Manipulation (factors such as Finger Dexterity, Manual Dexterity and Frequency of Cramped and Awkward positions), Creative Intelligence (Originality and Fine Arts) and Social Intelligence (Social Perceptiveness, Negotiation, Persuasion and Assisting and Caring for others), they came up with a frightening figure of 47% of today's jobs that may be vulnerable to replacement by technology in the next two decades. Indeed, the effect is not same on different jobs, some jobs being far more susceptible to replacement by technology than others. On a scale of probability, where 1 stands for almost certain replacement and 0 stands for almost no probability of replacement, some of today's favoured jobs looked like this:

Jobs (Probability of Computerisation)

Telemarketers (0.99)
Insurance Underwriters (0.99)
New Accounts Clerks (0.99)
Insurance and Claim Processing Clerks (0.98)
Credit Analysts (0.98)
Bookkeeping, Auditing, Accounting Clerks (0.98)
Tellers (0.98)
Legal Secretaries (0.98)
Models (0.98)
Hosts, Hostesses in restaurants & coffee shops (0.98)
Cashiers (0.97)
Cooks, Restaurants (0.96)
Surveying and Mapping Technicians (0.96)
Receptionists (0.96)
Paralegals and Legal Assistants (0.94)
Hotel Desk Clerks (0.94)
Accountants and Auditors (0.94)
Retail Salespersons (0.92)
Tour Guides  (0.91)
Taxi Drivers (0.89)

This makes uncomfortable reading. Surely, there are jobs which are much less susceptible to computerisation threat, such as Editors (0.06), Chemical Engineers (0.02),  Dentists (0.004), Marketing Managers (0.014), Registered Nurses (0.0094), Educational and Vocational Counsellors (0.0088) and Secondary School Teachers (0.0078). But one must guard against reading the obvious here: That people with a Higher Education is somewhat immune to the technology threat, which seems to be the general message here. Too many people in today's Higher Education get into accounting, office work, hospitality trades and technician jobs in Health sector (Forensic, Diagnostic Work), Banks and Insurance (Underwriting etc), which are all greatly exposed to the technology rollover. If one takes an international perspective, the picture will become even grimmer: The universities in India, China, Poland and elsewhere, are happily churning away Accountants, Telesales people, Hospitality workers, and many other jobs which have been offshored to those countries (and hence represent prestigious graduate jobs with higher salaries), completely oblivious of the impending technology change. Looking at this list, one may get the feeling that the great promise of the emerging middle classes in Asia and elsewhere may turn out to be a great disaster, because better technology will wipe out managerially inconvenient and politically incorrect offshoring before it starts cutting into jobs at home.

The educator taking a long view of jobs and careers may therefore need to think beyond the clear and present labour market realities and balance the priorities of the future with the present. Surely, there are new jobs being created by the same job-destroying technologies, though not in the same proportion: An educator's trade is not just about educating, but to cull these insights and enable their students to prepare for their futures better. The starting point still remains the same: The educator must bring in focus the priorities of the students, often a middle class life with the usual contraptions of happiness, extending out twenty to thirty years into future. The educator must then bring about the conversations with today's employers and understanding of tomorrow's skills in line, and prepare his or her students with abilities and understanding that can help them live a fulfilling life.

Previous Posts on 'Education For Employment'

Is Education for Employment A Bad Thing?

Education for Employment: A New Paradigm for Engagement

Education for Employment: Finding the T-Skills

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