RECENTLY, a friend needed to hire an administrative and finance officer for an entry-level position in office administration. He advertised the post on one of the relevant internet sites. He received 500 applications for the post. After sifting through the CVs, he could only find seven that seemed to be good enough. He called the seven people for interviews. Two candidates did not show up; later, they said they had forgotten they had an interview. From the five people that he did interview, although he took the best, he felt he had to compromise on expectations significantly to give this person a chance.
All the candidates in his short list had postgraduate degrees and some even had a few years of experience. Still, it was difficult to find the right person for the entry-level job.
There is something very broken in the education-employment connection in our economy. Though usually it is just termed, in popular literature, a skill mismatch, it is clearly more than just that. Most of the time we hear complaints that universities are just churning out humanities and social science graduates where we need scientists, engineers, technicians and skilled people. There might well be a mismatch between the skills we require in our industries and what the universities are able to produce, but the above example is not about that.
We advertised for a similar entry-level administrative job a few years ago. We received 1,100 applications for the position. After sifting through all the CVs, we could only shortlist 10 candidates for interviews. Of the 10, there were only three who came even close to what we wanted and were expecting. Three out of 1,100! Not a story of mismatch alone.
The quality of education has become a major stumbling block.
The story is not very different on other counts. Pass rates for civil services examinations have dropped to two to three per cent for each examination. Tens of thousands of candidates take the exams, the Public Service Commission announces there are hardly a couple of hundred that it can pass. What skills are being matched there?
It seems that the major issue, in the cases given here, is that of quality of education. The quality of education being given to our students across the board is so poor that most of the graduates coming out of universities do not even have the basics that are needed for any job in the marketplace or even for being a productive citizen. Their language skills, Urdu and English, are poor, their numeracy skills are very elementary, their education does not teach them the basics of communication, interpersonal behaviour management or self-management, but most importantly, and damagingly, they do not even have a grasp of the basics of logic, inductive/deductive reasoning, argumentation, rhetoric, critical or even common-sense thinking. And, usually, they do not know how to learn either.
Over the last four to five years, I have had the experience of hiring at many different levels. From doing interviews for admission in graduate programmes to hiring administrative/finance staff, research assistants/associates, junior faculty, professors, deans and even heads of institutions, I have, quite literally, done hundreds of interviews. We even conduct written tests for some of the positions. There have been very few positions, in my experience, that have required very specific ‘skills’ that individuals needed before they could become a good candidate for a job: in some cases we need research assistants who must have prior experience in certain computer programmes.
For most jobs, one looks for quality of education that the person has had, the quality of their experience, if relevant, the kind of person the candidate is, and the ability of the person to deal with questions/issues that would be relevant for the job in question. The quality of education becomes the major stumbling block.
In interviews and in written tests, candidates show the poor quality of not only their language skills, but also of their education when they cannot even put together a coherent argument. They do not know how to read an article and make sense of what the author has said. They are unable to comprehend the implications of what they read, cannot generalise from their reading, cannot find examples to apply their reading to, cannot adapt their reading to apply to their situation and context and cannot generalise from their own context to create counter or confirmatory arguments.
The ability to critically engage with either the written word or with one’s environment is a necessary, if minimal, condition for being able to respond to the demands of any job. A lot of candidates are not able to do that.
But the story does not end there. It is not just that their education has not equipped them to be able to engage with their environment effectively; for many, their education has also crippled them so that it is hard for them to acquire these skills while they work. There are very few jobs where on-the-job training cannot happen. But if, even after a couple of years of experience, a person is not able to deal with his/her job well, there is an issue: there must be a problem in how they learn.
It is, of course, not the case that there are no good candidates at all or that all institutions provide education of a poor quality: there are some high quality educational institutions in the country. But their number is very small. Good graduates from such institutions do get recognised and command better returns as well. But the problem is for the millions who are spending 16 to 18 years in schools and universities and ending up being poorly educated and trained, and much more damagingly, being educated in ways and habits that make it difficult for them to change and become better learners. We can take up the question of how to start addressing the problem later.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2018