The critical disconnect

February 08, 2019

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WE often get to see young graduates moaning about lack of opportunities for the freshies in the job market and that every vacancy has a requirement of work experience attached to it no matter how low-paying it is. It seems like a loop of despair where a job requires experience and experience requires job. It is like the Bermuda triangle of many a career. It sucks.

The hiring managers have their own litany of woes, blaming the situation entirely on degree-awarding universities, which, according to them, are not preparing the students for the professional world. In simple words, there is a disconnect between the education system and the real professional world. The prospect for adequate employment has been dismal for the millennials as a whole — and it often means graduating to just go back home and embark on a job search which is usually a lengthy affair and often ends in underemployment. The exceptions will be there, as is always the case, but a degree leading to a job is not something that happens in a hurry for the majority.

This is not just a concern but a rising one and it has gotten so massive in most parts of the world that it is one of the major issues electoral candidates put their prime agendas while luring the voters.

Looking back, till the middle of the 20th century, university education was reserved for the elite, with only a small window for upwardly middle- or working-class students. The problem cropped up because the people leading our corporate and academic entities are still from that era. They may have vast industry experience but their methods of imparting knowledge are still orthodox.

There are critical elements that are less valued by the universities, but that is what the employers are looking for.

Many academic leaders fear that paying more attention to the career needs of students will be the first step on a slippery slope to ‘vocationalisation of education’.

Their teaching strategy prefers formal education over learning and almost at the very basic level fails to incorporate a students’ perspective which should help engaging them in their academic learning. A lot of the younger teachers, by age or mindset, firmly believe that some students do not learn as well in traditional classroom settings because it does not engage or incorporate cultural experiences.

Universities continue to dwell on the theoretical in favour of the practical, and it doesn’t bode well in result-driven industries. It is a major problem for businesses that want to hire employees who can hit the ground running, especially considering the level of competition many companies face today.

However, one must put at least some blame on the employers too as most of them have opted out of providing comprehensive training programmes — especially in the start-up environment where funds are scarce. But it can be a pitfall, considering a substantial percentage of recent graduates – who are often underprepared as noted by the employers – would opt for a large company instead of small ones. This, coupled with universities’ inability to fully prepare workforce candidates, equals a reduced pool of adequate fresh contenders. In other words, the problem does not rest on colleges alone.

The truth is that rapid changes have made it difficult for educational institutions to adapt and, in turn, have created the ‘skills gap’ we are sobbing about. For example, most top universities don’t offer Facebook or Google-Ad marketing courses as part of Marketing curriculum that matter in today’s market; instead, they opt for commercial creation or branding strategies that no longer widely apply. Congruently, most employers also fail to deliver on the training.

Without implying at all that business is a bad thing, it has to be conceded that the educational institutions, especially universities, have become mere commercial enterprises in recent past. Now everything is measured in financial profits and the quality of education is on a steady decline. I have quite a few university teachers in my family and one of them used to teach two courses at the university along with his job a couple of years ago, and he always complained that he has no time for his research which was essential to strengthening the knowledge of subjects he was teaching.

Now the same individual teaches a total of four courses at two different universities and never moans about lack of time. When asked, he candidly admitted that he had compromised the time he used to spend on research and now just focuses on conducting the sessions regularly to keep his attendance in line. That is how the quality of education is so blatantly being compromised across the board. The universities are collecting substantial profits with their high fee structures, but still they do not want to invest more on the quality of their product which is education.

In Pakistani terms, another angle to the problem is that we lack career counselling at all levels. In our case, parents still consider themselves as the best counsellors for their child’s career but regrettably that is not the reality. In a country where literacy rate is low, how can anybody but a professional even imagine to talk about career directions. And when it comes to the need for counselling, even many among the educated prefer to live in denial. Appropriate counselling at critical stages will definitely increase the chances for individuals to land the right person in the right profession, hence reducing the severity of the cut-off between the academia and the professional environment.

Strategic thinking, communication skills, creative problem-solving, and leadership skills are among the “less familiar, more desired skills employers are seeking. Despite the number of people graduating from higher educational institutions increasing each year, employers continue to complain about a shortage of workplace competencies.

Instead of waiting for the educational system to catch up on its own, companies and universities can form coalitions so they can begin to take proactive approaches towards correcting these shortages. A few of the globally acknowledged and easily implementable solutions can be a properly structured internship programme. Even if internships are not essentially a graduation requirement for some students, it does not diminish its value.

Besides, giving students work-experience that builds some solid resumes, internships can enhance students’ educational experiences and aid their decisions about their career directions. It is absolutely vital that students, bot graduates and undergraduates, have the experience that a proper structured, strategic internship can provide.

Working on professional projects with colleagues, understanding a certain work environment, learning business etiquettes or at least helping to define their career path – there are so many reasons why an internship is valuable. It is actually a win-win situation for the students and the organisations.

Interns can infuse an organisation with fresh ideas and perspectives, offer insights about the latest technologies and complete strategic projects without straining in-house resources. Sometimes the match is mutually beneficial enough that it begins a long-term relationship.

The placement departments at certain top universities in the country are creating robust systems and tools to assist students in getting internships and jobs. Externally, the industry relations initiatives are essential to creating the opportunities for profession-ready students and graduates, which is another task for these departments.

Through these efforts, businesses will be able to find support for defining and establishing internships, and businesses and interns alike can get help to manage the relationship once the intern is engaged. Students will benefit from a number of services that will help them successfully transition from academia to the actual world.

Mentoring programmes are also known to bridge this void between soon-to-be graduates and their future potential emplo­yers. A well-implemented mentoring programme creates a culture of learning where employees actively teach and explain best practices to each other. These programmes can be made more effective if the students are mentored by the alumni.

The benefits of establishing student-alumni mentoring programmes can be immense. Students will have the opportunity to talk and interact with professionals who were once students in their very shoes. They will have the chance to ask questions, observe the workplace, and learn about a specific company that they might not feel comfortable asking other professionals. The alumni mentors can provide career guidance, encouragement during the academic development, advice on important course and field work, and opportunities to make professional contacts.

Monolithic educational structures are losing pace with the new work environments, and everyone is paying the price. If schools continue to teach subjects in silos, they will further widen the gap between what students learn and what they really need to succeed.