Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Solving the jobs-skills mismatch puzzle

ASK human resource practitioners and they will swear the jobs are there but employers are having a difficult time finding the right kind of people. The problem, they say, is a mismatch between jobs offered and the skills provided by the country’s educational system, a weird sort of scarcity amid plenty that is being accentuated by the rapid growth of business-process outsourcing, and the globalization of the Philippine labor market.

But how could we bridge this widening chasm? First, we need to bridge our understanding of the jobs-skills mismatch and objective condition on the ground.

Many policymakers seem to assume that schools tend to produce ivory-tower intellectuals and artists who will starve because they are not what employers need. The schools, they say, should encourage “employable skills”—short hand for worker bees trained in vocational and technical (VocTech) education; warm bodies who fiddle, tinker and produce concrete saleable products and not those woozy-headed thinkers who agonize over the meaning of life. The schools, they say, should cut emphasis on liberal education and focus on “hard” physical sciences and VocTech.

These views stem from our martial- law hangover when Ferdinand Marcos imposed the National College Entrance Examination to screen out and channel more people into one- or two-year courses. But do these old notions about the skills-jobs mismatch still stand?

The answer is no. BusinessMirror’s job ads monitoring (JAM) project, now on its fifth month, shows that the world is no longer what it used to be. This much is obvious in the October JAM report, where employers in three major national newspapers and three major online jobsites posted almost 35,000 advertisements for jobs.

The top 20 advertisers, from the highest to the lowest, are: cyberservices; construction and engineering; human resource/manpower firms; manufacturing; wholesale and retail; hotels, restaurants and resorts; financial intermediation; transportation, storage and communication; health and social work; education; personal, community and social services; real estate and renting; business consulting; mining and quarrying; advertising and promotions; extraterritorial bodies; and agriculture, fishery and forestry.

And what sort of skills do they require? Again, in descending order: professional and technical, clerical, production and related workers, administrative and managerial, sales workers, and service workers.

These numbers indicate that employers require skilled people, most of them highly schooled. Data seem to suggest that employers need both those who tinker and produce concrete stuff and those who think and produce intangible knowledge-rich products and services.
The recent study by the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines (PMAP) supports this paper’s JAM findings. In a study that covered fast-growing industries like pharmaceuticals, banking, consumer goods, hotels and restaurants, semiconductor, information technology, telecommunications, retail, and call centers, employers say they want people who have good communications skills, with strong analytical and conceptual skills, and have initiative.

These preferred basic competencies perfectly sound like those “soft” skills from a good liberal education. Certainly, the country needs more programmers, engineers, architects, physicists, welders and pipe fitters, but the workplace these days demands no less than a good liberal or general education for these people of the hard sciences to make a difference.

This new information on skills mismatch suggests that universities don’t have to junk their liberal and social sciences. In fact, the real issue seems to be how to strengthen it to compliment the hard sciences and the VocTech.

Gone are the days when all that engineers or chemists had to do was dazzle people with designs, numbers and formulas. Now they need to have leadership and social sophistication as well. They need to have self-confidence, assertiveness, flexibility and maturity; a global perspective and awareness of their social milieu, in contrast to the old notion of technical guys as introverted, remote number crunchers.

So, do our schools have what it takes to produce the workers demanded by the new, transformed and globalized workplaces? The evidence so far is mixed. While we have several centers of excellence providing quality education, the overall verdict seems to say the schools don’t produce enough “employable” graduates. Not even the VocTech school, according to PMAP, as their graduates are not doing good in the labor market either despite the rising demand for workers here and abroad. In the last six months, 80 percent of the job advertisements in construction and engineering were for overseas placements. Yet, according to the POEA, the Philippines could only fill half the job orders each year, a proof that those VocTech schools are not providing the required skills either.

What we see here therefore is not just a problem of mismatch, but a complete disconnect of the educational system with the dynamics of the labor market.

Solutions? Experts in the last tripartite human resource summit hosted by PMAP suggested greater industry-academe tie-up, especially in curriculum development. That’s fine, but it may not be enough to bring this country out of its low-growth equilibrium. If we want world-class education that could make this country the dragon economy we always dreamt of, we need a strategic look at how we fund the education of our children; and to look at education as an investment on the country’s future.

We are not talking of giving more money to the Commission on Higher Education. The idea is to set up a huge fund for a student loan program similar to those in the United States and Australia. Australians, for instance, have the so-called Higher Education Contribution System (HECS), lately renamed HELP or Higher Education Loan Program, where students borrow money from the government to be repaid once they are gainfully employed.

They could use such money to enroll in whatever school they want. To ensure that schools provide quality services—and weed out diploma mills—independent bodies should develop and provide benchmark information to the public, like a school ranking index to denote quality, to guide students’ decisions. This information system will pressure schools to innovate and improve as the annual ranking or index would penalize lousy providers by not enrolling in their schools.

Sometimes, policymakers wonder why it’s so easy for the best and brightest to leave for foreign shores. Economics certainly is the reason. But it’s also because many of them feel “the system” doesn’t care enough to invest in their future. A student loan program could meet this problem. And bridge the gap between the rich and the poor that, over history, has been causing their deep social fissures and hampering our efforts toward progress.

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