Why employment relevance matters in higher education?

This week I am posted a  guest article by a friend and colleague, Dr. Senthil Nathan, Deputy Vice Chancellor/ Vice Provost,of Higher Colleges of Technology in the UAE. It’s a thought-provoking piece on higher education and employment relevance. Please read and react by posting your comments.

You may have watched Fareed Zakaria articulate last month on his “Global Public Square” (GPS) program on CNN about “Why the liberal arts matter” in higher education. http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2014/05/24/why-the-liberal-arts-matter/

However, a 21st century debate that needs to occur within academia around the world should be on “Why employment relevance matters in higher education”.

Data from around the world are incredibly strong to suggest a significant and still growing gap between what the business expects and what educators provide in terms of skills of graduates. According to a recent McKinsey report, only 42% of employers and 45% of the students worldwide believe that new graduates are adequately prepared for the world of work. On the other hand, 72% of the educators believe that graduates are adequately prepared for the job market. This is indeed a serious gap in perception.


I will cite some more evidence on these skills gaps and perception gaps – from the three higher education regions that I am familiar with:

a) In the United States, since the 2008 financial crisis, President Obama and several state governors have pointed out to growing skill gaps. In their recommendations entitled “Prepare the American Workforce to Compete in the Global Economy”, President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness (Jobs Council) provides evidence pointing to this growing skills gap.

Many of the 3.3m jobs in the USA are going unfilled for lack of qualified workers particularly in the technical specializations. There are important recommendations in this executive summary for US leaders in education to consider seriously.

b) About this challenge in the Middle East, a 2012 UNESCO “Report on Skills Gaps” http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0021/002178/217874e.pdf

cites the lack of available talent and trained resources in the Middle East region as the
greatest threat identified by Arab CEOs; only half of them believe that such skilled graduates are provided in sufficient quantities. Only 37% of Gulf business leaders are satisfied with the supply of employable graduates. This skills gap is even more alarming in view of the fact that 100 million new jobs have to be created by 2020 to absorb the new entrants into the labor market in the Arab countries. This challenge faced by the MENA region is perhaps the most complex, multi-faceted and the most serious one in the world. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_YouthEmployment_ArabWorld_Report_2012.pdf

c) India: Interestingly and somewhat ironically, this skills gap seems to be the most acute in the so-called “outsource haven” of India. “The shortage of appropriately skilled labor across many industries is emerging as a significant and complex challenge to India’s growth and future. According to National Association of Software Companies, each year over 3 million graduates and post-graduates are added to the Indian workforce. However, of these only 25% of technical graduates and 10-15% of other graduates are considered employable by the rapidly growing IT and ITES segments. India would require a workforce of 2.3 million employees in the IT and ITES sectors by 2015 – however, over the past 15 years, India has produced only 1.6 million professionals and faces the uphill task of producing another 0.8 million in the next two years.” http://www.onefoundation.in/papers.php.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to address the following topics in more depth.

1) Should educators take more responsibility for the employment of their graduates? The McKinsey report’s surveys indicate that linking students to employment opportunities is just a middle priority for education providers.

2) How should the governments intervene in addressing this widening skills gap? Creating employment opportunities and producing employable graduates – are these not two sides of the same coin?

3) To what extent employers be more proactive rather than simply leaving this gap to be addressed by the educators and the government? Can the employers collaborate much more actively with regional colleges and universities to help produce the graduates with the right skills – by divesting some of their entry-level training budget to sponsoring such collaborative academic programs?

4) How can youth (and their parents) take on more responsibility in making the right choices for their career programs? While the number of jobs in STEM majors continues to rise, only a small % of US students pursue these programs. Similarly, while there is a demonstrated need for significant number of graduates in vocational trades in the Middle East, social perceptions pressurize students to pursue academic programs.

For these future discussions, I welcome input from my learned colleagues from business and academia – particularly on best practices that they may have experienced in each of these areas.

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