Alan Kantrow: ‘Der’ Problem of Education for Employability

Boston — As daily headlines attest, youth unemployment has become an urgent, legitimate concern in both developed and developing economies. Local transformative events like the Arab Spring make starkly visible a destructive logic that applies everywhere: large and growing cohorts of unemployed young adults quickly impose a social cost, a burden on a nation’s economic performance, a cap on an individual’s lifetime earnings, and a threat to social stability and even national security of significant dimensions. Just how significant and just how quickly we are in the uncomfortable process of finding out.

In the Middle East, for example, McKinsey data show the unemployment rate for youth running a little over 25% (against a global average of 12.6%). Even worse, that 25% applies only to the 35% of young adults who are actually trying to be part of the labor force (global average, 52%). The rest are not even on the economic screen. Already, today, this represents an annual net loss to these economies of some US$ 50 billion. Worse still, given the region’s youth-heavy demographic profile, these numbers will grow even less attractive over time.

But worst of all is the ironic fact that, by 2020 according to other McKinsey research, in addition to a global surplus of some 95 million low-skill workers, there will be a global shortage of some 40 million high-skill workers and some 45 million medium-skill workers. Put bluntly, most countries will not have adequate numbers of trained people to run increasingly sophisticated economies, nor will they have adequate numbers of jobs to employ the kinds of people they do have.

These tea leaves have not gone unread nor unanswered. In many countries, a central, largely uncontroversial part of the policy response to youth unemployment has been to mount initiatives to increase – often, vastly increase – the number of “slots” available for students in tertiary institutions and, thereby, the number of graduates. After all, who of sound mind would argue that such education was not a, perhaps the, critical part any workable solution? In some cases, this might mean expanding the capacity of schools and programs that already exist; in others, launching new ones. Either way, a key part of remedial strategy has been to tackle youth unemployment by making tertiary education more broadly available.

And the strategy has worked. Over the past decade and a half in a wide range of countries, the number of tertiary enrolments and graduations has, indeed, skyrocketed. But his has not solved the problem; it has merely changed its form. Yes, these graduates are finding work – perhaps slowly, but certainly at higher rates than those without such training. But they are often not finding work that is neither aligned with what they studied nor configured to deploy their full range of knowledge and skills nor consistent with their aspirations for responsibility and income.

In a word, what these graduates face in many cases is not so much unemployment as unDERemployment. Consider as but one example a survey of some 6000 new graduates conducted by China’s Tsinghua University. As reported in the WSJ, 69% of these graduates are now working for entry-level salaries lower than those paid to average migrant workers in domestic factories. Together with many of their peers, living in crowded urban apartments and scraping by on low-wage noodle-shop-type jobs, they are widely and dismissively spoken of as the “ant tribe.”

The local names for such cohorts of underemployed young adults may vary by country, but their troubling situation is very much of a piece. Not even a quarter of the 7000 tertiary students I recently surveyed in two non-Moscow regions of Russia expressed any confidence that what they studied in school bore any meaningful relation to the work they would do after graduation. Their degree would not serve as an essential, substantive foundation to career advancement. After graduation, they would take whatever work was available and start over from scratch.

Make no mistake: this situation is troubling, deeply so. “Der” problem is real, big, disheartening, and growing fast. In educational terms, compared with unemployment, it is also much harder to solve. To be sure, the work of enrolling more students and turning out more graduates is grindingly hard and expensive, but it merely asks societies and their tertiary institutions to stay within their comfort zones and do more of what they have already been doing. Things get much harder when the goal is to address underemployment – that is, the glaring disconnect between what new graduates are educated to be and do and what real-world employers expect and require of them. The reason is simple. A serious effort to close a gap of this kind means taking a fresh, no-nonsense look at what tertiary institutions actually do and how they do it and then asking, rigorously and honestly, whether all that still makes good sense. If there is a third rail in the tertiary world, this is it.

Most of the time, asking tertiary institutions and their faculty to work harder and do more understandably elicits sighs and groans, followed by grudging compliance. By contrast, asking them to reconceive and reconfigure what they do – and to stop doing some of it – usually triggers virulent antibodies, outright obstruction, and hand-to-hand combat. There are exceptions, of course, but the general pattern is clear. As I have argued elsewhere, most educators treat the tertiary paradigm in place around the world as if it came down chiseled in stone from Sinai.

None of us knows, a priori, what kinds of changes will be needed as that paradigm gets rewritten and redeployed in different parts of the world in ways that have a real hope of addressing “DER” problem. All we can say with certainty is that we will not figure it out by sitting at our desks. We need to try things, to experiment in a disciplined fashion, to explore and test with focused intent.

Alan M. Kantrow