This is a familiar subject for many of us in Malaysia, and imagine how delighted I was when I came across this article in a foreign newspaper - of all places, the UK Times.
The thought that sprung to my mind was that - aha, now, this does not look like a typical Malaysian problem. Could it then be a problem of the times - and in particular, recession times?
When times are good, employers do not mind hiring anybody so long as that body will turn up for work - to answer phone calls, letters or emails.
When times are bad, employers argue about quality and price. As do everybody else.
I think that the only difference that we have among ourselves or between us is the scope for us to suffer errors and be allowed to live another day. At the end of the day, when times get tough, the only way out is to work hard and not die.
Schools are churning out the unemployable
The latest unemployment figures are a shocker. Eight million adults are “economically inactive”. That means one in five people of working age does not have a job. A new and expanding group, poignantly described as “discouraged” workers, have even given up looking.
They are right to be discouraged but wrong that there is no work. A report out on Friday points out that a fifth of firms and a quarter of employers in the state sector are still hiring — despite the recession. Except they are taking on migrant workers — not our home-grown “discouraged” variety.
The managing director of a medium-sized IT company explained why. High-flyers — Oxford and Cambridge graduates — are still as good as any in the world. His problems come when he tries to recruit middle management. Last year he interviewed 52 graduates — all educated in state schools. On paper they looked “brilliant students”. Each had three As at A-level and a 2:1 degree. He shook his head. “There’s a big difference between people passing exams and being ready for work.”
This was obvious even before the interview began. Of the 52 applicants, half arrived late. Only three of the 52 walked up to the managing director, looked him in the eye, shook his hand and said, “Good morning.” The rest “just ambled in”. When he asked them to solve a problem, only 12 had come equipped with a notebook and pencil.
The three who had greeted him proved the strongest candidates and he hired them. Within a year they were out because of their “lackadaisical” attitude. They did not turn up on time; for the first six months a manager had to check all their emails for spelling and grammar; they did not know how to learn. It was the first time they had ever been asked to learn on their own. Their ability to “engage in business” was “incredibly” disappointing and “at 5.30 on the dot they left the office”.
This year the managing director has joined the 20% of companies recruiting overseas. “We are an English company but we have no English staff. It’s just too much trouble,” he said.
It is the same story with employers at every level in the UK. Sir Terry Leahy, the chief executive of Tesco, put it bluntly. Too many children have been leaving school after 11 or 13 years of compulsory education “without the basic skills to get on in life and hold down a job”. He said 5m adults were functionally illiterate and 17m could not add up properly. “On-the-job training” cannot act as a “bandage or sticking plaster” for “the failure of our education system”.
A CBI survey revealed that literacy and numeracy were not the only problems. More than 50% of employers complained that young people were inarticulate, unable to communicate concisely, interpret written instructions or perform simple mental calculations.
This goes a long way to explain why, of the 1.7m jobs created since 1997, 81% have gone to foreign workers. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) agrees with Leahy. UK citizens are on the dole because of “issues around basic employability skills, incentives and motivation”. It is a pity it has not passed that insight on to the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
The DWP has made it clear: work is where the inflated claims for our state education finally hit the buffers. At every stage we have a system in which the expediency of politicians and the ideology of the educational establishment take precedence over the interests of pupils.
We have children who can barely read and write scoring high marks in their Sats because it makes the school, and therefore politicians, look good. We have exam boards competing to offer the lowest pass mark because it allows heads to fulfil their GCSE targets. We have pupils pushed into easy subjects at A-level — which excludes them from applying to a top university — because it benefits the school. And we have universities that offer a 2:1 degree, as the IT company director put it, to “anyone who bothers to sit down and take the exam”.
On top of that is the attitude of the staff themselves. I was visiting schools to discover why so many black Caribbean and white working-class boys were failing. One reason soon became obvious. Their teachers, middle class themselves, failed to pass on those very values that had allowed them to progress in life.
They viewed inculcating attributes such as lucidity, spelling, grammar, punctuality and manners as “patronising”. They feared anything that smacked of the didactic. “I am not a teacher. I am a facilitator,” said one teacher primly. The head of another school insisted she was a “head learner” rather than a headmistress.
Joseph P Parkes is clear who he is and it is definitely not a head learner. Father Parkes is the president of Cristo Rey, a Catholic coeducational school in East Harlem, New York. His mainly black and Puerto Rican pupils come from single-parent homes; many have fathers in prison. But he is determined that no one is going to turn them down for a job.
His school operates an ingenious work-share scheme with some of New York’s most prestigious companies and charities. Once a week pupils put on their identity cards, go down to Wall Street and enter another world — of law firms and investment banks.
From the age of 14 they join a team of five pupils each performing clerical work one day a week. They know their salary pays “a big chunk” of their education. As one young man said: “They treat me like an adult.” Parkes explained: “It encourages them to take school seriously.”
How seriously I saw for myself when Parkes addressed morning assembly. We stood in rows, teachers patrolling on either side, straightening a shoulder here, checking a tie there. The talk was entitled First Impressions. “Now what kind of first impression have you made on our visitor from the UK here?” asked Parkes. “Have you shaken Miss Sergeant by the hand and looked her in the eye?” he demanded. Seventy pairs of eyes immediately engaged me. “Have you greeted her?” “Good morning,” they all chanted enthusiastically.
He held up a sheaf of papers, printouts of emails. The previous day, he had set them the task of applying for a job interview on the internet. First, had they researched the company? He summoned one boy to the front, who listed his company’s interests fluently. Parkes nodded approval, then turned back to us. Now then, how many had tracked down the right address for the email? Who was dispatching their precious job application to the man in the post room? Everyone laughed.
No detail seemed too small for Parkes. Had they spelt names correctly? He waved the papers accusingly. Some of the students had addressed their emails to him: “You were not following directions. You have got to learn to follow directions.” He selected three or four sheets. “And some of you have an email address that is inappropriate for a job application. Put yourself in the company’s shoes. Are you really going to give an interview to JosetheNiceGuy, FastandFurious@Hotmail” — the boy next to me blushed — “or Cristo Rey Hottie?” The pupils erupted. Finally, the head demanded: “What happens when you are not proactive?” “You are being a procrastinator,” they shouted back.
Parkes knows that his school is the only chance these young people have. Education has to make up for their background and the lack of those values that ensure success. He knows they are totally dependent on him for their future. If employers like the managing director are to recruit in England again, it is a lesson that our state schools will have to learn.