Thursday, February 25, 2010

Schools Are Churning Out The Unemployable

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
Harriet Sergeant

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.


hishamh said...

No, it's not a sign of recessionary times. These kids have gone through full compulsory education - in our case that would be 11 years. So you can trace back the problems from at least that far back.

And if the teachers are part of the problem, you're really talking about the last 30-40 years. It's not a problem confined to Malaysia or the UK. I hear the same misgivings from many developed and developing countries.

walla said...

Indeed it is comfy to see others having the same problems so that one can feel less distressed.

But that feeling of relief evaporates when one realizes what matters is not what happens at the starting line but at the finishing line.


The british empire salted away a lot of things. The world's first multinational was probably their East India Trading Company.

Was it LKY who once said the british had taken more money out of old Malaya than what the US had given Europe through the post-war Marshall Plan?

Britain still has massive lodes of gold bullion whose price might go up as the dollar weakens owing to the unloading of US bonds.

And until the financial crisis, they and the japanese were massive foreign investors in the US. A lot of the assets would still be intact, acting like insurance for their future and as reserves beyond their receding prospects of national bankruptcy. Unlike Iceland, and perhaps Greece.

Europeans and Australians can live comfortably on just their dole on the islands of Thailand and Bali.

Just sand, sun and other things.


The british own commercial icons.

Like their soccer league. Other countries have to bid obscene amounts running into a few hundred millions of dollars just to broadcast one season of their club play where young men kick a ball around in a field, viewers yell their livers out and gamblers lose their fortunes online from betting on the results which suspiciously subscribe not to the law of averages but to the flaw of averages.

For the upcoming season, the bid sum has gone through the roof. As Shiller might remark, irrational exuberance returns.


Holding a job is somewhere in between personal fit and social fit, meaningful achievement and pay clocking.

Knowing this, it only remains to ask why is there not a mechanism which coordinates schools and colleges with the employing society that constructs better personal/social fit ratio's for each graduating student?

It is needed. The age when each person makes a defining decision about his or her whole life happens at a time when indecision can reign owing to spiking of physiological emotions combined with a huge toll on his or her time and energy. Things get rushed in the melee against a lack of facts or messy processing of realities.

This has never been clearly identified and discussed.

walla said...

If the student is from a family which can afford, off he or she goes to become a new statistic of the great exodus.

If the student is from a poor family, he or she stands at the roulette table of public admission into a politicized education system which also creates an inefficient private admission system so that both bring down standards, the only thing that matters at finishing lines.

And if the student wants to stop studying and start working for one reason or another - weak grades, indifference, family finances and so on - there should be a mechanism in the employing society which will enable him or her to get back into skill-gaining for economic-upgrading anytime so decided without too much hampering financial pressure.

Learning is a strange process. One expects the process to be iterative by now. But each new generation seems to come with the need to find out errors and mistakes for itself, thereby not shunning lessons already learned by previous generations with the result mistakes get repeated, sometimes with very painful consequences.

If learning is accumulative and legacial, every new person would just need to stand on the shoulders of his or her predecessors in order to become more efficient and effective, thereby freeing creative energy to build new things. New commercial icons, even.

But this never happens. Maybe because a tradition and culture of excellence and standard is seldom set by institutional forces which as much as what happens to their charges will just clock time in their work.

After the mess in schools and colleges, public and private, and after the mess in workplace, what happens at the finishing line is that most will have problems extending their knowledge because the language they are schooled in has not been used to translate things. Like Barro on growth. Furthermore it is not good enough to wield something in the hand. One must also be able to wave it around and get reactions from others who will give their comments which then add to post-qualify the things one knows.

Commercial icons which make money come about because people creatively concentrate post-qualifications of things and then out-box them to design new things and ideas whose time has come.

One understands high in-come comes from what's the latest or most enduring in-thing.


What will our people be doing at finishing lines? Where are our gold bullions? Why am i not in Pattaya or Bali?

walla said...

semuanya OK kot said...

Some issues besides straight-forward commercialisation are:
- Corruption in educational system and materials.
- Political correctness in UK and political expediency in Malaysia.
- Confusion over language and racial pride in Malaysia.
- Apathy of parents, related to (a) reduced parenting due to both parents working (and for longer hours), and (b) the ubiquitious signs of "might is right".
- Pampering of children, sometimes due to peer pressure.
- Rising environmental pollution: think of lead and mercury as simple examples.

Despite the downward spiral in basic values, pundits are telling us that for "Gen Y" youth to be "creative" and loyal, these little geniuses must not be subjected to tradtional discipline of the workplace.