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Monday, November 11, 2013

"Unemployable Graduates" as Bayesian Blindness (A Rant).

I've remarked before that the only time I write seems to be when something annoys me to the point where the words just burst out in response. Wouldn't have thought a Time "Business" section article could do that, but here we are. As usual, it's probably cumulative - so the problem is not so much this article as the discourse it captures and sums up.

The piece ("The Real Reason New College Grads Can't Get Hired", Martha White, Time - Business & Money, 10 November 2013) is certainly not the first of its kind I've encountered. Similar pieces pop up periodically in newspapers and online in India, often written by pretty senior entrepreneurs, hiring managers, HR professionals etc. The basic argument is pretty straightforward - graduates today lack the skills, especially the "soft" skills, that any job requires, and so are unable to get jobs even a long while out of college.

In the Indian context, IT services jobs usually provide a good test case for the arguments employed in the articles themselves. (They're also handy for controlling for "hard" STEM skills, which the Time article also says are not the core concern.) Consider some of the most sought-after employers in this sector: Infosys and Google. One homegrown, one MNC. Funny thing is, both seem to be recruiting full steam, and to have no problem with the quality of their hires. On closer inspection, it turns out Infosys spends almost a full year training all its new hires before putting them on the job - they actually have a campus-style facility in Mysore - and Google's institutional culture famously does not emphasize a number of the skills Time highlights. (Again, more on creativity later). They also have high employee turnover, but neither seems to complain on that count.

In fact, efforts at educational enrichment catered to the job market have been spectacularly successful in India: Manish Sabharwal's TeamLease is one of the largest staffing and personnel providers in the world, and has reached that scale in stunningly rapid time. Amit Bhatia's Aspire India, an award-winning enterprise which aims to mobilise employable human resources through talent development, continues to scale up at what Amit calls "maniacal speed". Neither of them work exclusively in STEM disciplines - quite the opposite - and the tremendous response they have received suggests that prospective employees at every level of are acutely aware of the deficits in their education, and eager to correct them.

And yet - as Time reports - across a wide range of jobs, including financial services, legal professions, business, strategy and management consultancy, potential employees simply lack relevant soft skills. Employers in these fields, the article reports from surveys, say they value a number of these skills which are apparently in short supply. Graduates seeking employment should probably be paying attention to them, but one has to ask - do employers actually value these skills? Or are they merely adopting a superior position for anticipated salary negotiations?

Here's an easy way (conceptually easy, not practically easy) to tell - check if any of those surveyed employers spend money on these heads. Like Infosys and Wipro, with their campus hire + training programmes. Or like Google, with its non-traditional HR practices and dedicated in-house think tanks. Check how much money any employer spends on H.R. in general, as compared to other heads of expenditure. Adjust in any suitable fashion for the market rates and suitable levels of exposure relevant to those expenditures. Revealed Preference Theory suggests that if you know those figures, you have a pretty good facsimile for the priorities of the firm.

I would anticipate that those expenditures do not line up with stated priorities. I would also anticipate that they do not line up with what employees (or graduates) would like to see spent on those heads. All of which is to say: the real reason there are too few of both, good jobs and good candidates in the job market, is that there are utterly unrealistic expectations on both sides. (That's probably why internships are the one thing that seem to help - direct contact helps to give both employer and employee more realistic ideas.)

And that's the problem with the Time article. It can't speak to any expectations, realistic or otherwise, because it just doesn't have any of that information. And it presents as the norm something that is a subset of a subset of a subset. Which is to say -

Creativity is particularly interesting, and somewhat emblematic of this difference in understanding. For one thing, it's not a soft skill - which is about how people relate to people - but about how people relate to novelty. Then, there's a host of questions to answer.
  • How often does "creative behaviour" manifest in the general population? 
  • Does education impact it? 
  • What kind of education? 
  • In what conditions does it typically manifest, either before or after college-level education? 
  • How closely do those conditions mirror "real-life" situations? (Whatever that is.)
  • How closely do they mirror on-job conditions? 
  • Are there conditions pre-requisite for creativity? 
  • If there are, do on-job conditions fulfill them? 
  • Or, to be more nuanced, is creativity trainable? 
  • Can it be trained only under specific conditions? 
  • If yes, does that training transfer to alternate conditions? 
  • What conditions does it transfer to best?
  • Do on-job conditions resemble those conditions?

There's lots of work being done on the subject in positive child development, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and more; Sugata Mitra now proposes a new definition of learning and education in his work on Technology-Assisted Self-Organised Learning. Singapore - for all that I'm uncomfortable with their educational streaming practices - is also leading on official policy to institutionalise teaching creativity, and it's just as fascinating to see the pedagogy they are evolving for it. What they are finding, in essence, is that it is a cognitive approach associated with positive emotional states - when you see something as a puzzle, not a problem - and a behaviour that corresponds quite literally with "having an open mind". If one may paraphrase from Dorothy Law Nolte's famous poem, "Children Learn What They Live" - When a child lives with happiness, he learns creativity. That suggests a new test for employers - would a six year old be happy in your office? A teenager? An adult? And if not, how do you expect them to be creative?

What all those efforts - research, pedagogy, policy - to engender creativity have in common is this: they are NOT EVEN CLOSE to traditional, business-as-usual approaches. (Dr. Mitra describes the traditional educational system a factory, set up by colonial powers to produce the drones that industrial-age capitalism demanded to function.) They involve practically a sea change in institutional culture, which in the case of established institutions (as opposed to new ventures) usually involves some substantial adaptation costs, as well as explicit realignment of priorities.

Are similar measures being taken by these employers who want creative problem-solving from their employees? Do they have, for instance, in-house think tanks and a budget for experimental projects? Do they give employees time to work on their own projects or ideas? Do they reward them if any of those ideas play out successfully?

I don't know. And the article doesn't say. And that's critical information, without which we can only speculate. And while I have nothing against speculation - it's my favourite kind of procrastination - I think it's appropriate to be a little less definitive (and certainly less judgmental) in tone when presenting our speculations.

My own theory is simply this: You get what you pay for. And you're not paying enough.

Consider a metaphor from the extractive industries. For any patch of land you pick, the odds are there is some kind of valuable mineral somewhere underground. What varies is, of course, how difficult that mineral wealth is to get at. In places, the resource may cost more to extract than it is worth in the market. In other words, in determining actual access to the resource, the deciding factor is viability.

Human talent, at the individual level, is similar. Manifesting a particular skill is an individual expense decision, in terms of the time and effort involved. Industrial psychologists studying productivity have consistently discovered that people prioritise work requirements only to a certain extent, and under certain conditions. After all, the skills being discussed - time management, working with others, communicating, even creativity - are very much a part of the ordinary human experience. EVERYONE HAS THEM. If we truly believed that graduates lacked these skills, we'd be saying we educated them out of ordinary human abilities (and into being socially awkward reclusive penguins) - quite the horrendous accomplishment, if we did! If anything, education does the opposite - you cannot finish college without being exquisitely aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and exactly how much they are worth to you, as also to the market.

I'm willing to bet that if you took a random selection of "soft-skill-deficient" students and had them manage their own start-ups in fields they care about, they'd display a remarkable degree of those same abilities. Would it match these putative employers' standards or requirements? Perhaps, perhaps not. (More signs that expectations are divorced from reality here.) But it certainly would be hard to reconcile with the apparent deficit in these skills employers report on such surveys. What the people providing the great jobs have realised (or perhaps simply avoided, oblivious but fortunate) is precisely this: the skills are there for the having, and usually trainable even where they're not. Most people are well worth the investment - but you have to be willing to invest in them first.

If you can't be bothered to do that, really, stop whining. I'm a talented communicator, a versatile and adaptive team-worker who can diagnose and support in any situation. My work habits are almost infinitely malleable to your priorities. I am willing, at need, to have near-zero personal life. And I'm a creative and committed problem-solver to the point of having an Archimedes Complex. But why should I bring my *A*game for you, when you won't do it for me? You're just a job, not my passion. Put up, or shut up.

1 comment:

  1. That was a great rant. Thoroughly enjoyed it!