Let’s talk employability

An attempt to put a complex (politicized) topic in plain simple language. A follow-up debate is welcomed.

First, what is employment?

At the beginning there was work “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result” and work was good. We went hunting and gathering, so we can stay alive and maybe entertain ourselves. No much stress and complexity, so far so good. Later on, work became social. It was not only about us and our inner circle but also our tribe. Now, work was not a simple need or pleasure, it was a social duty. The results of our work were shared and that’s how the seeds for labour devision got planted. Few thousand years further, trade got fancy and we evolved beyond tribes into building small villages and eventually cities and kingdoms. In those times we could trade our work, which gave us employment “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result for other people or an organisation, in exchange for a remuneration”.

Few more thousand years passed and employment became not only the main way to distribute wealth (except the capital moves of top 10%) but also a psycho-social construct — the identity of a human being. If you want to find more about a person, at a party, they will probably end up talking about their job, as if there is nothing more to being a human.

Beyond the individual dimensions of employment, this phenomenon became a key concern and KPI for most countries around the world, along with productivity growth. Providing jobs, or better said, avoiding the capital loss and social unrest that comes with the lack of jobs, is a huge governmental challenge. Traditionally, it was the concern of 2 major institutions — the Ministry of Education and that of Economic Development. But, being such a complex social issue, employment became the ugly frog in nearly every public institution’s corner. It definitely was not missing in the recent general elections of USA, France, UK, and The Netherlands.

The cycle of employability

The industrial revolution took education’s exclusivity away from the Church, and few rich families, to the masses. The key reason for this shift was the urgent need to provide qualified workers for the growing industries of that time.Along with the productivity growth, child labour was abolished. It was also the inception days of modern public tax system so the government could take care of few extra costs, like keeping kids away while their parents serve the factory needs. Ever since, the education policy followed 3 standard steps:

  1. Get the biggest job creators (tax contributors) together and ask them where the business sector is moving in a decade time (or more) and what kinda of skills do they need. Ideally combine that with a national economic strategy and figure all the skills and amount of people needed to provide support services (healthcare, infrastructure, education, admin, legal etc) to maintain key economic and social functions of the country;
  2. Translate the findings of step 1 into school curriculum and make sure the education system is delivering highly employable and competitive “resources” for the private and public sectors alike;
  3. Connect the output of education system with the employment data and economic results of the country. Periodically adjust the “schooling” efforts to improve strategic economic KPIs.

To conclude, the whole system is focused on producing employable humans for the industry. Employability being the potential (or likelihood) of an individual to get a job /to be employed. This is somehow logic — you (the government) give people some skills that they can sell on the market in order to provide for themselves and as then pay tax. Press repeat.

In times where major innovation cycles took few decades, the government could predict the skills and jobs needed in the future, but with today’s technological developments and economic struggles — not anymore. Education in its current form can not guaranty a perfect employability “score”, and being unemployed is not sexy either since the public welfare system is shrinking. What can we do next?

Hacking employability

Along with the fact that our economic model, based on continuous growth and consumption, is not sustainable and needs deep structural reforms, I believe we need to put huge efforts into changing the very nature of work and employment laws. Few ideas (not in specific order):

  1. Seriously consider the basic minimum income. We need to deploy the experiment in more communities, gather data and improve the project with hybrid forms of employment, tax, and social welfare;
  2. Replace the standard 8-hour employment contract with skill-based contracts that would focus on “jobs to be done” regardless of the time or location constraints;
  3. We need to be fair and upfront with today’s youth by pointing out that their ability to provide value on the market and make a living is their ultimate responsibility. No one, not the government or the university, nor the parents can guaranty a 100%  job, and you are not entitled to sh*&;
  4. Encourage and recognise learning portfolios and skills acquired outside the schooling system, as to not discriminate based on schooling access. To support this shift we need to create learning cities, with more community and maker-spaces dedicated to continuous lifelong learning and skill documentation, for people of all ages and walks of life;
  5. Focus the school curriculum on “learning to learn” via project-based and research-based pedagogy. The economy and technology will change so fast in the upcoming decades that the ability to adapt and relearn critical skills will be paramount for staying relevant in the market;

The point here is that “employability” can’t be the sole role of the school/university/government but becomes a shared community responsibility with the individual owning the biggest share. It is the responsibility of each of us to think about our value and contribution to our community and society as a whole. It is our responsibility to stay relevant and to continuously increase the “likelihood” of us being employed in projects that provide a living but are also fulfilling.

Personally, I get pissed-off that we have so much data about products, organisations, and countries, but we have so little insight into our own skills and value that can be traded with others. Who can say what is the market CAP of an individual?

This frustration is the reason we created experimentQ — to tell better stories, conduct research and develop tools so people can explore alternative ways to "educate" themselves and make a living.

What do you think about the future of employment?

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Featured Photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash