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Pendulum of skill sets swings again

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Greater debate needed on whether it is better to learn a specific skill or have a conventional college education

One of the underestimated issues of our times is not about education but concerns about the skill sets that the working population has or does not have.

What is the employability value of our education? Is learning a specific skill more cost- and time-effective than conventional college education?

We are perhaps not debating this hard enough.

We have, however, had debates on whether it is useful to be a specialist or a generalist in the job market.

Should you be a "compensation expert" in human resources (HR) or a manager who understands many HR aspects and their value in business?

Given the shifting goals of skill acquisition, it is a big puzzle for the young and policymakers.

In the past few years, the young have been told that they must learn to code - even those seeking to become physical fitness trainers or medical attendants.

Coding is now considered a universal skill to have, just the same way typewriting once was or cycling and driving have always been.

Yet, coding is mostly not taught in schools or colleges under the essential curriculum, except in progressive institutions.

It would almost seem that paper degrees and jobgranting skill sets are two parallel pursuits.

Similarly, new careers have emerged in big data, analytics, fintech, medtech and edutech, which are also not embedded in formal streams of education.

Thus, it would almost seem that paper degrees and job-granting skill sets are two parallel pursuits.

After World War II, countries such as Germany, Japan and the US went into overdrive to create new industrial competencies, often led by new-age engineering.

This was achieved through a shift from hands-on and practical emphasis to deep engineering, science, design and analytical emphasis, backed by a significant number of new patents. These shifts in education helped the countries preside over a dramatic change in their fortunes; these three countries recorded phenomenal growth for 20 to 30 years.


It almost seems like we have now come full circle. Conventional engineering and management degrees are being questioned. India has millions of engineers who are not readily employable, as their working skills are considered inadequate.

Employability-skill training is now tucked into the formal educational programme in many countries. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and other universities offer short-term blended programmes (largely online) to deliver skill degrees or diplomas.

Who are their main consumers? Working men and women who are considering a shift to the new-age industries, and those who fear obsolescence of their skill sets.

The idea of education as a front-loading of abilities in youth, to be capitalised and monetised through a four- or five-decade working career, is now considered moribund.

Learning is a life-long pursuit.

Does that mean you start a career with just some basic abilities? How do you land a job with those? More importantly, how do you achieve upward mobility in career based on that modest start?

These are yet to be convincingly addressed.

But one thing is clear. Technology shifts and changes in human endeavours are forcing a rethink on the basket of education that an individual needs, including when it is most appropriate to seek the various components (though perhaps it is all the time).

How much of practical apprenticeship do you build alongside conceptual classroom education?

Singapore is making some decisive shifts in these directions, modelled on some of the Western European nations. Will this be at the cost of high-end intellect (including science, engineering and management), which societies need?

China has just announced its desire to attract more Indian science and technology experts to go and work there. That is perhaps an admission of the inadequacy of the Chinese educational system, which focused too much on job skills.

The bottom line is that we have a churn in perspectives of what is the right educational mix for a society. It will take a decade or two to track and dissect the outcomes of change initiatives, by which time it will be time to make new turns.

Meanwhile, a whole generation of students and those in early or mid-career phases will be hoping that the churn affects them positively.

The writer is a Singapore-based consultant. This article appeared in 
The Business Times yesterday