OPEN ECONOMY: Educating people for the right jobs

So, it is my worry that as we promise to create two million jobs on outdated competencies, then we are striving towards an uncompetitive economy; one characterised by high employment of antiquated educational needs.

Many times, when countries world over speak of employment, they often refer to the labour market as one made up of commodities.

A commodity can be loosely defined as a homogeneous factor of production that is interchangeable with other commodities of the same type.

It is essentially uniform across all producers, and the utility of each commodity is just as equal as the next. For easier imagery, the labour market is somewhat seen as a dozen loaves of bread – same texture, same dimensions, same colour, just all the same.

It shows in the dominance of standardised assessments as the best means of evaluating students.

Thus, perhaps unknowingly, less progressive nations view their educational systems as assembly lines meant to churn out a standardised group of ready-to-use commodities that they call the labour force.

Proof to this in Zimbabwe shows itself in frequent discussions with the private sector, particularly individuals with managerial roles. A typical managerial complaint is the lack of differentiation between new hires.

This concern is more pervasive as it relates to recent graduates from our local tertiary institutions.

Of course, this is not a diatribe against local institutions, let alone a definitive comparison to external educational structures.

It is merely a focus on the system we actually have responsibility over and discretion to fix.

Wouldn’t it be a waste of time for us to dwell on, say, the UK educational system?

Anyhow, employers often lament about how new hires are exceptional at theoretical understanding, but defective in engaging unique skill sets. Hence, while they are reliable in formal routine tasks, new hires possess little value in terms of contributing to enterprise expansion; both on a micro level and accumulatively on a macro-economic level.

As a nation, we often jump to conclude that it is only our educational system that’s at fault for this circumstance.

But we must take heed that this is only the end point of a sequence of external shortcomings that influence the organisation of the educational system itself. We overlook the causal influence on which the educational system retains this “commodity labour force” frame of mind.

A better approach of assessment would be to look at outside influencers on the educational system.

First, we can start by blaming the private sector.

The business community cannot exonerate itself from the quality of education when it does not engage with students during their time of schooling. An educational system can only be as vibrant as the private sector informs it on the broad dynamics of the real economy.

How many companies send senior representatives to give talks at universities? In fact, numerous executives carry an unexplained hierarchical demeanour, and believe that it is beneath their dignity to go out and engage with student bodies.

This is so unfortunate because it is business leaders who can give credible insight into the diverse complexities found in industry. Before any other sector, the business community knows exactly which qualities young people should acquire to prepare for real world contribution.

You will find that in progressive economies, high level corporate managers actually lecture classes to an extent that they can be acknowledged as being professors themselves. Zimbabwe should begin to embrace such a committed culture from our private sector. Second, just as culpable are our economic policymakers.

It is common speech to address employment as an issue of numbers, thus instilling a predominantly numeric narrative behind employment. That should not be the case at all. Instead, the narrative behind employment-creation must be one guided by identified competencies that shall be necessary for a competitive economy.

Hence, it is an incomplete notion to promise two million jobs, especially without highlighting what competencies will be required to carry out those jobs and whether those jobs foster economic competitiveness. It requires an acute awareness to comprehend this point!

After all, policymakers should not aim to create jobs that have little or no economic utility – that brings about what is called a poverty trap. A poverty trap is when individuals are confined within a livelihood that does not allow them to generate enough wealth to supersede the economic situation.

Therefore, policymakers must be focused on: Which jobs will have utility and what competencies within those jobs should the educational system groom in students?

The narrative behind our job-creation discourse is incorrect.

While we concentrate on creating a stated number of jobs by a set date, other competitive countries are diligently finding out what labour force competencies will be needed to make their economies competitive by that same time horizon.

And so by then, they will not ask themselves how many jobs they’ve created, instead they will ask whether they have educated enough citizens to match the demanded competencies.

Therein lies an inconspicuous but profound economic difference.

Shrewd policymakers will be able to deduce the implication on an educational system derived from such a school of thought.

It is an inherent nature of economics that jobs will always have fluctuating value; even to the extremes that others become obsolete and new kinds emerge from newly-found necessity.

So, it is my worry that as we promise to create two million jobs on outdated competencies, then we are striving towards an uncompetitive economy; one characterised by high employment of antiquated educational needs.

Such an economy will not sustain itself.

Such a way of thinking only helps to transmit this “commodity labour force” ideology into our public educational system.

At this point, I’d look to Economic Planning Minister Simon Khaya Moyo.

He should know where our economy is planned to be heading, and should know exactly what labour competencies correspond to that desired economy. It follows then that the educational systems must be reformed from the strength of his consultancy on what kind of labour force schools must produce.

I am advancing the notion that an educational system must be organised from credible reference points. Business and governance have the capacity to influence competitive education systems.

Both must start to take ownership and give desirable influence on the kind of labour force schools must produce.

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