Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Bridging the mismatch between skills and jobs

The following appears at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today - June 28, 2006.

THE second round of the Graduate Tracer Study officially commences today as research directors of 60 colleges and universities from all over the country come together to begin the arduous process of answering the question that has been baffling industry and academe in the last few years. No, the question has nothing to do with how those voices got caught on tape.

The question, in layman’s terms, is what exactly is causing the mismatch between what academe produces (skills) and what industry needs (jobs)? Hopefully, the answers will lead to prescriptions that will help academic institutions and national policymakers develop a more responsive and relevant educational environment that will enhance the overall competitiveness of Filipino graduates in the marketplace.

But first, an introduction about the Tracer Study. It is a nationwide “tracer” study that aims to gather feedback on the whereabouts of college graduates from the time they graduated to the present. At the same time, it aims to conduct a retroactive assessment of what aspects of the graduates’ academic preparation helped, or conversely, hindered them from getting employment.

The GTS is spearheaded by the Commission on Higher Education, in partnership with some government institutions (e.g., the Department of Labor and Employment), industries (represented by the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines or PMAP) and a number of colleges and universities. CHED hopes to make the GTS an annual study in order to come up with a bigger and wider perspective of the situation instead of mere snapshots of the problem. I am privy to the details of the project because I sit as industry representative to the technical working group of the study.

The conduct of the study is imperative given the sorry fact that with the depletion of most of our other natural resources, the only remaining source of competitive advantage that we have today as a country is our people. And it is one resource that we have in large quantities, thanks to the dogged insistence of some sectors that population growth is not a problem in this country. Maybe not, but educating them and providing marketable skills is another thing, but sigh, that is another column.

Nevertheless, people—Filipinos—are our best shot toward regaining our competitive advantage. Unfortunately, it is a paradoxical situation because regardless of how many times we chant “The Filipino Can!” every day, it is also a fact that current skill levels, particularly among new entrants to the workplace, are seriously waning. It does not help of course that most of the jobs that are available require higher level of communicating and thinking skills, which many educational institutions are hard put providing given the quality of teachers available. It is a vicious cycle, and we are not even talking about the more serious stuff such as the commercialization of education and all the other issues that are bound to send blood pressures soaring.

The problem is serious and systemic, such that despite the projected increases in employment opportunities, unemployment and underemployment figures are hardly unchanged and are in fact growing.

Thus, on any given Sunday, the classified ads section of some newspapers make a killing with the sheer volume of want ads hawking all kinds of perks and promises. A cursory look at the classifieds gives one the impression that there is a major boom in the country’s economy, with many companies posting full-page ads that compete for attention using every conceivable advertising gimmickry. In some cases, the ads come very, very close to begging pathetically, “Please apply, we are desperate!”

And yet, a great number of job openings remain unfilled. Paradoxically again, there are long lines of applicants. A friend who works as a recruitment manager of a major call center reveals that they process close to a thousand applicants a day and it is a major cause for celebration if they get to hire five heads among the thousand. It is almost like the search for that proverbial needle in a haystack. Friends who provide temporary staff to major companies also bewail the difficulty of finding applicants for even basic clerical positions.

There is clearly a mismatch between what academe produces and what industry needs. It is time to take a more serious analysis of the problem.

In an article published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer last Sunday, Personnel Management Association of the Philippines president, lawyer Rico de Guzman, lamented the mismatch and called for more proactive partnerships between industry and academe in solving the problem. The bases for his statements were the results of a PMAP study conducted recently that looked into the overall preparedness of new entrants to the workplace. Some of the identified weaknesses of new entrants were in the competency areas of impact, communication skills, analytical and conceptual skills and initiative.

Today, I will just focus on impact not only because it ranked first, but also because it is the one that is least understood (not to mention the fact that as usual, I am running out of column space). Impact refers to how candidates are able to package themselves and their qualifications. This is manifested behaviorally in terms of the ability to project the right attitude, confidence and overall fit for the job being sought. At the risk of being called bigots, many among us Human Resources practitioners do find it exasperating when more and more applicants come to the job application process in what can only be tactfully described as a jologs persona. Not that there is something inherently wrong with being jologs (there’s a jologs persona within each one of us!), but what company will hire someone who comes to a job interview wearing three shades of yellow on his hair, garbed in pants where the crotch is at level with the knees, and with nine earrings on each earlobe? I guess it wouldn’t hurt as much if only the applicant can actually distinguish a verb from a bird, or can answer a question logically. I am exaggerating of course, but you get the drift. Self-expression (which is different from ability to communicate) is a desirable trait among applicants only when the basic qualifications are present.

To be fair, it is possible that no one is coaching new entrants into the workplace about the expectations of industry, or of the protocols attached to the job application process. It is primarily a marketing situation and the product is the applicant’s qualifications. And thus, we come full circle again. There is a mismatch that needs to be addressed quickly and more comprehensively.

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