Responding to the labor mismatch
The mismatch between what the academe produces (graduates) and what industry needs (jobs) has been a cause for concern for decades. In the past, however, the issue has not merited serious attention. There have been many reasons for our utter inability to nip the problem in the bud, so to speak. The practical reason has been the passivity of industry: it simply accepted whatever the academe produced. It merely trained (or in some cases, totally re-trained) new hires to fit the requirements of the jobs.
I think, though, that the most important reason has been our inherent trust in our educational system. After all, it is the same system that produced us and made success stories of our own selves. How can something that produced us be so wrong?
What could have been the first major sign of trouble went largely ignored for, again, social reasons: The emergence of underemployed Filipino workers locally and abroad. Although we’ve had many sob stories of Filipino workers with full college degrees ending up as domestics or crews in fast-food restaurants, both locally and abroad, many of our leaders chose to see this as a temporary variance or exception. (Of course, I do not think there is something intrinsically wrong with these jobs. It’s just that these weren’t the jobs our countrymen trained or obtained college degrees for.)
So for many years, we continued to labor under the assumption that the problem was not that serious, and that Pinoy ingenuity was more than enough to bridge the gap. Whatever our labor supply lacked in skills, we made up for with grit and gumption, with our never-ending sense of devotion (tiyaga) and forbearance (sikap).
Too bad the years of collective denial seem to be finally catching up on us. Today, the issue has become urgent and alarming because the country’s bid as the most ideal destination for offshore work from developed countries is beginning to expose the decay in the system. As many of us know, the call center industry has seen phenomenal growth in the last couple of years. More business processes have been outsourced in the Philippines, and the trend isn’t showing signs of letting up. These industries, however, require certain competencies that have not been clearly defined, communicated, and understood.
We now face a potential shortage of qualified labor to meet the requirements, not only of the emerging industries such as call centers and business process outsourcing, but also among traditional industries. It does not help, of course, that many of our qualified and competent graduates are being siphoned off by the more developed countries or that everyone seems to be enroled in nursing schools today. So while opportunities in terms of employment seem promising, the labor supply remains problematic.
Exactly where and in what areas do we have a mismatch between labor supply and demand? How exactly do we address this? These are questions that are finally being asked by many sectors.
Thankfully, enlightened debate on the issue is finally taking place. Initiatives are now being undertaken to strategically respond to the problem.
Last Monday, Dec. 4, the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines pushed for a more integrated and strategic response to the problem by convening a tripartite summit to address the mismatch. The summit was attended by close to 300 representatives of government, academe, trade, and industry.
Grace Abella Zata, chairman of the summit, reveals at least three major breakthroughs that emerged from the summit. First, the summit laid the groundwork for academe and industry to work collaboratively in addressing the problem, beginning with efforts to clarify misperceptions about the supposed gaps in the system such as explaining the real needs of industry. For example, for quite sometime now, there has been this nagging perception that call center jobs are clerical in nature and simply require English proficiency. Zata says these “are misplaced perceptions considering that the jobs do require analytical skills.” At the same time, the summit helped clarify that the English proficiency requirement does not call for English grammar proficiency (although that certainly is ideal anywhere), but for communication skills in listening and responding with empathy.
Second, the summit opened avenues for short-term, medium-term and long-term strategies to address the mismatch.
Third, the summit brought to the surface the need for a more integrated and enlightened approach to the problem. It has become clear that the mismatch has philosophical, cultural and political dimensions. One noted academic provided a powerful context to the problem when he wrote that education could not just be about responding to the needs of industry while ignoring other human dimensions. Clearly, the problem requires a multi-pronged approach and “while the problem may be rooted in the educational system,” the solutions need to go beyond finding faults. To be empathic about it, the educational system is not solely to blame for the problem. Ensuring that our graduates become employable is not just a function of providing the necessary labor supply, but also of fine-tuning and qualifying the right demand, situated within a more enlightened social and cultural context. The discussion has just become more interesting.
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What we do know now is that there is a need for more empirical data from which to draw our responses and action plans. For example, the need for accurate information regarding the career situation of college graduates is long overdue. We need to know if the number and quality of current graduates are adequate to meet the demands of a rapidly-changing job market or whether unemployment is increasing.
It is in this light that the Graduate Tracer Study of the Commission on Higher Education becomes more meaningful. The study, which aims to improve the quality and market relevance of higher education training in the Philippines, operates at two levels: institutional and national.
At the institutional level, 120 randomly selected higher education institutions were invited to participate in the conduct of the study to cover 60,000 randomly selected baccalaureate graduates of academic years 2000-2001 to 2003-2004. At the national level, the study aims to develop a profile of the more successful college graduates in this country.
Results of the institutional studies will be presented in a whole-day CHED-sponsored forum at the Bayview Park Hotel today. The forum intends to provide information on key indicators of employment opportunities, job satisfaction, the relevance of academic qualification, competencies and professional skills needed on the job, job mobility, migration, and underemployment of Filipino graduates. If you have the time, do drop by and contribute to the discussion.