Monday, November 15, 2010

Activist for human capital

This was my column on the date indicated above.

I was a student activist when I was in college. I spent a large percentage of my days meeting with other student activists or with various activist groups such as urban peasants, workers, farmers, even teachers and women’s groups. I spoke at rallies and joined demonstrations. I even took a year off from my studies to spend time with the progressive movement in Davao City. And then Ninoy Aquino got killed, Cory Aquino ran for president, and I graduated.

When I run into college friends these days, they take note of my corporate position and tease me about how I have turned turtle. “You used to wear nothing but denim jeans and white camisa chino shirts or batik shirts,” they remind me as they point to my corporate attire. And I always shoot back with my own observations about how they, too, have moved on with their lives. Quite a number of my college comrades (they who also screamed just as loudly: “Down with US Imperialism!”) are now based in the United States. Some have joined the corporate world and become members of the “ruling elite.” A few have remained political activists, the likes of JV Bautista, Teddy CasiƱo and a few others.

I still think of myself as an activist although I try to shy away from partisan politics when I can. I am not a member of any political party and I cannot imagine running for an elective position in government (although I have belatedly and very sadly realized recently that partisan politics is so much a part of our system that it permeates all kinds of organizations, even professional associations). But there is an abundance of causes that anyone can take up and champion.

For example, I continue to champion HIV/AIDS prevention in this country. I also continue to be passionate about children’s rights, environmental protection, and the rights of minorities.

But my burning passion in the last two decades has been the proactive development and management of Pinoy Talent or Philippine human capital. When I tell people this, some people look at me with a quizzical expression in their faces. They don’t get what is so urgent, or noteworthy about the cause. When we really come to think about it, no issue or cause is probably as important as Philippine human capital.

Human capital—people—is the only lasting source of competitive advantage that we have as a nation. Most of our other natural resources are gone or are fast going. Our seas are dying, our forests are bald, and we cannot afford to dredge up more mountains in search of more minerals underground. What we have in huge quantities are people.

We continue to have the edge in terms of inherent talent and skills. Just recently, Indians expressed alarm that the Philippines was poised to become the world’s number one outsourcing destination. Our merchant marines are still preferred by most global shipping companies so much so that there is always a Filipino in every maritime disaster noted anywhere in the world from hijacked ships in Somalia to sinking ships in Japan. Our science and English teachers, nurses, doctors, information technology experts, and engineers are among the best in the world and the demand for them has not really waned. Of course it cannot be stressed enough that Filipino domestic helpers and blue-collar workers continue to serve as the backbone of the economy of many countries.

In fact, experts acknowledge that the remittances of overseas Filipino workers have been the singular most critical factor that explains the fact that we continue to have a relatively strong economy. We call our migrant workers our unsung heroes but we really don’t have a concrete plan aimed at developing and managing the phenomenon. What we have are control measures and stop-gap measures, but we don’t have integrated long-term plans that address future and present supply and demand factors.

There are many other compelling reasons why we need to be passionate about the cause of Filipino human capital.

Industry leaders have been bemoaning the sad state of the educational system which has resulted in the further widening of the mismatch between what industry needs and what academe produces. And yet, we still have to see an aggressive coordinated response that boldly aims to address the problem. Everybody agrees that we need to do something about the declining levels of literacy in our country but it seems we lack the political will to put in place the needed measures to finally address the problem in a proactive way.

We need to have better ways of forecasting labor demand and supply so that our students make the right decisions in terms of what college course to pursue. A large percentage of our students continue to be in nursing schools even when experts have already expressed doubts about the sustainability of the demand.

We continue to be embroiled in divisive and dysfunctional labor problems because we have a very weak state-sponsored social security system and we leave it up to the private sector to guarantee employment security—something that not all business organizational can afford or sustain given gyrations in the larger business environment.

Industry, on the other hand, need to collectively push the frontiers in terms of technology and processes that improve productivity. There is a wealth of best practices in managing Filipino human capital but sadly, there’s a huge number of business organizations that continue to reinvent the wheel wasting precious resources in the process.

The sad reality is that our leaders and most everyone else take the strategic development and management of Filipino human capital for granted. We get riled about other issues and causes but not enough about ourselves.

I could go on and on about why we really need to start getting passionate about the need to put in place strategic plans to develop and manage Filipino human capital, but as usual I am running out of column space. I will have to continue writing about this in a future piece.

But to go back to what got me writing about Filipino human capital in the first place, I would like to note that when my former activist friends and I meet these days it is often to reminisce about the good old days and, yes, to talk about how else we can support our former comrades who continue to fight the same causes we once fought. And I mean this in a number of ways. Some of us continue the fight. Many of us have moved on to different causes but have kept the fire burning within us. I guess it’s true: Once a student activist, always an activist.

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