Business needs to engage education, not complain about it

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Ben D. Kritz

THE term “skills mismatch” in the context of discussions about the Philippines’ unemployment became popular during the administration of BS Aquino 3rd, and has been adopted by the current government as well. For the government, it is a way to subtly promote the message that “the unemployment/underemployment problem is overstated, because there are plenty of jobs, if would-be workers were only qualified for them.”

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“Skills mismatch” has also become a complaint of businesses here, but in their case, it has a more substantial meaning; a lack of skilled workers—skilled in this sense can also mean “easily trainable”—prevents businesses from expanding and upgrading their operations, and might, in extreme cases, cause some businesses to look for better labor markets elsewhere.

The issue is usually mentioned in relation to the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector, where, despite the Philippines’ dominance of the industry, companies are finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified workers that will allow them to expand into higher value-added services, and in some cases, finding it difficult to even find people with sufficient English language skills to handle basic call center operations.

A more pedestrian example, but one that represents a potentially bigger problem for the economy, is the lack of skilled construction workers. Nearly every property developer or infrastructure builder has struggled with delays in finishing projects, simply because there are not enough skilled workers to go around.

No matter what business they’re in, however, the subtext of employers’ complaints about “skills mismatch” is always the same: The government is falling short of its responsibility to ensure that skilled workers are available. Thus, on the one hand, we have businesses saying, “the government is not doing its job,” while on the other hand, the government is saying, “the job is too big to handle.” Neither of these perspectives is helpful or even honest, but the onus of correcting it falls more on the business sector than it does the government.

Charles Fadel, founder of a for-profit organization called the Center for Curriculum Redesign, in an interview with CM Rubin World made a couple of observations about businesses and the education system in the US that are useful points for the Philippine environment, and may provide some guidance.

On the business side of the equation, Fadel noted three main problems, the biggest of which is that businesses in general are not proactively engaging with educators and schools to help solve the problem. Business changes rapidly, more rapidly than state-run or regulated education systems can adapt. The second problem is that when businesses do try to offer guidance for education programs, they are often vague in describing their needs, and programs designed to meet them fall short of their goals. The third problem is that apprenticeship programs—which have a millennia-long record of effectively developing workforces—are not used, or not used often enough to make a difference.

For government, Fadel implied the problem is largely one of narrow goals and bureaucratic inertia. School curricula and testing frameworks are often irrelevant or impractical, and processes to make changes are unhelpfully time-consuming. Because government looks at education in a broad sense, education standards are too generalized, based on common denominators that might not be useful for everyone. These conditions hamstring government attempts to make education more relevant, well meaning though those efforts may be, thus it is up to businesses to take the lead in developing the human resources they need.

Apart from helping schools to develop more meaningful curricula and assessments, businesses can help by offering more substantial “hands-on” education through on-the-job training, longer term apprenticeship programs, and even providing some of the classroom instruction, Fadel suggested.

All of that is possible here in the Philippines, but will require businesses to change their mindset from “employees as a cost” to “employees as an investment.” This is one area where trade unions actually provide a big advantage to the labor market, by relieving individual companies of much of the burden of training and assessing the competence of workers, who in turn benefit from having an extra measure of job stability and security.

Unfortunately, with only a few exceptions, labor unions are weak here, so unless the business sector is willing to bend to allow more unionization—which is unlikely for reasons that are not entirely invalid, although that is a discussion for another time—individual businesses or business associations are going to need to become involved.

Rather than complaining about an inadequate workforce—complaints which, it should be obvious by now, are completely futile—Philippine businesses should redirect their energies into creating what they need.

ben.kritz@manilatimes.net

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