Education versus employability

by seangljacobs

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

As a former policy adviser to a senior state education minister I’ve been to many graduation ceremonies. These are obviously proud moments not just for students but for parents and friends. A qualification, as multiple university lecturers reminded me, is tremendously important in a competitive, globalising world.

Yet I’ve often thought about the education that doesn’t come in a classroom or that’s easily transposed onto paper. This is an education with a great deal to do with you as a person rather than your formal pedigree. Being book smart, for example, doesn’t always translate into street smarts. And education doesn’t always mean employability.

We now have a situation in Australia where many young people are going to university for the sake of simply getting a degree rather than looking at the job market and seeing where their skills or aptitude match up. ‘Half a million graduates (more than 20% of the total),’ according to the Australian researcher Peter Saunders, ‘are currently unemployed or doing jobs for which university qualifications are not required.’

In the United States many observers are now sounding alarms on what they fear is an emerging education bubble. Skyrocketing costs of formal study, paired with unreal expectations of a college degree, are not only fanning student debt ($1.2 US trillion) but producing a surplus of graduates without the appropriate skills to generally do well in the professional world. ‘College,’ says one observer, ‘is becoming the new high school.’

My sense is that we’ll eventually see something similar in Australia. But an education bubble will simply pronounce two trends already well underway – hands on qualifications and online institutes (like the Khan Academy or Alison). Demands for skilled workers, like electricians and nurses for example, will not abate despite the overemphasis on a Silicon Valley inspired future of gizmos, holograms and robots. In fact economic trends, such as an orientation toward smaller companies, will demand the need for more entrepreneurial, risk-taking, ambitious and mobile young Australians: working among people, in other words, versus hiding behind desks, certificates or qualifications.

Simply training for training’s sake is not likely to go far in any professional arena. Real skills, at the end of the day, lead to real jobs.

Taking a step back, what’s truly required for life, says the Indian writer and statesman Shashi Tharoor, is a ‘well-formed mind’ and not a ‘well-filled mind’. What does he mean? A well-formed mind, says Tharoor, is a mind that ‘reacts to unfamiliar facts and details. That can synthesize information that it hasn’t studied before. A mind, in other words, that can react to the bigger examination called life that doesn’t only give you things you prepared for.’

Failure is how well-formed minds are sharpened. ‘I have studied in many schools,’ said Malcolm X. ‘But the school in which I studied the longest and learned most was the school of adversity.’ While Malcolm X is remembered for radicalism (and a divisive philosophy) he is less well-known, in the words of Jeffrey Harris, as a decent example of ‘positive initiative and self-discipline for independent study.’

What I enjoy reading about most are highly successful people that have risen entirely through self-education. Everyone, of course, is self-educated in some way. But the examples I enjoy, among countless others, are the stories of people like Paul Keating, Thomas Paine and Harry Truman. Keating, a former prime minister and treasurer, never finished school but led transforming the Australian economy. Paine was a corset-maker but wrote one of the most influential books of all time. And Truman never went to college despite being one of the most consequential American Presidents in history. There are endless examples like this not just in our history books but in the successful people around us.

Rarely some figures come along who can combine lethal book smarts with street smarts. Here we find people like Winston Churchill, for example, who married an impeccably sharp brain with hard-won experience. ‘By the time he was twenty five,’ according to Boris Johnson in The Churchill Factor, ‘he had become a Member of Parliament, written innumerable articles, delivered many handsomely paid lectures, and reported from multiple war zones.’ But it wasn’t just a life of academia, books and comfort. Churchill knew the rougher edges of not just failure but combat by possessing ‘the unique distinction, as a prime minister, of having been shot at on four continents.’

What practicality or a sense of ‘street smarts’ gives you, on top of confronting adversity, is a capacity to work with people while adding value – a key combination of skills for young Australians to gain. ‘Be the person your colleagues and bosses trust to get the job done,’ says Vickie L. Milazzo. ‘When you become someone people rely on,’ she adds, ‘they won’t hesitate to move you up in the company or to recommend you to people in their networks.’

Young Australians should never be so ignorant to turn down a chance for a good formal education. To get my foot in the door, after all, a degree was essential. And the stats (for now) say that getting a degree, on average, means a better income. But I soon realised that, to actually be employable and useful in the professional world, formal credentials need to come equipped with skills that aren’t taught in a classroom. Combining book smarts with street smarts will not only mean a ‘well-filled mind’ but also help young Australians ignite a decent and rewarding career.