Bernardo M. Villegas
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To College Graduates of 2020 (Part 1-3)

          I graduated from college (De La Salle University) sixty two years ago.  Over these more than half a century, I have attended numerous graduation ceremonies, both here and abroad, most of the time as a university professor forming part of the academic entourage.  For as long as the additional years that God will still give me to live, I will never forget the unique circumstances of the graduation ceremonies held during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.  All the speeches, whether of the university officials, the Commencement speaker and the valedictorian and salutatorian were either pre-recorded or transmitted live online.  I consider myself fortunate to have attended the 25th Graduation ceremony of the university where I still teach as a Professor Emeritus, the University of Asia and the Pacific that started in 1967 as a think tank called the Centre for Research and Communication.  For the benefit of the estimated 800,000 graduating students from universities and colleges all over the Philippines, I would like to freely quote from two individuals who imparted words of wisdom and encouragement to the graduating students  of 2020 who are facing the most uncertain future as the whole world suffers from the worst economic depression  in 150 years.  What they said will surely comfort and guide these young people who are facing a very uncertain future.

         The first speaker is one of the most promising young political leaders in the country today, Mayor Vico Sotto of Pasig City, where the University of Asia and the Pacific is located.  In my work as an economist advising government officials at all levels for the past fifty years, I can truly say that Mayor Sotto has impressed me most in what he has accomplished in delivering services to his constituents in the very short time he has been heading this important component city of  Metro Manila.  What is equally impressive is his commitment to good governance and the elimination of corruption.  That is why his message to our graduates should be heard by all those who are facing the uncertainty and anxieties resulting from the collapsing economies all over the world.  Although I was too young to know what they were facing then, I can only compare the fears of the graduating classes of 2020 to  the dread about the future of those finishing their university courses during the Japanese occupation in the Philippines during the early 1940s.  The words of Mayor Sotto and those of the President of UA&P, Dr. Winston Padojinog, can do much to allay their fears and motivate them to convert the ongoing crisis into an opportunity to serve their country.

 

         Mayor Sotto captured the tragic-comic circumstances in which the graduating youth find themselves as a result of the pandemic.   To quote from his speech: “I still remember around ten (10) years ago, during our graduating ceremony from college, I remember how long it was and I remember, well, I don’t remember much to be honest with you.  And possibly ten (10) years from now, you’ll remember that you had a very unique graduation via Zoom and Facebook live.   You’ll remember that you had a graduation during these very peculiar times, but who spoke and what they said would probably all going to be a blur.  Maybe you’d remember that your commencement speaker was wearing shorts.  Well, I’m just kidding, but you won’t really know if I was kidding or not.”  He then described the usual questions graduates of all times ask about their uncertain future. The uncertainty in 2020 is, however, multiplied a hundred times:  “Going through this graduation and moving on to the next chapter of your life in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, in the middle of this massive quarantine that we’re in can’t be easy.  A lot of you have made plans that will simply have to be delayed, and given this current state of uncertainty a lot of them will actually have to be cancelled altogether.  It may be a bit unnerving to enter adulthood and your new careers, making these big life decisions at this point and this COVID-19 pandemic has really exposed a lot about ourselves, a lot about our society and the world we live in.”

 

         Being a realist, Mayor Sotto called a spade a spade when he described the difficult environment that the graduates will be facing.  He was not one to paint a rosy picture of the world today:  “…oftentimes, (the world we live in) seems like it’s revealed more of the bad.  We see the economic inequality, we see our now high unemployment rates, we see  how politics has asked deep-seated division divisions among us, how corruption is engraved in our bureaucracies.  We see how these issues have prevented better response in times of crisis when we all should be working as one.  It’s clear our world needs big changes and fast.”   Believing that a crisis should never go to waste, the Mayor asked the graduates to transform crisis into opportunity, the opportunity to make a difference:  “But I have faith, that as we see what’s wrong in the world that we live in, that as young people, as the next generation of leaders in the Philippines and in the world, that you will also be the catalyst of positive change that we so badly need.  I know it may sound a bit cliche but the truth is, if society, if our world is going to get better, there’s no one else who’s going to do the job but you.”

         It was refreshing for a post-senior citizen like me to listen to a leader  who graduated from college just ten years ahead of the audience he is addressing speaking about the earthshaking changes that have occurred in such short a period of time.  His being older by just a few years than the graduates of 2020 gave a lot of credibility to his words about the need to adapt to the vertiginous change happening in our midst.   As the Mayor reminded the graduates: “..there’s one big difference between our generation and the generations before, and it’s not that your generation is just naturally better, it’s not that you’re widely more intelligent and talented, the difference is in  your potential to effect change.  All generations, especially coming out of crisis, have transformed our world to some extent, but your generation has the potential to make changes faster and more efficiently than any other generation has done in the past. Technology is advancing at a exponential phase, this enables us to do more and faster.  And no one knows how to use it better than you.  For instance, the same organization-building that would have taken the likes of Jose Rizal to accomplish in the 1890s would possibly take only a few weeks with the tools that are available to us today, to you right now at your fingertips.”

 

         Mayor Sotto has actually identified the whole sector of the economy in which there are going to be unlimited opportunities for the graduates of 2020 to make their education and talents productive.  Whatever specializations they chose while in college, they must all consider how they can take advantage of the tools, devices and services of the so-called Industrial Revolution 4.0, the digital world.  This sector will permeate all other economic sectors, from agriculture to manufacturing to services.  Embedded in these remarks of Mayor Sotto about the digital world is the very important advice that more than previous generations, the graduates of 2020 must consider learning as a lifetime process.  One never stops studying.  Actually what they acquired during their four or five years of college, more than a stock of knowledge, data and information, is the ability to continue learning all their lives.  The graduates of 2020, more than any previous generation, must make full use of the digital space to continue sharpening their critical thinking skills, their ability to communicate effectively both verbally and in writing, and the wisdom to relate one human discipline to another without getting bogged down in overspecialization. That is the only way they can avoid being replaced by robots and Artificial Intelligence. (To be continued).

 

To College Graduates of 2020 (Part 2)

September 11, 2020

 

         The never-ending search for new learning should be especially motivated by the desire to be of greater service to Philippine society.  Mayor Sotto couldn’t be clearer in emphasizing what he learned from his alma mater, the Ateneo University, that has always encouraged its students to follow the advice of St. Ignatius Loyola of “being a person for others.”  He encouraged the graduating students: “Don’t let any situation dampen your dreams or visions for the future, rather I challenge you to find ways to get more connected with your community.  All the future money and success that you might have will mean next to nothing if we’re not connected to other members of society.  So find people who share the same values as you do, connect with them, and build things together.  Be a catalyst for change together.  Reach out to the underprivileged together.  Fight for the good that you want to see in this world together.”   He ended his speech by encouraging his audience to “always stick to the values and principles that UA&P has helped shape in you.”

 

     What are the values and principles that UA&P help its students to acquire and strengthen throughout their whole lives?  The speech of Dr. Winston Padojinog, President of the University of Asia and the Pacific, gives us an insight into these values and principles which can be adopted by any college graduate from whatever school. Since principles and values are shown in deeds, Dr. Padojinog—a management practitioner beside being an educator—started describing what he witnessed have been the reactions of UA&P students to the adversity brought about by the pandemic:  “UA&P Dragons (the label given to members of the UA&P community) think of others; they are empathetic and generous.  They immediately organise groups—big and small— to seek donations and assist those adversely affected by the quarantine:  the outsource personnel, their school mates, their fellow alumni, and even the security guards from nearby stores and establishments.  It takes a lot of character to think of others while also being in the same predicament.”

 

         President Padojinog, who was Dean of the School of Management before becoming the President of the University, is at the very forefront of redefining capitalism from “stockholder capitalism” to “stakeholder capitalism.”  Very much conscious of the justified criticism that Pope Francis has hurled against untrammelled free market capitalism in which the unique obsession is with maximizing profit for the stockholders, the budding entrepreneurs who are produced by the various business education programs of UA&P are taught to always think of the welfare of each of the various stakeholders of any enterprise.  The CEO and other members of top management must be willing to sacrifice part of the profits of a business to address the need for higher wages for the workers,  greater safety for the consumers, financial security of the numerous small suppliers, environmental sustainability and reasonable tax payments especially during hard times when the Government is the only source of income for  millions of households through the Social Amelioration Program. (SAP).

 

         The second feature of a UA&P Dragon, according to President Padojinog, consists in their having initiative, industriousness and openness to dialogue and collaboration.  It is hoped that the adversities faced especially by the poorer elements of Philippine society will nurture the spirit of cooperation among the graduating students of today.  Dr. Padojinog praised the students for their collaborative spirit: “The University was able to manage the shift to emergency response teaching mode because the student body participated in surveys that provided key information needed to guide decisions affecting all of you.  I believe that most UA&P students, instead of joining the chorus of rants on social media, went to work, exploring possible solutions to their situation and do their best to work with others.”  The very motto of the whole UA&P community is “Unitas” which means being united to all who are contributing to the common good of the community.

 

         Especially during these times of collapsing income, employment and enterprises, a human value most needed is that of optimism, the ability to see that the glass is half-filled even if it is half-empty.  For this reason, President Padojinog complimented the UA&P Dragons for being optimistic and cheerful: “With their optimism grounded on hope, they continue to move forward with a big smile on their faces despite the many obstacles before them.  I also believe that many have rediscovered the importance of prayer and the value of family life. The fact that we finished the second semester following the academic calendar and that you are here before me now as graduates—even if virtually—having fulfilled your requirements and met the standards, are clear indications of the mettle of which  UA&P Dragons are made.”   Not only the UA&P graduates but also all the estimated 800,000 young people leaving universities and colleges all over the country should be able to see that portion of the glass that is filled.  When economists talk about a V-shape recovery as contrasted with an L-shape recovery (which means a much longer time before the economy will return to its pre-pandemic condition), it should be pointed out that there are sectors of the economy that were not as hard hit by the pandemic and that will bounce back more quickly than others.  These sectors are the food and agribusiness industry; the digital sector (including the very large BPO-IT industry that employs more than a million generally young people); the health and wellness sector that includes not only the curative portion such as pharmaceuticals, hospitals and clinics but also the products and services that strengthen immunity against diseases, such as exercise machines, healthy food items and supplements, and even products like rubber shoes that are necessary for sports and regular exercises.  Also part of the sunrise industry sector is the whole field of education, whether formal (leading to degrees), non-formal (structured learning programs that do not lead to degrees) and informal (a variety of seminars, webinars, and online courses  offered to the public or within the confines of an enterprise in the form of in-house upskilling programs).  These are the sectors which should offer the greatest opportunities for employment to the college graduates of 2020.

 

         Dr. Padojinog has his feet planted firmly on the ground. He does not paint a rosy picture of the economy:  “The future looks challenging, at least economically.  Domestic and global economies are tanking (as the graduates were receiving their diplomas virtually, they were being informed by the media that the GDP of the Philippines declined by a devastating 16.5 percent in the second quarter of 2020).    Many industries and businesses are shut or close to shutting down.  You will be part of the close to 800,000 other graduates joining the labor pool with difficult prospects of immediate employment.  Meanwhile, 7.8 billion people are waiting for the vaccine, hoping to leave this malaise behind once and for all.”  A realistic view is that the COVID-19 can be controlled at manageable levels to allow a return to normal social behaviour only two to three years from now.   But what are two to three years compared to the next forty years more of expected life of those graduating from college in 2020.  During these coming four decades, the Philippines is considered to be one of the most promising emerging markets in the whole world according to a good number of independent think tanks and financial institutions.  Optimism about the long-term prospects of the Philippine economy is, therefore, founded on solid grounds and not just a case of “whistling in the dark.”  (To be continued.)

 

To College Graduates of 2020 (Part 3)

September 18, 2020

         The immediate problem in the midst of the pandemic is short-term survival.  In the next two to three years, jobs will continue to be scarce, especially in the travel and tourism industry; the luxury goods sector; restaurants and malls and others that require close physical contact with other persons.  It is important that the graduates of 2020 are able to adapt to the changed circumstances.  In the same way that their former professors are now learning to teach online and to deliver most of their lectures through the internet, the college graduates of 2020 must be ready to change their mindsets and attitudes to adapt to the new normal.  Dr. Padojinog pulls no punches:  “To be honest, we are not even sure if some of the professional skills and knowledge you have earned will remain significant in the new normal.  You and I are witnesses to the limits  of temporal man before a virus 0.12 micron in diameter.  Many seasoned executives with their professional experiences and degrees stand helpless as they witness before their eyes the fruits of several years of hard work collapse or  driven to the brink of collapse  in just a few months.”

 

         Let me pose an extreme form of adapting to the economic environment that we will be facing in the coming years.  One does not have to be a prophet to forecast that the Build Build Build program started by President Durtete is not a passing fad but will have to be sustained during at least the next two Administrations, meaning at least the next twelve years.  Philippine infrastructure is so inadequate compared with our “tiger” neighbours like Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia and now even Vietnam.  We have to continue investing significantly more of both public and private resources in endowing the Philippines with the infrastructure worthy of a upper-middle income status to which we are transitioning  in the next five years or so.  It is ironical, however, that despite the abundance of young people in our country, there is an acute shortage of construction workers like carpenters, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, brick layers and others who are essential to the Build, Build, Build program.  You know quite well part of the answer to this anomalous situation.  There have been too many of you who have chosen the wrong post-secondary programs.  You and your parents have been too enamoured with a college diploma that may not qualify you for a really meaningful job.  You and your parents have been too focused on a college degree, even if there continues to be a mismatch between what an agro-industrial economy like ours needs in terms or skills and what our educational system is producing.

 

         What I will be proposing could come as nonsense to some of you.  If after searching during a reasonable amount of time for a job that fits whatever you studied in college you still find yourselves unemployed, it may be time for you reflect on what Dr. Padojinog said in his speech to the UA&P graduates:  “We are not even sure if some of the professional skills and knowledge you have earned will remain signifiant in the new normal.”  You may have to consider acquiring skills that will be in great demand in the new normal.  You cannot go wrong in the construction industry.  I am not suggesting, however, that you will again think of a college program like civil engineering.  Change your mindset and be convinced that to be an expert plumber  in a truly industrializing economy is as dignified as and can be more lucrative than to be a mediocre accountant or  lawyer.   I suggest that you get rid of your feudalistic bias against blue collar work and consider an occupation that involves  the use of manual skills (of course now aided  by all sorts of sophisticated tools and digital devices).  Think of taking courses in such world class technical schools as Dualtech Centre (Admissions Director’s email is rodolfo.staanaiii@dualtech.org.ph) in Canlubang, Laguna, or Centre for Industrial Technology and Enterprise (CITE) in Cebu.   If even only ten percent of the 800,000 graduating college students in 2020 will consider this admittedly revolutionary thought, we would be able to address in a significant way the acute shortage of construction and other industrial workers equipped with electro-mechanical skills.  The good news is that there are banks (like the Land Bank of the Philippines) and leading  private financial institutions that have launched very initiative programs for educational loans to students wishing to enrol in tertiary institutions.  There is no question that investing in acquiring technical skills in the new normal is very bankable.

 

         Probably a less revolutionary but equally challenging proposition is for some of the college graduates of 2020 who have difficulties in  seeking employment to consider joining the increasing number of knowledge workers trying their luck in high-value farming.  The pandemic has opened the eyes of many of our leaders about the crucial importance of food security, especially as regards the food items that tend to enjoy rapid increases in demand in a country that is becoming an upper-middle income economy.  I am referring to fresh vegetables and fruits that increasingly take the place of rice, corn and other carbohydrates in the menu of the middle-class households.  For this reason, growing vegetables and fruits within urban areas (even in vertical green houses) is becoming a profitable operation, of course with the appropriate technology.  I suggest that some of our recent college graduates should join the ranks of urban farmers growing such products as honey dew melon,  papaya, lettuce, cabbage, egg plants, tomatoes  and other fresh fruits and vegetables in small plots that are still abundant in areas surrounding urban centers such as Metro Manila and Metro Cebu.  I suggest that interested parties google two of the leading seed technology enterprises, i.e. Harbest and East West Seeds, to seek advice on how to go about putting up urban gardening projects. There is a very big demand from supermarkets and grocery stores for fresh vegetables and fruits.  Only urbanites with some amount of capital can go into this type of high-value gardening because it will require a minimum of investments in equipment and inputs.  The small farmers, who have no access to risk capital,  can be hired as workers in these urban gardens.

 

         Dr. Padojinog stresses precisely the importance of a mindset that will be ready to make even the most dramatic shifts in occupation and lifestyle.  As he ended his address to the UA&P graduates of 2020:  “..This is where your UA&P education becomes relevant.  We cannot control the many events in our lives, but we can control from the inside how we should read and respond to these events.  This is not just a matter of aptitude but of  attitude.  It is now more of mindsets rather than skillsets.  The pandemic has shown us that value is not found in having but in being, not just in living but in finding meaning.”  Echoing the words of Mayor Sotto about collaborating with others to work for the common good, Dr. Padojinog ended his speech with lines that can be addressed to all 2020 college graduates all over the country: “Your education has given you the necessary disposition to collaborate with others, to be flexible and adaptable to disruptions, and yet remain steadfast on the unchanging principles of faith, charity and justice…In short, we taught you how to learn rather than what to learn….Strive to serve, contribute to human progress, and uplift the professional, moral, spiritual and cultural circumstances in which you find yourselves.”  And may I add:  You are graduating in very unique circumstances.  May you make unique contributions to the Philippines that will surely survive this temporary blip called the pandemic.  You are part of the lasting trends, the rock foundation of Philippine society.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.