Bernardo M. Villegas
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Employability: Indication of Education Success? (Part I)

           In a recent conference attended by Human Resource Managers of the IT-BPO industry, a question was posed to me:  Is employability an indication of education success?  What came immediately to my mind was the definition given by one of the greatest Filipino educators of the last century who taught thousands of students in the Metro Manila area in such schools as the University of Sto. Tomas, Assumption Convent, De La Salle College, St. Joseph’s College, Sta. Isabel and many others.  The late Dr. Ariston Estrada Sr. always insisted that education is “preparing a human being for what he or she must be and do on earth so that he can attain his or her eternal goal in the life hereafter.”  It is quite clear that this definition does not take a utilitarian view of education.  Even without bringing in the after life, no one will disagree with the famous French economist Thomas Piketty, the author of the best seller “Capital in the Twenty First Century.”  He wrote: “The main purpose of the health sector is not to provide other sectors with workers in good health.  By the same token, the main purpose of the educational sector is not to prepare students to take up an occupation in some other sector of the economy.  In all human societies, health and education have an intrinsic value:  the ability to enjoy years of good health, like the ability to acquire knowledge and culture, is one of the fundamental purposes of civilization.  We are free to imagine an ideal society in which all other tasks are almost totally automated and each individual has as much freedom as possible to pursue the goods of education, culture, and health for the benefit of herself and others.”

          Employability may be one of the favorable results of quality education but it should not be the primary goal of education.  The reverse is also true:  there are factors that make individuals employable other than quality formal education.  In various road shows in which I participated in which top executives from the BPO-IT sector presented the competitive advantage of the Philippines in their booming industry, the following were usually cited as the main attractions of Filipino human resources:  Proficiency in English and other languages; affinity with Western culture; customer service orientation; highly trainable; cost effective; and high level of commitment and loyalty.  Some of these qualities may indeed be cultivated in the formal educational system.  It is equally obvious, however, that many of the traits are products of child rearing practices in the Filipino family; influences of Western media; on-the-job training practices; and unique features of Filipino culture. 

          Except for the very specialized profession of medicine, employability is not directly related to the university education of most Filipino knowledge workers.  This is obvious from the fact that in the BPO sector, especially in the voice-oriented, one can find nurses, engineers, accountants, lawyers, physical therapists and others with the most diverse educational backgrounds.  What made them employable is clearly not the professional specialization they had in the university.  What made them employable were the traits that they could have acquired in the non-specialized courses required in their respective curricula, such as English, Literature, Mathematics, History. Social Sciences, and other general education subjects that sharpened their analytical thinking, communication skills and interpersonal relations.  As a business school professor, I am always amused that the ones who excel in MBA and executive education programs are not those with undergraduate degrees in business administration, but those who are physicists, mining engineers, civil engineers, mathematicians, etc.

          The main point I want to stress here is that the success of education (at all levels) should not be primarily measured by employability but by the quality of human beings we are turning out.  Are they first and foremost good citizens?  Will they be good parents?  If they do get employed, will they be able to rise to the top of their respective organizations? This does not mean, however, that I am not concerned with a serious problem in our educational system:  the mismatch between the skills being produced and the demand of the market place.  This is very obvious from the facts that I cited:  that many of those who work in the IT-BPO industry are underemployed if one considers what they took up in their respective university studies: nurses, physical therapists. lawyers, accountants, even engineers working as call center agents.

          The transition in our basic education curriculum to K to 12 is fortunately a move in the right direction to address the skills mismatch.  It is my hope that the additional expense they will incur to send their children to Grade 11 and 12 will finally convince many parents that to be a plumber, electrician, mason, mechanic, carpenter can be as dignified and as (or more) economically rewarding as to be an accountant, lawyer, economist, etc.  The K to 12 program will finally allow us to follow the former European system of distinguishing between technical institutes and universities.  Most of our high school graduates should be going to TESDA-type schools that will prepare them for the types of skills that are in great demand in our present stage of economic development.  I know for a fact that so many construction projects have been unduly delayed because of the scarcity of masons, electricians and plumbers.  The feudalistic mindset of Filipinos, making many of them look down at blue collar work, can now be changed if private industry should take a pro-active role in developing attractive courses that can be incorporated into the Grades 11 and 12 curricula that could lead to immediate employability.  I understand that the IT-BPO sector is leading the way in this regard.  I am glad to know of initiatives like those of the Ayalas and the PHINMA group that are actively investing in technical educational programs that directly meet the manpower needs of the business sector. Another sector that is in great need of technically trained workers is that of agriculture. The average age of a Filipino farmer is close to 60. We have to train more farm entrepreneurs, not university graduates from Los Banos. (To be continued).