Monday, January 23, 2012

Jobs: the real mismatch.

When my son had just begun to say his first words, he witnessed my car crush one of his favourite toys in the driveway.

“It’s bonnie”, he wailed with such forlornness, hopelessness and sorrow, that it became for a very long time the family’s favourite superlative for something that is broken, trashed, crocked or destroyed.

The word comes to mind again when thinking about the labour market. It is truly “bonnied”.

These last few weeks we have been inundated with announcements, reports, articles, and talk shows covering the celebrations of improved matric results, the tragic scenes of prospective students being crushed trying to register at Universities, the Green paper on Higher Education and Training, and research results on the number of job vacancies in South Africa.

The vacancy numbers more than any other, reflect the real issue of the South African job market. The anomaly has been given excellent coverage by Moneyweb journalist, Malcolm Rees. Together with Kim Cloete’s report on the Green paper, and Felicity Duncan’s assessment of the crisis, we have been given a comprehensive picture of the labour market malaise and government’s response.

To recap briefly, and to quote Malcolm: “On the one hand we have one of the highest levels of unemployment in the world with official figures placing the number of adults without work at over 25% of the population. On the other, estimates suggest that there are anywhere between 500 000 and 800 000 unfilled vacancies in the economy”.

The so-called “mismatch” is largely attributed to poor career counselling; and education and training which is out of line with market requirements, delivering people with softer humanities skills, when technical skills are more needed. Add to this, thousands of qualifying students that have been turned away from the gates of universities, and we are indeed left with a sad, confusing and disconcerting picture.

While a simple statistical comparison between supply and demand, may lead to answers such as those proposed in the Green Paper, there is an important dimension that lies far deeper, is far more chronic, and touches on many other socio-economic ills of our time, here and abroad.

It is the underlying force of human behaviour. I have always questioned the logic of the so-called labour market. The idea that supply, demand and price are the dominant factors in channelling people’s efforts and aspirations is ludicrous and tries to equate the human spirit to little more than a pocket of potatoes. Worse still, by promoting this fallacy and encouraging individual behaviour to fit, we create responses driven by the worst in us, such as greed, materialism, selfishness and immediate self-gratification.

Beating the “education” drum loudest may seem the appropriately encouraging thing to do, but it has severe pitfalls without an equally loud melody of meaning. It creates despair of the kind that will see people crush others to death in admission queues. It leads to a sense of hopelessness and surrender when education is interrupted. Certificates and not knowledge or aptitude become the issue. Even if a young aspirant loved building and bricklaying, he would likely prefer a Bachelor’s Degree in anthropology or art as having far more substance despite having little interest in them. Degrees and certificates are seen as an end in themselves and not a means to an end. They become winning lotto tickets giving the holders unrealistic expectations and a sense of entitlement. The easiest subjects are preferred to ensure quick title. And the problem is severely compounded by lowering the bar for a pass mark.

When we have taught the recipients of fish hand-outs how to catch their own, they still will not be fed unless they are willing to be held accountable for their catches. One cannot approach life with terms and conditions. The most important basic life skill that should be taught in our formative years, long before career counselling, is that we are what we do, not what we own in money, property, certificates, title or status.

Education is not about getting a job and becoming a modern wage slave. It is about creating a meaningful life. It is about equipping the holder with the means and ability to make the right choices. It is about being the best they can be. And it is about expressing their true value in the contribution they can make to others. In most cases, education is also only the beginning. “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school,” Albert Einstein said.

I think I said it best in the article, A decent job, which had good response and repeat placements on other websites. The single, most important thing we can do for our society, for our economy, and for employees, is to promote work and the work-place as an instrument of meaning; of empowerment; of enablement and of contribution. Material rewards are very much a secondary albeit essential consequence.

Understanding work as primarily about giving and not about getting liberates and changes perspectives across a very broad range such as career selection, subject choices, incentives and involvement. Someone who examines contribution above reward has the essential makeup of an entrepreneur. He or she is far more likely to create a job than to search for one.

Perhaps a few thoughts I gave my academically challenged grandson earlier this year, will say it better: “Find something that you can be passionate and enthusiastic about and how you can use it to make a difference to others. Always and at every moment explore what contribution you are making. And never stop learning.”

Or as Jacob Needleman puts it: “You should be looking for the joy, the struggle, and the challenge of work. What you bring forth from your own guts and heart. The happiness of hard work. No amount of money can buy that. Those are things of the spirit.”

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