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Enhance Your Career Prospects by Taking Charge of Your Education

Part I

Sunday, Feb 11, 2007

Introduction

While interviewing a computer science graduate some time ago, I was deeply struck by a realization about our education system, social assumptions and our general response to social problems. I realized how helpless we feel about our problems and that this learnt helplessness seems more critical than many of the social issues in our society.

After spending half an hour with the candidate, I (and I guess, he too) realized that he didn't know much about software engineering, a subject that he had studied for about 4 years. I stopped for a while and then asked:

"why?" and "how?".

"How is it that after 4 years of education, you are not able to answer the basic questions about the subject?"

He paused for a while, looked at me and explained the "causes" in length and breadth, highlighting the issues pertaining to our education system in general and his institution in particular.

I quietly listened to his assertions and agreed and empathized to most of his account. After he became silent, I asked:

"During these 4 years, when did you realize that you were not learning and that the quality of education was not getting you anywhere?"

"Fairly early" was the reply.

"What did you do after this awareness?" I asked, "what measures did you take?"

I waited, but he was silent and did not have much to say. I tried to make him realize that it was his life and career that was at stake, not the institution's and that he should have taken the responsibility for his education. After a brief discussion I asked him:

"So what next? What are you planning to do?"

"I am planning to do masters now"

I crossed my fingers, held my breath and asked "from where?"

"The same institution" was the reply.

I felt like pulling my hair and shouting "are you nuts?"

After this event I have come across so many candidates with similar "learning issues" that I realized that it was a pervasive problem and not an isolated issue.

This article highlights a few key elements of the educational crisis, its socioeconomic consequences and aims to raise awareness among graduating students that the fate of their careers lies well within their grasp. The article also outlines the key areas where young graduates generally lag and how that affects their careers, especially during the initial phase. It also demonstrates how their current choices during graduation affect their career prospects. The main purpose of this article is to enable students making the right choices, at the right time and avoiding common pitfalls that hamper their professional growth.

Organizations are Desperate about Human Resources

Pakistan is the 6th most populous nation in the world and has a relatively high unemployment and underemployment rate. The high demand for IT professionals in the developed world had led to a mushroom growth of IT institutes across Pakistan. Likewise, every reputable university and college launched IT programs to cater for this opportunity. Being a risk averse culture, we like walking the "safe" path - looking for existing models, trends and success stories. Thus more and more students (or parents) chose IT as a career of choice.

Now considering the above facts, one would believe that recruiting IT professionals in Pakistan would be a fairly simple and effortless exercise. But ask any HR professional - it's a recruiter's nightmare!

While there are many facets of this problem, the most important is the gap between desired and current competencies (knowledge, skills, abilities and personal characteristics). Organizations look for the "right" candidates, with desired level of knowledge, skills and abilities, whereas most of the candidates tend to fall fairly short (at times, hopelessly short) of the standard. The problem here is not about quantity but quality.

The Educational Dilemma

The most obvious (and often cited) cause of the problem is that our education system is not aligned with the needs of the business. There are two important elements of this failure:

Thus even when the institutions make an effort in the right direction (from a curriculum or content perspective), the quality issue hampers the overall learning experience, thereby limiting the scope of competencies acquired by the students.

The Socioeconomic Consequences

The society pays a heavy price, and in a number of ways for this failure. The following section outlines some of the key consequences faced by different elements of society.

Students (Graduates) and Families

Students suffer directly from this educational failure. Lack of quality education and the gap between desired (by organizations) and acquired competencies (by students) results in unemployment and underemployment. It lengthens the time to get or switch a job, enhances the number of rejections (by employers) and increases the prospects of getting the "wrong" job or adopting a wrong career, for which one has no or limited motivation and aptitude. It also hurts self-image, shatters confidence, dreams and at times, hope. It puts enormous psychological burden on students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as in them lies all the hope of their families and loved ones. Poor families sacrifice a lot to educate their children with the hope of a brighter future.

Organizations

Organizations pay a heavy economic price for inadequate education. The recruitment and selection cycles lengthen as organizations struggle to find the right candidates at the right time. In extreme cases, this may mean loss of business opportunity. They have to spend more on training and development to complete the job left undone by educational institutions. And in cases where the candidates still remain unable to come up to expectations, they pay additional cost for repeating the cycle all over again (recruitment, selection, training). Lack of competencies implies less productivity and less quality (and at times loss of business contracts). Further, more training also implies having competent staff forgoing production activities for planning, designing, organizing and implementing trainings for less competent members. Lack or loss of production opportunity means less revenue, less growth, less investment, less expenditure, less savings and less employment opportunities for future. And all this, at a macro level has serious economic consequences for an economy.

Customers

Customers include both individuals and other client organizations. It also includes every citizen as each one of us is a consumer and a client to other organizations - both public and private. So we all suffer because of frustrating errors, inefficient, ineffective and poor service, and often, frustrating attitude of people who are simply not equipped to do their job. And when these problems are faced in critical areas such as public health, utilities or other critical service areas, the economic cost is belittled by the social and psychological agony that follows.

Educational Institutions

Yes, the institutions themselves suffer through the quality of their output. It affects their reputation, demand or growth, support from industry, government or other funding sources. It also strains student-teacher (and administration) relations, and also affects staff motivation - a negative self-image makes it even more difficult to perform better. For institutions offering multilevel programs (bachelors, masters, PhD etc.), the matter becomes even more complex and frustrating. Developing an inferior breed of students at a lower level, implies a poor quality supply for the next level. Thus each higher order layer starts with a handicap from day one.

Government and General Public

Without education sustainable social or economic progress is not possible. In fact it is the backbone of socioeconomic development of any nation. Education is one of the primary social institutions of a society and forms a critical area of responsibility for any government. Considering the above mentioned socioeconomic costs of educational shortcomings, governments become natural stakeholders to the problem. The above shortcomings demand additional government funding, budgetary allocations, and other initiatives and government interventions (all of which involve additional cost). Now governments are generally known to be inefficient (if not incompetent). And they often end up making an intervention (for all the good reasons of course) which makes things worse than good. And again, all this is "sponsored" by public funding - taxes, surcharges, duties - paid by individuals and organizations.

See also:

Part II - Examining Organizational Needs

Part III - How Can I Fight the System?

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"Circumstances do not make a man, they reveal him"

[Dr. Wayne W.Dyer]