The quote is from Bill Hicks, deceased US comedian, but it swam back into my memory as I alternated between flicking through the pile of unread broadsheet newspapers by the sofa and watching University Challenge. (OK I’m middle-aged and a little sad, but on the basis of Monday’s episode I know more than a whole Oxford college. Allow me some cardigan-clad pride.) The contestants were young, bright and youthful in their anxious optimism. Being Oxbridge students, no doubt they will prosper, but in a year of record numbers of university applicants being turned away (280,000 according to the Independent on Sunday) and high unemployment in the under 25s, Hicks’ question – I’ll replay the joke later – has a new resonance.

We were recently asked by a professional journal to proffer our thoughts on assessment techniques that might help graduates and employers in “one of the toughest job markets for decades”. It was one of those moments when you couldn’t help but wonder if the question did the situation justice. It felt like Douglas Adam’s crashed space ship of telephone sanitisers and PR advisers inventing the wheel but not putting it into use because they couldn’t decide which colour was best. In a year when employers – or at least those that are recruiting – may be trying to redefine selection processes for their graduate intake because the traditional methods don’t cope with the volume. Yet a CIPD press release issued this morning seems to fly in the face of what you would assume:

The latest focus study on skills, migration and off shoring in the CIPD/KPMG Labour Market Outlook report shows that demand for migrant workers has increased in line with improvements in the UK labour market during the past year.

Almost half (45%) of the 600 employers surveyed report vacancies that are hard to fill, with 21% saying they are recruiting migrant workers for engineering vacancies, and 18% for both IT and accountancy/finance positions.”

The same issue of the Independent on Sunday ran an article, University? Is it still worth the trouble?”, and the question – if CIPD/KPMG are right – should be one that not just potential and current students should be asking themselves. As the question begins to circulate more widely, statistics fly in all directions, as commentators search – understandably – for those that back their argument. So while The IoS reports graduate salaries are currently on average 38% higher than those of non-graduates after 10 years, Aditya Chakrabortty writing in today’s Guardian draws a different conclusion:

What about the extra money that degree-holders are meant to earn over their careers – the so-called graduate premium? Even by Whitehall calculations, that has dropped from £400,000, to £100,000 now – which works out to an annual £2,500 over a 40-year career. But even that more modest average is swollen by the number of Oxbridge students who end up at Goldman Sachs.”

With an average graduating student debt of c.£25,000, it’s even less rosy: even without interest payments, ten of those forty career year financial advantages will be spent repaying the loan for the education that delivered them. “What are you reading for?” is, in that light, a question that has teeth every bit as sharp as many a Bill Hicks routine.

The rapid expansion of higher education participation – now suddenly performing a handbrake turn – has had many consequences, but they may not have been the ones that were intended. Chakrabortty cites a research study:

A couple of years ago, two economists at the University of Kent crunched through data from 1992 up to 2006 on how graduates fared in the jobs market. It was a big exercise, going through thousands of career paths, and it was carefully done. Francis Green and Yu Zhu took into account that it can take a while for graduates to find the right job […] Yet they still found a third of graduates were “overqualified” for their jobs. Many were “formally overqualified”, in positions that wouldn’t usually require a university degree; but one in 10 were what Green and Zhu called “really overqualified” – their jobs barely utilised their expensively acquired skills.”

Part of the ‘problem’ is not just the increase in graduate numbers; many jobs – perhaps in their anxiety to achieve or inforce their status as ‘professions’ – now demand degrees that have not previously done so. There is a definite hint here of ‘professions’ (you might want to read our previous post about the MBA oath and the double-edged sword of ‘professional status’) pulling up the ladder behind them as fast as Higher Education has tried to extend the ladder from below to reach them. But even jokes that were once fresh (Q: What’s the most common question a media studies graduate asks at work? A: Do you want fries with that?) can lose their flavour.

There is another undercurrent too – one that concerns what we see the role of education as being. Michael Hoffman, a translator, poet and critic, wrote a Guardian column shortly before A-level results were released that deplored our approach to foreign language teaching in the UK (as do employers who want employees with languages skills, although as Hoffman comments: “Employers are becoming unhappy; their science and business and IT agenda has been overplayed.”). Although his article focuses on language teaching, the larger context – ie what is the point? – includes sentences that are telling in the wider debate:

It looks like an education problem, but it’s not an education problem. Education is just where things get shunted that society doesn’t want to deal with or can’t deal with. [ …]

Education is a field hospital, where the little troops are patched up and turned round and sent back to fight in the great economic war that seems to be all that’s left of life.”

When a traditional model (school -> university -> graduate -> graduate entry scheme) becomes largely inoperable, it may be the model that needs to be adjusted rather than the processes that operate within its framework. So what can companies do to change this glum and rather bitter picture? Standing back a little to review the broader perspective might be one start. Graduates are, by definition, largely untested in real working experience: one conundrum of talent is that it can take time – and investment – to emerge. (Malcolm Gladwell’s cited figure of 10,000 hours may seem daunting to a recruitment specialist, but we hope that they’d agree that their own performance has improved since they started their role?) Even then, knowledge and skill don’t necessarily translate into subsequent performance – In the medium-term labour market, other approaches – internships, part-time working, working with community volunteering schemes, apprenticeships – may provide meaningful development opportunities, and organisations with alternative approaches to monitoring and assessing their potential.

Pondering whether job requirements have become over-inflated (an accusation levelled at educational qualifications in both the UK and Ireland) may pay dividends. As unemployed and would-be graduates scrabble for work, the ‘lower level’ routes into work intended for those with lower level qualification become their target. Yet, despite the coalition government’s aim to increase by 50% apprenticeships to 150,000 (itself a huge increase on the 34,500 available in 1990), this would still leave us 71% below the number available in 1968.

Are organisations demanding that young entrants gain unnecessary skills so that they find themselves using entry routes to work designed for ‘lesser achievers’, so that they can then learn the skills that were really wanted in the first place? A system that far off the rails surely couldn’t ever reach its destination. As Anastasia de Waal of the Civitas think-tank was quoted as saying in the IoS article in commenting on the over-emphasis on university education:

As a result, the alternative routes are suffering and we are not getting the best people into non-graduate jobs.”

CIPD/KMPG’s research would imply that, despite decades of rhetoric around aligning education with vocational needs, teaching skills for life, and increasing business input into shaping educational curricula, the students we are awarding qualifications to are not just as unfitted to what our businesses need as ever, but increasing in number too. Even the politest commentator could, I would say, be forgiven for asking ‘So what has business been doing about explaining the skills it really needs for the last 15 years?’

In difficult economic times – where the CIPD itself expresses concern about the ability of the private sector to provide sufficient new jobs to accommodate those expected to be lost in the public sector – it would be churlish and simplistic to chastise organisations for unemployment levels, even those of the young.

But whether or not we are all part of a ‘big society’, I think it can be argued that corporate social responsibility extends as far as contributing intelligently to rethinking the students that our education system (secondary, tertiary and higher) produces where the mismatch will threaten not just the economic and employment chances of the next generation (and who knows what talent lies untapped within it?) but also, by extension, the talent management and succession planning prospects of the organisations that constitute our economy.

Oh, and that Bill Hicks joke … (We’ve removed the bad language, although the underlying anger seems more appropriate now, 17 years after it appeared in a filmed stand-up routine).

I was in Nashville, Tennesee last year, after the show I went to a Waffle House, I’m not proud of it, I was hungry. And I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me, “Tch tch tch tch. Hey, what you readin’ for?” Is that like the weirdest ******* question you’ve ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading for. Well, godammit, you stumped me. Why do I read? Well… hmmm… I guess I read for a lot of reasons, and the main one is so I don’t end up being a ******* waffle waitress.”

There’s every chance you’d want Bill Hicks in your workspace as little as he would have wanted to be there, but a large number of literal people deserve better than the 2010 UK equivalent of waffle waitressing, and have the talent to back up their aspirations. Have we continued fighting the Talent War without noticing that it’s the ‘talent’ itself that we are in danger of defeating?

So how are we going to rethink talent recruitment to address our current situation? And do you want fries with that while you’re thinking about it?

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