Policy debates about skills regularly highlight many issues in our education and training system, some of which come up in frequent everyday conversation.
A common form is a sort of moral panic over too much academic education, which some fear is giving young people “delusions of grandeur”. We hear statements like “what are they going to do with all this academic education? Our young people need practical skills to find a job.
Then there are debates about spending: policy makers have to decide how much money to spend on which courses and programs and how the money should get to institutions to ensure their performance. Another frequently expressed policy concern is that educational institutions (and therefore Ministries and Departments of Education) are not ‘producing the right skills’.
The political solutions developed to solve these political problems often disappoint. “Workforce planning” fell into disrepute in the 1980s when it was replaced by labor market analysis and skills anticipation, with a heavy dose of “coordination” and “ of stakeholder engagement”.
A seemingly simple idea that is part of it is to “ask employers what skills they need” and pay the educational institutions that provide them. It sounds super intuitive, but the results are very mixed. South Africa is a leader in developing systems, rules and tools, projects and institutions to try to find out from employers what they need and to coordinate between government and economic actors.
But we are always told that there is a skills crisis, a skills gap and a skills mismatch.
Understanding why this is the case and developing ideas that could inform better policy interventions requires interdisciplinary research, such as that undertaken at the Wits Center for Researching Education and Labour, which celebrates its 10th anniversary with a conference focused on this very question.
Learn more in Daily Maverick: “Our skills problem cannot be solved outside the economy – it must be part of the messy process of structural change”
So how does our work fill the gaps in terms of interdisciplinary collaboration?
Often, educational researchers do not engage in debates about ‘skills’. One reason may be that the vastness of the school system, with all its problems and complexities, takes precedence over the research curriculum. Another may be that pedagogues tend to believe strongly in the intrinsic value of education and are wary of any area of research or policy that appears to view education as instrumental or economistic. The low status of vocational education in most English-speaking countries can also make skills and vocational education less attractive to academic researchers.
All of this is unfortunate because it abdicates the ground from the seemingly elegant simplicity of the functioning of labor markets, an area mainly staked out by economists.
In its simplest form, this terrain is defined by focusing on individuals, aggregated into an idea of a labor market that is seen as a single market functioning much like other markets.
A common idea that informs the focus on individuals is human capital theory. This approach presents a net virtuous circle in which providing individuals with knowledge and skills makes them more productive, helps them secure or improve their employment status or income-generating capacity, and in turn makes businesses and more productive organizations, leading to increased national prosperity. and well-being.
The appeal to policy makers is obvious, which perhaps explains why it has become the underlying assumption of many policy interventions. The hope is that this market will reach an equilibrium in terms of employers’ “demand” for particular skills and the supply of those skills through educational institutions, if the prices are right.
Many interventions begin by asserting that labor markets for skills do not achieve this balance because not all actors have the same information. This brings us back to the extensive systems we have developed for labor market analysis and skills anticipation, which aim to feed better information into education and training systems.
But if employers know what they want and they want trained people, why don’t they train them? Why do they need to be encouraged to do so?
The first problem is that the word “skills” simplifies what is in fact a complex mix of theoretical and applied knowledge that is acquired through education and training programs. Three complex areas of educational research need to be considered in this regard: knowledge development, curriculum, and learning/pedagogy.
Knowledge research examines how knowledge sets are developed and how they inform day-to-day working knowledge.
Curriculum research examines how selection can and should be made from sets of knowledge in curricula in ways that enable meaningful learning. An important issue in this regard is the relationship between theory and practice.
The idea of meaningful learning and the relationship between theory and practice brings us to the third research area of pedagogy and learning. Here there is considerable debate about where different types of learning occur best – which shows why on-the-job learning is important for certain types of knowledge and skills, but of little value for others.
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Insights from these areas of research are key to understanding why asking employers what skills they need can lead to bad policies: employers think in terms of jobs, tasks, or combinations of skills , but not in terms of the sets of knowledge that underpin work in a particular area.
Visualize a complex system
A second problem is that “skills” are not commodities that can be separated from the skilled person or the work organization of the workplace in which the skill is used – which relates to working conditions and the skills and manager’s abilities. This brings us to research on work, labor markets, economic development and skills formation that bring relationships and institutions to the fore.
The sociology of work and institutional political economy view workplaces and education and training systems as complex sets of institutions that influence each other and are embedded in social and economic arrangements that shape and are shaped by the nature of education and training systems. We need to visualize a complex system in which changing one part will affect all the others. For example, whether collective bargaining takes place at company or industry level has an impact on skills formation.
The third problem is that education is often seen as a development outcome – a set of goals that countries must achieve, such as through the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals, although it is also described as a key ingredient of economic growth. But the international development community is (unsurprisingly) not engaging in the fight against the unequal and hierarchical global economy, dominated by certain countries and giant monopolistic corporations.
Research on the broader dynamics of skills training systems is weak with respect to low- and middle-income countries. Research to date has been shaped by scholars in the North, where it is powerful in explaining, for example, dramatic differences in the size, quality and status of vocational education and training systems.
This is a gap we are trying to fill, and despite the complexity, our research offers insights for policy. For example, we show that our current skills anticipation systems mainly obtain information on immediate and short-term skills needs, but our planning systems, including certification systems, are designed for medium and short-term interventions. long term (although they present many problems in their own right).
Information on current and emerging skills needs is not helpful in the long term as our economy must change, given the increasingly urgent environmental crisis as well as chronic inequalities. This is why research on skills formation must engage with development economics.
In short, if we are to support the provision of a diverse body of knowledge, expertise and skills necessary for meaningful economic and social development as well as to help individuals improve their lives, we need information from a range of disciplines, working with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries, while maintaining respect for disciplinary integrity. SM/MC
Stéphanie Allais holds the Research Chair in Skills Development at Education and Labor Research Center (REAL), University of the Witwatersrand. On August 17-18, REAL will be hosting a conference that will explore many of the questions discussed in this article. The theme is “Reflecting on 10 years of research in education and work” and is part of the university’s centenary celebrations and also marks the 10th anniversary of the REAL Centre.
The program is available here.