The future of the job market

The sole focus on book learning to prepare entrants to the job market may be myopic and needs swift rethinking.

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The Ministry of Higher Education recently published the training needs for the year 2021. This list, formulated based on the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) by UNESCO, identifies gaps in ten fields of development in the Maldives. These fields are then further segmented, producing a comprehensive list of the country’s trainings needs. The 2021 list highlights roles in present-day key industries such as the travel, tourism and leisure industries in addition to sectors with potential growth in the future such as geophysics and econometrics.

Where are we right now?

Having identified these needs, the nation now needs to gauge its preparedness to fill these gaps and, ultimately, its readiness in preparing young people for the nation’s future job needs.

On the positive side, programmes in many of the roles identified under some major fields such as in Services, Health and Welfare, are currently offered in various public and private institutions in the Maldives. However, the gaps in opportunities in many other fields are wide and deep, especially in culturally non-traditional sectors of education. Programmes in many of the sub fields of Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction are fairly limited. 

The 2019 Education Sector Analysis report published by the Ministry of Education identifies the issue. Diversification has flummoxed the country for many years it seems, and the issue had been raised as far back as 2009, in a study conducted by the World Bank. Since then, the largest number of courses offered have ceaselessly been in the areas of Business, Administration and Law — followed by Education.

The least number of courses has been offered in the fields of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Statistics — followed by Social Sciences, Journalism and Information. Alarmingly, no higher education programs are offered in the fields of Agriculture, Fisheries and Veterinary Sciences, despite the importance of these fields to the nation’s economy and culture, especially with fish products being the main goods export. 

Consequently, from a supply side point of view, the big question is; how can the nation bridge the gaps in knowledge in these fields? International scholarships available for local students are limited, which adds on to this delicate reality. Therefore, how is the nation preparing for future job needs?

Is higher education the answer?

Education is not the only solution; what is required is an educated workforce, equipped with the right hard skills, soft skills, experiences and attributes. Indeed, education is pivotal for students, but so is their well-being, skill development, inculcating civic virtue and participation in sports and extracurricular activities. The key is balance.

A bit of everything is what makes a student an all-rounder. One who enjoys a meaningful educational experience, but also one who is more prepared for adventures in the work life — one who has the ability to better match the demands of their future jobs. 

Alas, what we are witnessing in the Maldives is a policy of over emphasis on “book learning,” which has become a rather deleterious race to win, not only for students but also for parents, educators, and even schools. Students and parents are unlikely to invest their time and resources in metrics other than grades if rewards remain only matched to the grades achieved.  Take the National O’Level and A’Level Top 10 policy published by the Ministry of Education.

The criteria for selection to this prestigious award is skewed solely towards education. The celebration is focused only on grades. Therein the obvious message is that in order for a student to be identified as successful, the student need only do well in studies. This is not the right message. How do we celebrate and encourage students who do volunteer work? Or students who lead teams to victory in school competitions, whether in sports or linguistics?  

Striving for success at work requires much more than exposure to a robust curriculum for knowledge – it requires hard skills. Hard skills are the technical skills acquired through formal education and training. However, increasingly, dynamic workplaces are calling for more than book-smarts. At many innovative and high-tech workplaces soft skills, which include the ability to think critically, communicate and collaborate effectively as well as lead in different situations, are also highly sought-after in addition to technical skills,.

A 2016 survey by The Society for Human Resource Management found that some of the most vital employer valued skills are reported to be soft skills such as dependability and reliability, integrity, communication skills and adaptability.

Furthermore, research conducted by professors from the University of Michigan, Harvard and Boston College pointed out that appropriate soft skills training has positive impact over productivity, employee retention, job satisfaction and most importantly professionalism of a workplace. The crucial benefits were that such programs resulted in higher return on employer investment and leadership development in a sustainable way.

This again begs the question; where does the nation stand in preparedness to develop soft skills in order to prepare for future job needs?

What can be done?

In the late 1990s, to early 2000s, the Ministry of Education encouraged the work experience programme for secondary schoolers. Though this was not properly monitored nor evaluated back in the day, having such a programme right now with attachment to meaningful work, is likely going to yield numerous benefits. From the scope of developing soft and hard skills, to experiencing work life is likely to create many meaningful learning and growth opportunities for students, preparing them for future job needs. 

Students must also be encouraged to engage in extracurricular activities and volunteering, at least in their middle schools or early secondary studies when the pressures to academically perform is not at its height. Research indicates that participation in extracurricular activities positively correlates with students’ development both academically and personally.

Students who participate in extracurricular activities have greater academic success, greater character development, especially in the areas of time-management and leadership skills, more positive social development, and greater interest in community involvement. All of which are important characteristics and skills for future job holders. 

The rewards and recognitions at schools and at national level needs to be revised. While it is necessary to acknowledge the educational success of 10 or 12 years of studies, awards should also be introduced to celebrate students who graduate in line with the holistic education frame the Ministry of Education in Maldives has implemented. 

Moreover, it is critical that the Ministry of Higher Education work closely with the higher education providers in the Maldives to ensure that programmes are developed locally or sourced internationally. The aim of this collaboration must be to ensure that programmes on the national skill priority list is available in the near future. The report, Guideline on Programme Diversification and Addressing the National Trainings Needs, identifies fields based on priority for development. This will be a good starting point for programme development. 

The answer to the question of whether the nation is prepared for future job needs is, unfortunately, no. At the moment, blind-sided by the focus on education alone, things are not heading in the right direction. Urgent, and swift changes are needed, as well as strategic longer-term changes. Both the private and public sector needs to come together to ensure the nation’s future workforce is better prepared to meet their future job needs.

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