Widespread unemployment has been roiling our economy since the beginning of the pandemic. Recently Hong Kong Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung revealed that about 35,500 young people are unemployed — a 17-year high. Sadly, there is nothing to indicate that this rate will drop any time soon. As part of relief packages, the government intends to recruit additional civil servants and create short-term posts. A cursory glance at its recruitment website suggests that many of these jobs are degree-agnostic, which means that there is no requirement for degree types or majors. This reality not only shows the growing mismatch between degrees and jobs but also calls for a deeper examination about the actual returns of schooling in general.
How did this happen? In early 2010, roughly around the time when most recent graduates entered secondary school, the Internet economy in China had barely even begun.
Since then, the world has taken multiple strides, with new economies and big tech leading the way. During this time, most graduates were ensconced in various brick-and-mortar educational institutions. When they left school, they were dealt a heavy blow with the worst employment landscape since 2003 due to the pandemic. Endless rounds of job cuts and business shutdowns make young people feel like they are kayaking in rushing currents. Compounded the downturn with relentless technological disruptions means the current economic climate has opened a wide chasm between the pace of change, and the ability of graduates and our governing systems to adapt and manage such change.
All of these signal the need for us to rewire our societal tools to enable our graduates to keep pace with economic changes. Instead of artificially creating temporary jobs for our graduates ex post facto, we should be preparing them to adapt to a new era of jobs from the get-go.
We should start with redefining social contracts among different stakeholders. One is between educators and students. Our conveyor belt-like education system is a relic of the past that sometimes lacks the on-demand mobility to keep up. Society does not have the patience to wait around for universities to adapt their curricula and teach students new skills, especially when emerging online education platforms are doing it faster and cheaper. Furthermore, most jobs nowadays demand multidisciplinary expertise. To mandate 18-year-olds to lock into a single field of study, based on public examinations results with rapidly expiring content, means that we risk creating a workforce that might not suit our economic needs.
Stable jobs such as law and medicine often seem like the path of least resistance and the path offering the highest likelihood of a lucrative salary. While this is the perfect outcome for some, for others it leads to unmet expectations. The least we can do is make non-professional subjects more accessible to distribute knowledge more evenly across the student body.
We must learn to play dual roles in a modern workplace.
Another social contract is between students and employees. Digital ubiquity and globalization have lowered entry barriers and created a more competitive labor environment. Graduates should abandon the misconception that learning ceases after graduation. Most of us finish school by our early adulthoods. But when the pace of change becomes rapid, the only way to retain a lifelong working capacity is to engage in lifelong learning. Rather than expecting our knowledge to last for decades, employees should continue to behave as lifelong students, and show stewardship to constant upskilling to fit societal needs.
An on-demand world requires on-demand learning. Employers should similarly provide an avenue for lifelong learning within a company’s framework. For example, many multinational companies, such as Google and IBM, have been partnering with universities to provide on-the-job training. A lifelong student will be the one who has the grit to make use of all the online tools to learn over an entire lifetime, even when no one is around to check their progress. On the other hand, the most valued employee will be the one who can identify ways to fork off from a task to create new market opportunities whether for themselves or for the company. We must learn to play dual roles in a modern workplace.
It’s not just the students themselves who must change, so should our education provider. The technological supernova has filtered into the traditional brick-and-mortar institutions, spawning multiple e-learning platforms that all aim to revolutionize the delivery of education. When a private e-learning platform can respond to the technological leap forward and offers courses online to anyone around the world, so should their university counterparts that are better resourced. Why should anyone wait until next year to take a course on campus even if the university can change its curriculum that quickly? Universities must experiment with turning over a curriculum much faster and stipulate a use-by date, much like any other perishable product in a marketplace.
University-industry partnership would help students make better school-to-work transition, build experiential learning initiatives, and even explore alternate career paths before it is too late.
Every company and every education institution must compound the rate at which it reimagines its relationship with the younger generation. The misalignment between what students learn at school and the actual demand of the job market has left many graduates unmoored. Who could blame them? We should stop portraying school as being a separate stage before work but instead double our efforts to incorporate real-work elements into our education offerings.
It is time to forge more university-industry partnerships that provide academic credit for structured work experience. For example, many Canadian universities require their students to undertake projects with a corporate sponsor before graduation — an education model that many Chinese universities are now drawing inspiration from. Among its many benefits, this would help students make better school-to-work transition, build experiential learning initiatives, and even explore alternate career paths before it is too late.
Indeed, injecting new energy into the modern-day workplace can be a catalyst for reinventing the benefits both a company and students themselves receive. Also, society should stop stigmatizing dropouts but learn to assess candidates based on what they can evidently do, and not solely on what it reads on their gilt-framed diplomas. If the candidates are good enough, they should be considered mature enough.
“How does it feel to know that there are at least one million people around the world who can do your job?” The threat this question hypothesizes has never been truer until today. In such circumstances, there is an almost irresistible temptation to dish out a quick fix to underlying social problems.
A university degree once allowed us to find a job. But before long, our future generation might have to create their own for each cycle of change.
It would be remiss to pretend that the effect of the current downturn will disappear soon. But rather than molding our young graduates into a contrived workforce that society might not need or want, we should encourage them to keep paddling to maintain their dynamic stability through rapid currents. For lack of a better solution to the current conundrum, this might be the only sensible way to keep at it.
(An abridged version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post)