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Grads without soft skills victims of system

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

  By Zainul Arifin Md Isa  | zainul@nst.com.my 0 comments

FAST-FOOD EDUCATION: Constant drilling can minimise thinking


THERE are of course differences between being an unemployed and an unemployable person. The former may be a victim of circumstances, such as jobs being scarce due to an economic downturn, but the latter would be someone not getting employment even when jobs are aplenty.

Last year, for instance, there were 71,000 diploma or degree-holders without jobs, or about 20 per cent of the unemployed. It is not clear how many of them are unemployable, though.

There is a stigma attached to an unemployed graduate, on whom much hope lies, beginning with his first day as an undergraduate.

Tertiary education is supposed to be the ticket to a better life, but these days, things get rather tough with hundreds of thousands of people with similar qualifications entering the market every year.

Yet, it is the unemployable graduate phenomenon that should bother us a lot. For it suggests that, mainly, regardless of the education that we provide them, some continue to remain unattractive to potential employers.

I once had a conversation with a dean from a leading domestic university, which by design gets the first crack at the top students in the country. Their academic performance at the university justifies them being among the cream of our school-leavers.

Nevertheless, upon graduation, some often find themselves at the other end of the employability spectrum when compared with less academically inclined graduates, especially those who attend private universities and colleges, where for some, the admission criteria is more relaxed and the ability to pay fees is a major consideration for being given places to study.  Then there is competition from overseas graduates, both from quality and dubious institutions.
It is ironic, of course, that the not-so-smart would trump the class ace later in life.
But then life is funny that way.

The often repeated reason is that these unemployable graduates lack the soft skills. Chief among these skills, especially for the private sector, is the ability to communicate well in English. Then there is the ability to be analytical, which is somehow counter-intuitive in our school system.

We have gone down this road before and there is no need to pursue an argument to prove the point. It gets rather tiring.

Why is it if we know the problem, we keep on failing to find the solution?

My two sen’s worth is that maybe our problems start in school, especially when our best students get disadvantaged in the job market by the not-so-smart.

I once chanced upon a class of kids about to sit   the  Penilaian Menengah Rendah examination  and they were undergoing what is known as    latihan tubi,  or repeated drills, on exam questions.

They are primed like race horses and trained to be as instinctive as possible, to look at the questions, “analyse” them  and, based on certain ways they are formulated, to deduce answers quickly, and more importantly, correctly.

These drills are available for all the major   examinations. They have proven to be very successful in getting good grades  and are now commonly available in most schools.
I, however, think they minimise thinking  and lessen the need to understand things. They make fast food of our children’s education.

It seems that rote learning gets our kids through the day  and, for the examinations, there are the drills.  Some do well and get admitted to tertiary institutions. Here, the problem starts to get big, if not addressed. In fact, some suggest, when they are in universities or colleges, it is already too late.

The blame goes all around for this. Society for glorifying good grades, schools for abetting with such misconceived notions, and the Education Ministry and departments for rewarding schools and teachers who produce high scorers.
Someone suggested that Malaysia is a haven for consultants these days because the ability of our young workforce to deduce, argue, conclude and recommend, especially in the international language of business, has been diminished by our emphasis on grades, above all else.

We need to see that our schools are not specialists in producing students who can spot the correct answers without even having to finish the questions, but who can reason, weigh their arguments  and then come out with answers. Maybe that can help them later in life with their employment.

Writer is the head of Media Prima’s new media arm