Knowledge and skills

In the past, the skills students learned in school could help them to keep their jobs throughout their life. Today, lifelong learning is a necessity. It is very important for college students to understand that education does not end when they graduate but it is only the beginning of a lifelong learning.

There are changes due to globalization that students do not pay attention. Today businesses do not stay within a border of a country but become global as “the world is flat”. Today workers do not work in one place but can work anywhere using the internet and become “virtual workers”. Today workers do not have to travel far to look for jobs but jobs have to go to where skilled workers live. Today, companies expect new graduates to be productive and ready to work immediately. Companies often fire people whose skills are obsolete and hire replacements with the right skills to maximize their profits. In the competitive global market, companies cannot afford to be non productive or waste money and time for workers to learn on the job. They expect students to have the needed skills trained by schools and not by them. That puts a lot of pressure on students and their schools. More than ever, the knowledge and skills are main factors for better career and better life.

Few months ago, a Chinese professor asked me: “When more students achieve higher grades, does it mean we have better students, better training programs. How do we truly measure the quality of our education system? I told him: “When more students achieve high exam grades, of course school officers will quickly concluded that they have better training programs. Maybe it is true. Maybe the school has good students, but it is possible that the standard may have been lowered too.”

Today some schools still measures their education quality by the number of students passing exams or achieve higher grades. However, there are different quality measurements depending on the culture. When you look at different countries you will see different measurements. For example, if you ask a U.S teacher why a student is not do well in math, the teacher may say that it has something to do with intelligence or IQ. Ask the same question in Japan, the teacher will blame the student for not study hard enough. A French teacher will say that the student has different talents and math is not one of his. A Chinese teacher will blame the student's family for not pressure the students to study math. Each places see education quality from different views.”

Today, students in Asia are doing very well in math because their education program is focusing more on this subject. The most often asked question is if they are good in math, how come there are very few inventions and innovations as compare with the U.S or Europe? The answer maybe in the way math is being taught. From what I saw in China, Korea and Japan where most students memorize formulas and equations to pass tests rather than focus on the application of these scientific knowledge into skills. The fact is Asia has more students passing exams with high grades but is this measurement valid? Are there better measurements? Should we look at exams grade or something else such as skills?

There is a good example from India about quantity and quality. In the late 1990s, India's IT industry received a large demand from Western companies to help them fix the Y2K software issue. But Indian industry faced a severe problem: It needed to hire hundreds of thousands of software engineers, a far greater number than its engineering colleges produce. In 1999, India graduated only 70,000 software engineers per year. The government immediately “requested” their public universities to expand their trainings to enroll and graduate more people. Within ten years, India's schools graduated about 500,000 software engineers per year. The result was a “nightmare” with over 70% of them did not meet the industry's basic skills demand, therefore cannot find jobs.

Indian industry was forced to rethink the way it educated its workers. It started by adapting the best practices of Western companies then improving on them. Top companies built their own education systems to train their workers. When college graduates was hired by companies like Infosys, Tata Consulting Services or HCL Technologies, they must undergo three to four months of intensive skills training before starting work. They are taught not only technical skills but also the basics of customer management, communications and team building.

The Infosys program costs more than $6,000 per student. The company spent $120 million to build an education center in Mysore that employs more than 300 full-time faculty and can train 13,500 employees at a time. Tata Consulting runs 10 training centers across India that can train 30,000 people at a time. These companies require that every employee receive one to three weeks of formal education annually to learn new skills. Lifelong learning is a requirement to keep your jobs. Employees must attend additional skill training every time market demand changes.

The results: India's IT industry has grown from almost nothing in 1990 to over $90 billion in 2011. The top five companies were growing at 30 to 40 percent per year from 2003 to 2009. As their profits increase, employees salaries also increase. As productivity increase, their billing rates also increase. As more people are employed in higher wages, other jobs are created to support these people and eventually the economy improves at significant rates.

Today, Indian engineers are designing aircraft engines, automotive components and manufacturing plants, next-generation microprocessors, telecom products and medical devices for Western companies. Their engineers command a salary almost equal to the engineers in developed countries. Today, India is trying to change the image of “Low cost labor” to “Highly skilled labor” and they expect this year earning to pass the $100 billion and achieve $200 billion by 2018.

How could India move from a weak education system and turn its students into world-class specialists? The simple answer is they change the measurement from number of graduates (Government metric) to skills and employment (Industry metrics). Their measure is not on how many students passing exams but how many of them have better jobs, better salaries, and better life. Instead of focus on quantity, they focus on quality as measured by the end result.

Indian students understand that today they do not compete in their local labor market but they have to compete with every students in the world and that motivate their learning. They understand very well that with globalization, anyone can compete, anyone can get better jobs, better salaries by develop better knowledge and skills. One manager told me: “We are no longer mention about low cost anymore, we are talking about high skills, the skills that every countries need but do not have. Now developed countries need us and they cannot do anything without us. That is our advantages”.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University
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