Graduate employability in post Covid-19 world | Sunday Observer

Graduate employability in post Covid-19 world

15 November, 2020

As higher education entities in the world grapple with unprecedented administrative and teaching challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, predicting the level of employability of the graduates of this year has become a daunting task. Since employability of a graduate has become an important measurement of the quality of the degree program and/or the rank of the institution awarding the degree, let’s try to survey the expanse of jobs leaving aside the age-old debate, “Is the higher education there to prepare students for the job market?” Most students today enrol in higher education intending to prep themselves for a career that will bring them a comfortable living.

Graduate unemployment

Even though Sri Lankan state universities did not consider the job placement as one of their duties or responsibilities in the past, they have no choice but to tackle the issue head-on, if they are to be active players in this game of survival of the fittest in this competitive environment.

Graduate unemployment has been a problem in Sri Lanka even before the pandemic and the Government has shouldered the burden absorbing them to the state sector even exceeding the need for graduate employees. The consequences of such acts are debatable though this may not be the time for it. It is more important for the Government, higher education institutes, employers and job seeking graduates and their families to understand the possibility of not having the luxury of any such rescue missions after the pandemic.

Economies in the world are sliding down on slopes steeper than the Olympic ski slopes and unemployment is skyrocketing. Leading indicators show that it will take at least two to three years to see any sign of recovery from this economic downturn.

Most educational institutes around the world have been continuing many of their programs online, trying to keep the students engaged to minimise the impact of Covid-19 on their life.

Students who didn’t have access were provided with necessary devices and the staff was already familiar with the latest technology in those countries. The Sri Lankan Government also decided to continue the programs in state universities delivering lectures and supporting material online.

Online programs

Whether that is the right decision and whether these online programs reach the same level of standards of the programs which were designed to have practical components, field visits, internships, externships and human interactions are debates that should be put aside at this juncture.

Assuming that our universities continue with their online programs and achieve the objective of completing them on time conferring the degrees without delay, what should the graduates do to find employment? Should the universities address that issue?

After all, state universities in Sri Lanka, provide this opportunity to obtain a degree free of charge, and nor do they sign any contract with the student assuring them of employment after graduation. Should the universities be held responsible to find jobs for their graduates? Should the Government be held responsible to provide them jobs, for that matter? If not the Government, who should bear that responsibility?

These are some of the important issues needed to be discussed for educational reforms, though this may not be the appropriate time for it.

Work From Home

These are some of the issues even other employers of the country should be concerned about. Is the current batch of graduates half-baked? Have they developed the necessary soft skills in a solitary online setting? Should we pay them the same salary as we did last year? Is it better to hire them on the basis of ‘Work From Home’ (WFH) agreements so that we don’t have to pay any other benefits? Those graduating this year need to think about all these aspects in their quest for employment. Unemployment around the world is going to hit numbers that are more than twice that during the 2008 economic meltdown.

Since the employers know that the degree programs were mostly online and the graduates do not have the practical experience, field work and internship, they would focus more on other skills such as leadership qualities, analytical thinking and problem solving abilities, communication in virtual platform as well as in person and most importantly the resilience in the face of adversities.

Adversity Quotient (AQ) and Emotional Quotient (EQ) would rank higher than the Intelligence Quotient (IQ). Candidates have to be trained specifically in facing interviews online since most, if not all of the employers will conduct interviews online.

Graduates should be ready to accept whatever the opportunity coming their way as a starting point and use their entrepreneurial skills to convince the employer that they made the right choice by hiring them.

Job security will not come with the job or the organisation but will be in the hands of the employee. As long as the employee is productive and the employer achieves the targets the job will be secure.

Retirement benefits will be a thing of the past. The graduates will be mostly working freelance under short term contracts with the ability to work for more than one employer at a time.

The value of the degree will be minimal compared to the certifications available online guaranteeing the employer that the candidate has fulfilled the requirements for the job.

Microsoft has already started trying such online certification procedures which probably, will gain more recognition than any university degree. Even the interview process will be redundant in a few years. Employers will use AI (Artificial Intelligence) to match capabilities and personality with their requirements just by seeing you online and processing online certifications and decide whether you will be hired.

There will be a ‘new capitalism’ in the horizon. WFH does not necessarily mean that the home of the employee has to be in the same country as the company.

That will allow the companies to tap a rich pool of talent and pick the best for the lowest cost irrespective of the physical location of the stakeholders. Therefore, graduates should not hesitate to search for opportunities in the global market. Sri Lankan graduates too will have to compete against all other graduates around the world. Universities around the world will reach out to international students, more aggressively than now, through their online programs and/or affiliated institutions.

At the same time these very same universities are entering into partnerships with employers in different countries in the world so that they can send their graduates to those employers. Several countries have already initiated discussions to create such networks enabling all stakeholders to achieve their goals with minimum mobility on the physical plane. Therefore, attitudinal adjustments and developing flexible thinking patterns that convert challenges into opportunities should be important components in the training given in degree programs.

The graduates should be ready to re-evaluate the rapidly changing environment, locally and globally, with the new players and perhaps new parameters that have come in, and adjust their plans accordingly.

Just as our universities embraced online education without any hesitation, they should at the least, provide the necessary assistance, perhaps by adjusting the course structures and/or by effective use of career guidance, mentoring and counselling programs, to equip the students with the skills needed for a successful life in a world where the lines between ‘real’ and ‘artificial’ are virtually nonexistent.

(The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected])