Jobs-skills problem

Sometimes it is difficult to truly understand what is going on when you are reading what seems like conflicting stories.

A British newspaper runs a story headlined, “Robots will destroy our jobs—and we’re not ready for it”. One solution seems easy enough. Learn to repair the robots that take away a previously human-based job. Of course, that is an overly simplistic answer to the growing trend in automation, but it is a place to start the conversation. Further, “Robots could take over 38 percent of US jobs within about 15 years”, so we do have some time to figure things out.

But of more immediate concern is found in a local newspaper (The Manila Times) headline: “1 million graduates face job-skill mismatch”. If graduates are not trained to be able to do specific occupations, then we need to embark on a program to get education up to speed to supply the workplace. However, if you dig deeper, you will read, “The Department of Labor and Employment [DOLE] identified key 275 occupations as in-demand and 102 occupations as hard-to-fill. These include abaca pulp processor, bangus diver, banquet supervisor, bamboo materials craftsman, fish-cage caretaker, mussel grower, and whale shark interaction officer.”

How many jobs are available for “whale shark interaction officer” to justify a college degree in that discipline?

The DOLE also reports: “Hard-to-fill occupations include agricultural designer, bioinformatics analyst, cosmetic dentist, cosmetic surgeon, ethanol machine processing operator and mechatronics engineer.” Perhaps, it is not an educational jobs-skills mismatch. Maybe, making dentures and doing tummy-tucks just do not appeal as a profession to enough Filipinos.

Further, we then read this from Reuters.com about the situation in France: “We just can’t get people into factories,” said Pierre Tisseau, whose company makes house terraces in Cholet in western France. The local business federation in Cholet said 9,000 people were looking for work but that firms were finding it hard to fill 1,500 vacancies in sectors such as construction, transport and the agri-foods, with employers, saying they cannot fill vacancies despite a jobless rate of close to 10 percent, higher than in many European countries.

On one hand, certain occupations may be taken over through some sort of automation. However, how soon and how far this will go is complete speculation. Your hamburger prepared by a robot at a fast-food restaurant is one thing, but are we really going to pay a five-star price for a “robot meal” at a five-star restaurant?

Eventually, this automation situation will all work itself out. But, in the meantime, there are unfilled jobs and unemployed people that need to be matched, and this is a condition that is not unique to the Philippines.

Everyone—especially the politicians—are talking about it and the potential solutions. But the solutions always seem to be something like, “The economy and businesses need more plumbers. Let’s graduate more plumbers.” What happens if, three years later, we need more carpenters?

We tried all that with nursing. We graduated thousands of nurses for the immediate demand that three years later had disappeared. What we should be graduating are young people who have the skills to be able to be trained into whatever occupation businesses are going to need today and in the future. Communication skills, reasoning skills and the skill to be able to learn are more important than going to the classroom to learn how to use a hammer.