09:40 PM August 5th, 2013

By: Cielito F. Habito, August 5th, 2013 09:40 PM

In his State of the Nation Address two years ago, President Aquino noted 50,000 jobs in the Phil-JobNet website that could not be every month because the knowledge and skills of job seekers did not match the needs of the companies. As of last May 29, Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz reported 130,290 vacancies in that website, the government’s official jobs portal that consolidates vacancy postings from various sources. Last January, a record high of 268,278 job vacancies was posted, while the number of registered worker-applicants was only less than half (116,795).

Last Labor Day, the Department of Labor and Employment attracted a total of 36,765 job applicants in job fairs held in various parts of the country. Only 1,274 found immediate placement, with another 3,340 applicants told to undergo further interviews with employers. This suggests that less than one out of 10 applicants manages to find a job in DOLE’s job fairs. And yet Secretary Baldoz observes that just like in the website, the number of jobs offered during job fairs normally exceeds the number of applicants.

One wonders why we have a persistent problem with high unemployment and underemployment, and yet have so many jobs persistently waiting to be filled. The usual answer is that we face a jobs-skills mismatch wherein the training of our jobseekers simply does not match the requirements of the companies looking for people to fill their vacancies. This mismatch problem appears to span job categories ranging from the relatively low skilled to highly specialized ones. It is also a problem seen in both the private and public sectors.

In many cases, the skills mismatch is very real. Philippine Business for Education (PBEd), through its research partner Brain Trust Inc. (BTI), interviewed various companies’ human resource officers as part of its USAID-funded Higher Education for Productivity Project (HEPP). A large industrial firm in Batangas needs dozens of engineers for its projected expansion, but can’t find suitable recruits. I know one government department needing dozens of specialists in a particular field, but has so far found only two qualified applicants among the many who have applied. We all know of the mad rush students made to nursing schools in past years, and the equally mad rush of certain colleges and universities to offer nursing courses to meet the demand. It didn’t take long to reach a glut of nursing graduates; now they are the ones actually paying to be able to work in hospitals for needed work experience. Otherwise they end up working in call centers or totally unrelated jobs, putting their highly specialized training to naught.

But the perceived technical skills mismatch appears illusory in other contexts. I’ve heard a number of human resource officers say that what they are looking for, but have difficulty finding in their applicants, are not so much technical skills (such as those obtained in science, engineering and technology courses) but more of “soft” ones: communication and presentation skills, analytical ability, resourcefulness, creativity, motivation, ability to work in a team, honesty and the like. These are all too often neglected in the schools where the workers are trained. One might well argue that some of these “soft” skills cannot be taught in school. On the other hand, the technical skills demanded by the job can often be readily imparted through in-company training, making the specific technical training of the applicant less critical. Many employers only look for any college degree, and for as long as applicants possess the desired “soft” skills, they will take care of the rest. Here, the mismatch is not in technical training, but in something more fundamental.

In a survey run by BTI, students were asked who chose the course they were enrolled in. Most said that they made the choice themselves (rather than, say, their parents). Asked further what influenced their choice, the overwhelming reply was that the course was “in demand.”

The problem is that what seems to be in demand now may no longer be so four to five years later when they graduate and look for jobs. Furthermore, perceptions on what is “in demand” could be misplaced and prone to “herd mentality” and fickle swings in the market. Meanwhile, most schools also tend to base their choice of course offerings on what they see students and parents want, thereby reinforcing the possible error in perception of job market demands.

In the ideal world, schools—be they universities, colleges or technical/vocational training institutions—would be in regular contact and close coordination with the potential employers of their graduates, well-guided on the nature and content of their course offerings in order to be most responsive to the needs of the firms. The most common way this contact currently happens is through on-the-job training (OJT) programs that college seniors must go through. But we’ve encountered firms that don’t take OJTs seriously, even seeing them as a burden, supervision costs and all. There is great scope for strengthening linkages between industry and academe to foster more relevant course and curriculum design, university-based research agenda, faculty enrichment through industrial immersion, scholarship programs, and other modes for helping the schools address the persistent job-skills mismatch.

PBEd’s HEPP project is pushing for institutionalized dialogue between the supply and demand sides of the jobs market, namely industry and academe. Without it, we could be counting growing unfilled job postings in Phil-JobNet and other similar websites well into the future.

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