The Paradoxes in Educating for the Labour Market

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Business education is often thought to be a free pass to a professional business career. But how do we ensure that a business education provides the relevant qualifications for getting a job? One way might be to stop thinking so much about employability.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark – Talks of alarmingly high youth unemployment, increased global competition, and outsourcing of jobs have made most of the youth in Europe and the US painstakingly aware of the need for a good education in order to avoid the unemployment line and get a job. Politicians have also taken action calling for relevant education to fit the needs of the labour market.

But how do we ensure that an education is relevant for students in their careers and life following school? And what role do business schools play in preparing students for their future? These questions were raised at the Humanities and Social Sciences in Management Education conference in Copenhagen, and discussions suggested that thinking about employability might not be the best way to get employed.

Is education a means to getting a job?

Kurt Jacobsen, Professor and Study Director of the BSc/MSc programme in Business Administration and Philosophy at Copenhagen Business School, attested that business school programmes in Denmark are being put under increased scrutiny from politicians who wish to ensure the applicability and relevance of the programmes to the labour market. The same tendency is seen in many other European countries with universities that are predominantly state-funded. The overarching assumption behind the political intervention is that education can and should translate into full-time employment for students after graduation.

Few would argue that full-time employment is a bad thing, as it also seems to be the motivation for most students pursuing a degree from a business school. It might therefore be reasonable that politicians oversee that business school programs provide tools and learnings that will prove useful to the students in the labour market. After all, attending a business school can be a lengthy and costly affair, so one should hope that it is worth the effort.

However, there is an inherent challenge with this approach. From an institutional point of view there arises a question of how to educate for a society that is dynamic and constantly changing. How can the desired skills be determined and what are the criteria by which these are selected? A business school education typically takes 3-5 years to complete, so in order to provide students with skills that matches the future employers’ demands one would have to know the condition of labour market 3-5 years ahead. Admittedly many people engage in making these kinds of forecasts. But then again, few actually succeed.

Give me a job

Focusing on employability might hinder you in getting a job; Source: Sean MacEntee / Flickr under Creative Commons

At a conference in Oslo earlier this year, Sandbox co-founder Christian Busch gave a compelling argument against people who network to find solutions for their immediate challenges. Even though Busch’s discussion focused on networking, his basic points might provide some insight into the challenges of foreseeing the labour market situation years ahead.

His main argument was that when you work in an innovative environment, which most businesses today claim to do, you cannot know what qualifications and resources you need just two years down the road. The very nature of innovation means that if you are successful in what you are doing, you will be in a completely new situation in a couple of years. And as a consequence, you will be facing some challenges that you never even thought of.

Therefore, Busch claimed, you should not think of networking as a means to an end. Instead, you should engage in it simply because meeting new people is inspiring, a great way to challenge your own beliefs, and fun. The peculiar thing is that, according to Busch’s experiences, exactly by not focusing on whether the people you meet have immediate gains for you and your projects, your network will become far more valuable to you in the long run. By not focusing on getting access to particular competencies in your network, you will probably meet people with a wide array of skill-sets that will prove to be more valuable in addressing the complex challenges of the 21st century business environment.

Now, would this not apply to business school education as well? Keeping in mind that the same politicians who argue for the relevance of business school programmes also argue for the necessity of innovation to power growth, the comparison is probably not too farfetched. Business school programmes with a focus too narrow might run the risk of becoming obsolete as the business environment evolves. As innovation and disruption become the default for successful businesses, it becomes increasingly difficult to predict what specific skills will be sought after in the future.

Preparing professionals for business in the twenty-first century

Despite this seemingly paradoxical situation, politicians tend to second-guess which qualifications are needed in the future labour market and push business schools to implement measures in their programs that will push to teach students selected skills and tools. This way of thinking has unsurprisingly contributed to a somewhat tool-oriented teaching approach at business schools.

William Sullivan, co-author of the book Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education, did some extensive research on undergraduate business education in the US and found clear traits of this approach: “The programs (Undergraduate business education) were probably pretty effective in providing students with different kinds of tools they would need for employment in business. But they didn’t do a lot in enabling students to understand the role of business, for example, in society. They didn’t spend a lot of time enabling students to think critically and carefully about the kind of identity that they might want to assume, the kinds of roles they might want to play in business, in part because there was so little attention to the context of business itself. So our first big finding was to argue that that’s not good enough for higher education that’s going to prepare professionals for business in the 21st century in the global economy.”

This calls for new measures in business education. If business graduates are not prepared for doing business in the complexity of the 21st century global economy, they will most likely struggle to get any kind of employment, regardless of political interventions. Actually, this might already be the case for some. A participant at the Copenhagen workshop revealed that some organizations are not keen on hiring MBA’s as they generally are thought to be too superficial. What the organizations are looking for are graduates with a so called ‘real degree’, who can actually think for themselves. If business schools wish to educate the business professionals of tomorrow, they should maybe teach the students how to think – not just what to think.

The relevance of humanities

Achieving this, however, requires not only new teaching methods but also new curricula. Sullivan and his co-authors argue that humanities and liberal arts will prove valuable in these efforts. Humanities are, according to researcher Ellen O’Connor, about cultivating the person, and developing a moral compass, while understanding the problem of value, and the complexity of all this. Humanities are in other words somewhat all-encompassing of the human being and his or her role in society. It is exactly because of this that it can assist business graduates in obtaining a more nuanced and reflective approach to business and society.
This does, however, sound quite elusive. There are no concrete examples or measurable outcomes of the value of humanities. No one can really point to where humanities add some measurable value. There is yet to be presented a grand argument that once and for all can justify humanities role in business education, and its relevance to the labour market.

Nonetheless, the Vice-President at University of St. Gallen Ulrike Landfester is certain that it should play a central role in business education. At University of St. Gallen, all business majors must take courses in contextual studies as part of their studies, as it has been so for over 100 years. So, Landfester has some historical backing for her claim, with also confirmation shown by the satisfaction of University of St. Gallen alumni. Even though few students understand the value of contextual studies during the course of their education, Landfester explained, a couple of years after their graduation they report back that exactly these courses are the ones that have stuck with them and have proven most valuable to their professional careers.

Landfester is, partly because of this positive feedback, not afraid to credit the contextual studies program much of the reputation that the university has built, shown by its good ratings and high employment rates among graduates. She has no numbers to prove it, and she admittedly struggles to legitimize the contextual studies for the people who want to see a clear correlation between courses, skills, and relevance for the labour market – but she holds firm to her view.

A similar dilemma can reasonably be seen at the Business Administration and Philosophy program at Copenhagen Business School. This program is also under a lot of pressure to justify philosophy’s relevance at a business school, and its applicability to the labour market is constantly questioned. Still, Study Director Jacobsen could report that even during this time of high youth unemployment, the employment rate of the Business Administration and Philosophy graduates was an impressive 100 %.

Despite lacking measures for proving the value of humanities in business education, it seems that graduates who have in fact been educated in the humanities during their studies have no trouble either finding a job or acknowledging the relevance of humanities. Whether this comes down to humanities focus on the human being, its ability to tackle complex issues, the historical context of its subject matters, or maybe just pure coincidence, it at least suggests that thinking about employability afterall might not be the best way to get employed.

Featured image source: Sabrina Helmer, University of St. Gallen

This post is produced in partnership with GRASP Magazine and Student Reporter and part of our joint project on Humanities and the Social Sciences in Management Education, specifically covering the Carnegie Roundtable Workshop at Copenhagen Business School. 

Guest writer Kasper Worm-Petersen from Copenhagen, Denmark is studying MSc in Philosophy and Business Administration at Copenhagen Business School.  He is Co-founder and board member for GRASP Magazine.

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