Erasing the “bright red dividing line” between education and work

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education

Central to the OECD Skills Strategy, which was released last week, is the idea that developing people’s skills and ensuring that those skills are used effectively on the job is everybody’s business—governments, employers, employees, trade unions and students. So who better to discuss the business of skills development than a business leader? Phil O’Reilly, Chief Executive of Business NZ, New Zealand’s largest business advocacy group, was in Paris this week to attend the OECD Forum. Calling the Strategy “an immaculate document” that “points out the complexity of what we’re dealing with”, O’Reilly makes a strong case for the importance of developing “soft” skills in today’s global labour market. “We all obsess about mathematics and science skills,” he says, “but cultural skills do matter.”

What do today’s employers look for in prospective employees? According to O’Reilly, businesses want good citizens working for them. “People who can read and add and think critically—and who can also act accordingly, like by voting; or getting up to give a seat to an older woman: that shows courtesy and the ability to think of others. Even showing up at a demonstration: that shows passion.”

These “soft” skills, defined as emotional intelligence, the ability to work in a team, and to communicate effectively, are largely taught by parents and by communities. While O’Reilly calls “hard” skills—literacy, numeracy, skills in using information and communication technologies, and what are called STEM skills (those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics)—the “ticket to ride” for today’s employees, “those skills will only be considered as good as the ability of someone to use them effectively in a particular place at a particular time,” he says. “Employees with both hard and soft skills are highly valued.”

For many people right now—young people just starting out in the labour market, or older workers who, for one reason or another, have not participated in the workforce for a while—just getting that first—or new—job is a struggle. O’Reilly suggests that these transitions can be eased dramatically if employers, governments and education systems work together to “break down the bright red dividing line between compulsory education and work.“ That can be accomplished, he says, by creating “pathways” between the two worlds, in the form of internships and apprenticeships. “We need to get students and employers to rub up against each other intellectually,” he says. “We need to narrow the gap between the end of compulsory education and the next experience”, whether that is work or continuing education or training, “because skills will deteriorate if we don’t.”

Information is crucial. The idea is not to tell students what to do, but to “give them and their parents information about what they need to do to get to where they want to be,” whether that is becoming an architect or a plumber. “We need to make sure students have enough information so that they can make an informed choice.”

In short, he says, “policy makers and businesses need to be talking about skills needs so that employers and workers are at the centre of the system, rather than being victims of the system.”


Photo credit: Office corridor /Shutterstock

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