Skills are more than the sum of school data; Business unfairly lambasts the education system and politicians for the ‘skills shortage’

February 24, 2014 4:35 pm

Skills are more than the sum of school data

By Andrew Hill

Business unfairly lambasts the education system and politicians for the ‘skills shortage’

Pisa stands for Programme for International Student Assessment. But judging from the reaction to the OECD rankings of educational attainment, it may as well mean Parental Index of Social Anxiety.

The latest analysis of the global league table showed that the 15-year-old children of Chinese janitors and street-sweepers were better at maths than the offspring of many other countries’ professionals and managers. The news added fuel to this week’s visit to Shanghai by a UK education minister, bent on finding the secret of local children’s success and replicating it at home.

But British concerns were reflected around the world, with telling local variants. Spain’s El Confidencial highlighted that Madrid’s teenagers were outperforming Catalonia’s. Corriere della Sera wondered why, against the grain of other countries, the children of Italian managers beat those of professionals, who have higher educational attainment. (If you will inherit the family law firm or accounting practice, you get lazy, suggested one OECD researcher).

Apart from a naive belief in data, which itself speaks ill of educational standards, obsession with the ranking shows how nervous we still are about management writer Peter Drucker’s 1995 observation that, in a knowledge society, “there are no excuses for non-performance. There will be no ‘poor’ countries. There will only be ignorant countries.” The same goes for business.

It is natural that the threat of being left behind should trigger a tiger-maternal instinctin parents and ignite a do-something attitude in ambitious policy makers. But I am less sympathetic to the business lobby’s knee jerk lambasting of schools and politicians for the “skills shortage”, as though they were dilatory suppliers of rivets, semiconductors or iron ore. Chief executives put “human capital” as their top priority this year and last year, according to the US Conference Board’s CEO Challenge study. But the very use of the term puts people in the same utilitarian category as inventory. The Pisa figures in fact reveal only a fraction of the education and skills problem.

In Germany there is a genuine shortage of the skilled industrial workers – the famedFacharbeiter – who keep local manufacturers’ production lines moving. But mostly, companies’ insistence that they should be able to source staff components instantly with the right attributes at the right price is both unrealistic and potentially counter-productive – particularly because companies themselves are not doing as much as they could to help.

A recent McKinsey study tried to shed light on the critical path between education and employment, in the same way the OECD has tried to illuminate school-system reform. One problem is that most companies fail to engage with educators. A 2013 survey by recruitment company Manpower found only 6 per cent of businesses were partners with local schools and colleges. The rest are missing an opportunity to shape students’ expectations, the courses they pursue and the enthusiasm with which they pursue them.

There are some oases in the wasteland where the jobless young are wandering. McKinsey identified graduate training provided by Wipro, the Indian IT group, whose operating businesses help develop the curriculum; Siemens’ tours of its gas-turbine facility in North Carolina for high-school students and their parents, to overcome their aversion to “factory work”; and SK Telecom’s (government-subsidised) provision of training resources to smaller enterprises in its South Korean supply chain.

But companies are often “willing to invest only in those specialised skills whose value they can fully capture”, which makes it impossible to develop large-scale solutions.

In-house training to meet new challenges is no panacea. In the 1980s, when Eastman Kodak realised digital and electronic image-making would eventually supersede its chemical photographic process, it ran a retraining programme for its chemists. But, former staff say, few of Kodak’s well-educated experts could adapt to the new technology.

Basic skills of numeracy and literacy are obviously essential for the workplace. But they are only a small part of what education is for. Truly ignorant companies obsess about plugging narrowly defined gaps in the current workforce to meet today’s requirements. They forget that the qualification they should really seek from candidates is a demonstrable flexibility to meet tomorrow’s demands.



About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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