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Innovation, education and thinking outside the skills matching box

May 2nd, 2011 by Graham Attwell

The second verse of the great Pete Seeger song ‘Little Boxes‘, written by Malvina Reynolds goes:

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there’s doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And of course it is true. More than that, it is the policy on which most of our careers guidance practice is based. Find what skills industry and commerce needs, goes the policy, set up training places to meet those needs, put people into those boxes and we will turn out a neat match between skills and the needs of the economy.The strategy is called ‘skills matching’ and forms the basis for the European New Skills, New Jobs policy as well as that of many national governments.

Universities traditionally stood aloof from such a policy which they saw only as applicable to those in vocational education and training. Univeristy was about the development fo minds and about research.

But with the increasing commodification of universities, they too are embracing such a strategy, in the name of value for money and employability. Students are reluctant to part with large sums of money unless they can see a job progression route for their expenditure on a degree course; governments regard vocational relevance as the key criteria in providing fiances for higher education.

The only problem is that the ‘Little Boxes’ approach doesn’t work. Firstly employers often don’t know what skills they want. take the fiasco at the end of the last century when the European Industry Group for Information and Communication Technologies was predicting huge skills gaps in computing and computer programming. These gaps never materialized despite little growth in the supply to computer programmers. Secondly we simply do not have sufficiently well developed central planning infrastructures to plan for skills and employment in such a way.

This is not to deny the needs for close community links between employers and education providers, at least on a local level. However this should not be to the detriment of other community interests in education and community well being. And rather than focus on skills matching, it would be far better to focus attention on creativity and innovation. If we look at regional innovation centres in Europe such as the manufacturing clusters in Emilia Romana or the media cluster in Cardiff it could be argued that such growth happened due to innovation around the skills and creativity of the workforce, rather than because of matching of skills to existing industry (indeed in Cardiff’s case the economy was traditionally based on heavy industry and manufacturing).

In any case is it possible to ‘predict’ the skills needed int he economy in a period of fast technological change? The Institut Technik und Bildung at Bremen University, with whom I have worked for many years used to talk of the ‘shaping’ principle. They saw education as playing a key role in shaping work organisation and skills development as enabling social innovation in production and economic development. The word ‘shaping’ is a translation of the German ‘Gestaltung’, also commonly translated as ‘design’. And once more this would suggest we can design our futures, that technology and production are not mechanistically determined but rather can be shaped or changed.

But for such an approach we need people who can think out of the box, who can consider the social implications of technology development. And that will not happen through a skills matching policy!

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