Davos delegates call for university-to-job schemes

When 2,500 global leaders met in Davos last week, one open agenda session asked – “Unemployed or Unemployable?” The discussants called for more flexibility in the transfer from higher education to work.

“Globally, there is a need to create 600 million productive jobs over the next decade, and the number of university graduates is higher than ever before, yet businesses are struggling to find skilled talent to hire,” said the programme.

“How can this gap be bridged? Is the education system at fault, or are the unemployed? Is unemployment high because of economic policy?”

Professor Peter Cappelli of Wharton illustrated the mismatch between graduate numbers and skills shortages by asking if anyone on the panel or in the audience personally knew a person who was currently unemployed.

Several panel and audience members raised their hands – among them Capelli, who has a son who is jobless, and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. There was resonance to the situation in Finland in the early 1990s, when everybody knew somebody who was out of work.

Sweden’s Reinfeldt said only 2.5% of low-income jobs in Sweden demanded little education, compared to an OECD average of 17%, making it difficult for young people to land their first job. Mobility must also be considered, he added – in Sweden, 1% of the population comes from Iraq – exacerbating the unemployment problem.

Nafez Al Dakkak, a Yale University graduate who is now strategist in Jordan, said he had filed 25 applications for jobs when he graduated and was interviewed for only two of them. Being unemployed had been humbling and demoralising. “Having such a great education, I had no idea that finding a job could be so hard.”

Kris Gopalakrishnan of Infosys in India said that when that country’s business sector could not find the graduates they needed from local universities, companies developed training programmes and linkages themselves.

This, he contended, had helped to create 2.5 million information technology jobs in India in the past two decades.

A lot of discussions focused on apprenticeship arrangements. Switzerland, Germany and Denmark were mentioned as best-practice countries.

Prime Minister Reinfeldt said that Sweden they had not managed to develop a successful apprenticeship system, and that he intended to meet with businesses in Switzerland while in the country to gain knowledge about its apprenticeship system.

Guy Ryder, director general of the International Labour Organisation, described joblessness as a process of “learned helplessness”. One third of young people in Europe who are out of a job, have been so for more than six months, “so we can talk about a lost generation”, he said.

“I think we have to emphasis skills mismatches, but I have an impression that employers are getting extremely demanding in the global market, and this can be understood when you get 2,500 applications for a position. But they should not forget their social responsibility.”

Sharan Burrow, secretary general of the International Trade Union Confederation in Brussels said that the mismatch issue was over-dimensioned in the panel discussion, and that too few governments produced job planning schemes or monitored how candidates meet job market needs.

Jamie McAuliffe of Education for Employment said graduates in the Middle East often had too-high expectations of what kind of work they were qualified for. They were often at risk of never entering the job market because they realised too late that they had waited to long to obtain a job.

He said graduates should not be afraid of entering lower-graded jobs in order to acquire work experience. McAuliffee is retraining 3,000 graduates across six countries in the Middle East, and is now working to upscale the programme.

Participants in the session agreed that the green economy could be a new motor for growth and jobs – but several said they did not know whether universities were responding to the challenge.

Higher education was echoed in other panels at Davos, and former Harvard vice-chancellor Lawrence Summers said: “Education, intellect and character are necessary to have a niche in the world. Figure out your distinctive niche”.

* The open forum was streamed over internet, and is available at the World Economic Forums website here.