Education and work

A conversation I had the other day with Toto, a 21-year-old high school graduate who could not find a job, got me to think about the nature of today’s basic education and our young people’s attitude toward work, as compared to that of my generation.

By the time I finished high school, I knew how to raise poultry and livestock, mix animal feeds, grow vegetables and ornamental plants, and do basic carpentry. Had I not been sent to university to learn a profession, I could have easily earned a living running a small farm.  The basic education I got was adequate and functional: It taught me not just how to cultivate and enrich my mind, but also how to use my hands to produce something of value. I was 15, and I remember being in a hurry to relieve my parents of the burden of having to spend for my needs.

Toto was 18 when he graduated from high school. I think it is the right age to start working and learning to become independent from one’s parents. But, though he was thirsting to work, Toto had a hard time finding somebody to hire him. He was repeatedly told he should learn a craft and get experience. Sensing that perhaps her son really needed more education, Toto’s mother dipped into her savings to enroll him in an automotive course. He dropped out after one teacher harshly berated him for doing a sloppy job.

A year later, his mother borrowed money to send him to another vocational institute for a course on practical nursing. Toto liked being in his white uniform and dreamed of working regularly in a hospital. But, when the course ended, the only opening available to people like him was for volunteers. He had no choice but to continue being a trainee without compensation. He quit because no one could tell him how long he had to wait before he would be hired as a regular aide. Toto’s mother now thinks that many of the private vocational schools that have proliferated in the provinces are nothing but elaborate rackets preying on the gullibility of desperate parents like her.

“Haven’t you heard of Tesda?” I asked her. Tesda, of course, stands for Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, and it is the agency of government that precisely seeks to respond to the persistent problem of young people who could not find work because they lack the skills and competencies needed by a diversified economy. “Tell Toto to go to the nearest Tesda office to ask for advice on how he could further improve himself so he could find a stable job that pays,” I told his mother, a house help in my brother’s household. “You shouldn’t be paying indefinitely for training that carries no clear assurance of a job,” I said, mindlessly echoing a belief that treats education mainly in terms of its exchange value.

The larger problem, as many see it, stems primarily from a mismatch between what the educational system prepares young people for, and the kind of jobs the economy offers. I, too, have always believed that a modern society must promote a coupling of the two systems—but without reducing education to a sheer tool of the economy. The kind of coupling that preserves the autonomy of education is, to my mind, only achievable with the active intervention and commitment of government. It is a task that cannot be left to individual families to figure out. They do not have the resources and the information needed to sort out this complex problem in the long term.

But this is exactly what happens when the state relinquishes to the market the bulk of its responsibility for the education of its citizens.  It is the business side of education that flourishes, rather than the development and transfer of useful knowledge and skills. When exchange value supplants use value, the worth of goods comes to be determined solely by what they can fetch in the market. Education is no exception. Not too long ago, a lot of our young people went into nursing not because they saw its value for the nation, but because they were lured into it by visions of high-paying jobs in foreign hospitals. Nursing schools mushroomed overnight, drawing precious talent and resources from the less marketable courses. All this came to an abrupt end when, hit by the economic crisis, the developed countries stopped hiring foreign nurses.

Today’s fixation is with the BPO or business process outsourcing industry. Better known as “call centers,” the rapidly expanding BPO companies have made hundreds of thousands of jobs available to young people who are barely out of college. The communication and computer skills required by call center work are quite rudimentary. The companies themselves offer in-house training to the people they hire.  But, except for the few who will rise to managerial positions, the industry does not offer the promise of stable engagement in which young people can grow. Call center agents are known to burn out quickly at work. Not surprisingly, employee turnover is fast.

Moreover, the BPO industry has no place for young people like Toto, whose English is poor. He tells me that he has recently applied for work as a “bagger” at a local supermarket. The pay is just enough to pay for tricycle fare and meals, but it is better, he says, than staying at home and doing nothing.

As I chatted with this amiable boy, I caught a glimpse of the lovely terraced garden that his older deaf-mute half-brother had wrought with his green thumb. An idea flashed in my mind: “Do you think you could work with your brother to propagate these plants from cuttings? I could help you sell them.” He smiled shyly, and I sensed right away that his mind was elsewhere. Producing something from the soil with his bare hands clearly did not figure in his dreams.

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