My Say: Tapping into young minds

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 4, 2019 - March 10, 2019.
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The employability of local graduates has always been a contentious issue in Malaysia. The fact that many of them are finding it hard to secure permanent jobs raises important questions. What can be effectively done to entice employers to hire them? What can these graduates do to send proper signals to the market about their respective potential, skill sets and abilities?

Many reasons have been put forth to explain their lack of appeal in the eyes of employers, for example, inadequate soft skills, lack of general knowledge and being too fussy in choosing jobs. But at a macro level, graduates in other countries seem to face the same problem. Indeed, global statistics indicate that it is a worldwide phenomenon.

For instance, the global youth jobless rate was estimated at about 13% last year, more than double the overall unemployment rate, which was around 5.5%. Among other Asian countries, it was reported that youth unemployment rates in Indonesia, China and India were in the region of 10% to 15% of the labour force. This does not include those who are underemployed — the group that receives less compensation than what they should be getting with their skill and education levels.

The scenario in Malaysia is not much different. The often-heard complaint among employers about young graduates is their lack of confidence and inability to express their thoughts (due to lack of English proficiency, for instance). Many are also not adequately aware of current issues, either locally or globally. This makes it difficult for them to provide critical opinions on current issues when asked to.

My personal experience in engaging with young foreign interns reinforces my belief that their education system has opened up doors for them to harness thoughtful opinions on subjects they are studying (mostly in economics, in my case). Students are trained and encouraged to offer their views, regardless of whether they make sense. They are regularly allowed to express themselves on various domestic and international economic issues. Their instructors will generally play the role of a good listener.

Students are then evaluated mostly on the creativity of their opinions, and not judged on whether they are right or wrong in formulating their arguments. Indeed, by making students feel comfortable in presenting even their most unconventional views, their creativity is enhanced to a point where they can actually offer solutions from perspectives that are not usually considered, even by their instructors.

This was highlighted to me by a young intern from London who temporarily assisted me in my research work a few years ago. Although I was not surprised by his vocal nature in giving economic opinions (as this is normally encouraged in foreign institutions of learning), I never realised how effective their education system is when introduced to students at the primary and secondary levels.

In my case, this young intern was even able to discuss complicated issues relating to the budgetary rules in European Union countries, arguing that it was inappropriate to impose a strict budget deficit rule when most countries were trying to get out of the euro crisis in 2012. And he was only a 17-year-old secondary-school student.

Can this style of education be replicated here? My experience in advising local education centres suggests that it is possible — with certain caveats, of course.

First, students should be made aware of important current developments relating to the subjects they study. In other words, universities and colleges should develop introductory courses that focus on current and pertinent domestic and global issues. It would be good if education centres make it mandatory for students to attend these courses.

Those in the field of economics, for instance, should be introduced to current developments in major economies such as the US, China, the eurozone and even Asian countries. Students should be encouraged to discuss their views on the US-China trade war, Brexit and China’s rising economic clout. On domestic issues, concerns over the rising cost of living and government budgetary plans can be deliberated on as well. These are issues that can often be examined from different perspectives. It would be interesting to see how young minds think.

By encouraging students to do simple research and present their views on current developments, they would be stimulated to think critically about issues surrounding them. In fact, they could provide fresh ideas on how to deal with current challenges without relying on mainstream ideas.

Of course, there are challenges in implementing such an introductory course. First, it is advisable that industry players be involved in developing such programmes. Professors and lecturers are normally bogged down in core teaching and administrative tasks, and thus may need assistance from industry practitioners to properly identify pertinent issues to be discussed with students. They may also be less familiar with detailed issues faced by different industries. In addition, their primary focus on publishing research papers would mean less time can be dedicated to these kinds of programmes.

Secondly, getting assistance from industry players to develop such programmes may prove to be difficult as they are normally too busy with their day-to-day tasks. Hence, it is unlikely that they will want to get involved, unless proper incentives are provided. Incentives should thus be offered to retired practitioners who, I imagine, would be keen to take on such a role.

Thirdly — and perhaps the most difficult — is that the role of the facilitators of such programmes and the way students are assessed should be clearly defined. Facilitators are there to mainly listen to the young minds. They are not supposed to be overly judgemental, though they may be equipped with vast knowledge and experience. Student views should be deemed as fresh approaches and perspectives to current issues.

My experience tells me that experienced instructors would normally be tempted to share their thoughts on whether students are right or wrong in making their arguments. This is hardly surprising, as they are very experienced in their own fields. However, it is worthwhile to consider being open to different perspectives, as this can help them see beyond mainstream ideas — something that we badly need in our society.

Perhaps such programmes can be incorporated into industry-linked efforts currently pursued by many universities and colleges. They may also help foster closer relationships between academia and the industry.

Nor Zahidi Alias is chief economist at Malaysian Rating Corp Bhd. The views expressed here are his own.

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