Moving beyond the paper chase

A preoccupation with a formal qualification for its own sake has evoked fresh concern of late. Some attribute this to fear of a political backlash, should higher-paying jobs - not to mention jobs per se - elude a larger pool of graduates in the market, as the Government ramps up university enrolment for up to 40 per cent of each school cohort by 2020. Overcapacity is a sobering prospect considering the experience elsewhere - almost half of American college graduates are underemployed and China's so-called "ant tribes" number in the millions. Degrees are no passports to jobs in places like Taiwan or South Korea.

The destructive politics portended by such trends is an outcome no society can afford to ignore, but far more pressing is the larger economic consequences of a growing mismatch between taught skills and the workplace proficiencies demanded by employers. Yet human resource decision-makers still place a gilt-edged degree above real-world skills, the young see that paper as a ticket to the good life, and parents continue to cling to a worldview of scholars lording over skilled workers. It is such a perception gap as much as a skills gap that must be addressed.

The systemic weight of entrenched attitudes is not to be underrated. Academic snobbery, for example, is said to account for the need to improve the status of applied research in relation to theoretical research, and for the longing of institutes of technology to become universities. A de facto hierarchy that places academic degrees above skills-oriented diplomas can lead to misguided notions of the choices appropriate to nations and individuals.

A global hub needs know-how in transport, software, health care, social work and the arts. And a job seeker needs broad skills to acquire and evaluate information, a sense of self and society, as well as deep skills that can be applied in and adapted to the marketplace.

As crucial as the right mix is the presence of mentors who can enthuse the young, as well as internships to directly apply skills taught. Workers who had both were "twice as likely to be engaged with their work and thriving in their overall well-being", according to a Gallup researcher behind a revealing study of the links between education and long-term workplace success. Only one in five American graduates had such a mentor, and just one in 10 bosses strongly agreed graduates had the right skills. Yet almost all educators felt they were on song in preparing the young for the workplace. Fixing the "understanding gap" goes beyond schools. Society must value all work done well and with passion - what the Japanese refer to as shokunin. Embracing the spirit of such change means first letting go of the talismanic hold of paper.