Saving “generation jobless”: is it too late?

Unemployed, idle and over-educated: is this what our kids have come to? Photo: AFRA group of journalism students took my undergraduate university course on entrepreneurship and innovation. They were bright, creative, fun to teach and strong communicators. What a pity most will never work in a newsroom, such is the pressure on media companies to cut costs.

How many other university disciplines educate far more students than needed? How many marketing students are needed as technology drastically cuts marketing costs? How many graduate accountants, lawyers or technology students will be needed as firms outsource work offshore?

How many PhD students will find work as full-time academics as the Federal government cuts university funding and if massive open online courses reshape higher education?

Will there be a point where the supply of university graduates exceeds demand by so much that students no longer see sufficient value in spending three of four years at university, racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, and finding their degrees count for less upon graduation?

And what will happen to a potential glut of university graduates in certain industries?

I thought about this issue while reading The Economist’s excellent report on global youth unemployment, or “generation jobless”. It reported OECD figures showing more young people are idle than ever and that the number without a job has risen by 30 per cent since 2007.

Thankfully, Australia’s labour market is stronger than most. But even here the number of teenage males (aged 15 to 19) looking for full-time work was 23.9 per cent in March 2013, up from 21.8 per cent a year earlier, latest Australian Bureau of Statistic labour force data shows. It was 29.8 per cent for females.

The graduate recruitment market has also deteroriated slightly. Earlier this year, Graduate Careers Australia reported 12.5 per cent of employers it surveyed recruited no graduates in 2012, up from 10 per cent a year earlier. About one in four students with bachelor degrees available for full-time employment had not found work within four months of graduation.

The good news: less than 3 per cent of university graduates overall were unemployed, although it is not clear whether their employment was commensurate with years of education and hefty tuition costs. How many young people spend $30,000 on a degree and end up in jobs that do not require one, or are forced to work part-time?

The big concern is a deteriorating teenage unemployment market, which arguably deserves more media attention, and a soft graduate recruitment market, while annual economic growth is a respectable 3.1 per cent, inflation, and interest rates and overall unemployment are low.

Heaven help our teenage and graduate recruitment markets if economic growth deteriorates, companies more aggressively cut costs, or new technologies lead to some graduate jobs disappearing. It would be an economic and social catastrophe to have so many young people sit idle.

One can’t blame universities alone for the soft graduate market, as companies cut costs. Surely, if there is a strong demand for university courses such as journalism, universities should supply that education. Nobody forces students to take university courses for fields that have uncertain long-term job prospects.

Two bigger issues are at play. First, we have conditioned students to believe a full-time university degree is the best pathway to career success. Media professionals with longer memories will recall some of the industry’s best were cadets with no formal university training. Many started doing basic admin, learned on the job, worked their way up, and became great editors.

I like how trades combine on-the-job and formal training. For example, a family member has an apprenticeship at a mining company and studies part-time. He loves it. Full-time work straight after school provides on-the-job-training and income, and formal part-time study complements that knowledge. He is in the workforce, rather than sitting on the sidelines waiting for a turn.

Yet so many professions have “outsourced” the training of young people to universities, expecting the higher-education sector to provide ready-made graduates who can step straight into corporate jobs.

Corporate Australia must get more involved if it wants universities to produce the right volume of graduates, with the right skills, to cope with huge structural change in some industries.

Better still, our largest companies could deliver formal training and qualifications to staff that are recognised industry-wide. As The Economist reported, more multinationals are revamping their training programs, in part to close the gap between business and higher education. Australian business should watch this trend closely.

Working on their own, or with the university sector, our largest corporations could offer corporate-branded graduate courses. A Commonwealth Bank Master’s of Applied Finance (with accreditation from a university partner), anybody? How about a BHP Billiton Bachelor Degree in Mining Engineering for young BHP workers.

My guess is such degrees would make these employers even more attractive to the best and brightest students, aid retention and be a significant point of difference among employers.

Perhaps media companies desperate to find new revenue sources could educate thousands of journalism students (through mostly online training), rather than see tens of millions of dollars in fees go the higher-education sector to train our next generation of media professionals.

Only a handful might gain full-time employment at the media company with which they train, but a three-year accredited degree from a leading newspaper, with on-the-job education (and by-lines), is a better learning experience that three years in university classrooms – and would have higher industry recognition in my view.

By “insourcing” more graduate training, companies could provide tailored education, reduce education costs, get young people into the workforce faster, pick the best talent for full-time work after assessing them for a few years, and find new revenue streams by leveraging their intellectual property into the higher-education market. These are degrees designed and taught by companies, in conjunction with universities.

Yes, a corporate degree does not have the same cache as a university one. Purists would argue a corporate qualification is not independent, possibly narrowly framed, and not underpinned by academic research. Or tacky and too commercial. Surely corporates could partner universities to create corporate-branded diplomas or degrees with genuine academic rigour – and in turn create new revenue streams for a high-education sector under intense funding pressure.

As bachelor degrees become less valuable over time, and as more emphasis is placed on skills, knowledge and training, corporate-branded education – not short courses, but full diplomas, bachelor or postgraduate courses — could achieve significant recognition across industry, provided it is well-structured and well-regarded among its participants.

Corporate “campuses” are much more prevalent in the US. Look at the success of companies, such as McDonald’s, that have extensive in-house training and fast-track outstanding twentysomething managers to run multi-million-dollar franchises. How many universities do that?

We’ll never solve the problem of teenage unemployment and safeguard our graduate recruitment market if we rely only on governments and the not-for-profit sector. Corporate Australia needs to get more involved, bring more education back in-house in conjunction with universities, and close the gap between training and the labour market for young people.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on 苏州美睫培训.