22 SES 09 E, Employability and Competences
While it is widely understood that post-secondary education prepares young people to join the labor force of a nation, the degree to which competencies of fresh graduates are aligned with the demands of the labor market remains an open question. Part of this education-employment asymmetry arises from the lack of credible information about the evolving needs of employers in a rapidly changing globalized economy. Partly, it is also the misinformed view of labor market needs held by graduating students. The objective of our proposed research is to examine how post-secondary students’ views of employable skills align with those of employers who are active in Kyrgyz labor market. Specifically, we seek to understand how the students prioritize ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ skills differentially in the current educational and employment context of the country.
While technological advances have created whole new employment sectors and allied industries world-wide, rise of machine learning and artificial intelligence also threatens to robotize many of the traditional jobs performed by humans. Indeed, in an interconnected and interdependent globalized economy, with globally distributed systems of production and consumption of goods and services, entire sectors of industry may relocate to a different part of the world almost overnight. These forces create great pressure for employers and education institutions – demanding from the latter continuous adaptations to rapidly changing economic, political, cultural and social environments.
As human capital becomes a key differentiator between winners and losers in a globalized knowledge economy, the quality and efficiency of education systems in producing employable graduates for the 21st century jobs becomes all the more significant. One particularly important area, often neglected in education sector policies – particularly in post-Soviet Central Asia – is soft skills. While hard skills are typically understood as technical or content knowledge in a discipline or field, soft skills refer to a whole range of social and psychological attributes that enable individuals to succeed in workplace (and indeed in life). Closely associated with non-cognitive skills, soft skills encompass a whole array of attributes and skills, including: communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving skills, teamwork and cultural sensitivity, empathy and conflict management skills, ability to thrive in a culturally diverse workforce, time-management skills, entrepreneurial drive, ethics and leadership, among others. Nobel laureate economist James Heckman’s contribution in establishing the economic evidence on benefits of soft skills for labor force is noteworthy here (Heckman & Kautz 2012). It is argued that as proliferation of robots and “intelligent machines” replace much of the work done by today’s workforce; soft skills will become the key attribute for succeeding in the 21st century knowledge economy (Hirsch 2017, Martin 2018).
The overarching research question driving our study can be formulated as follows:
To how do college students’ notions of employable skills align with those of employers who are active in Kyrgyz labor market?
Within this broad inquiry, we will seek to answer the following sub-questions:
- Sub-question 1: What knowledge, skills, attitudes and values do students perceive as important for securing their employment after completion of college education?
- Sub-question 2: What knowledge, skills, attitudes and values do employers in Kyrgyz labor market look for in their new employees graduating fresh out of higher education institutions?
- Sub-question 3: To what extent do the perceptions of the students align with the articulated priorities of the employers - specifically with regards to soft skills? What variations, if any, exist in the degree of alignment?
The proposed study will employ a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods. Research Design: We will use a purposive sampling strategy to ensure that students in our sample represent different disciplinary backgrounds and attend universities - both public and private - in the north and south, which have distinctive social and cultural ethos. Specifically, data will be collected in the capital city of Bishkek in North, and the city of Osh in the South. Effort is being made to include universities that vary in academic reputation and infrastructural resources, and which enroll students from diverse ethnic, linguistic and socio-economic backgrounds. We will also strive to maintain a gender balance in the total number of student respondents by institution types. As for employers, we will cluster the employers into 4 or 5 sectoral groups – and identify around 7 or 8 key informants for each group. With each group of employers we will then conduct a focus group discussion. Thus while not claiming to be comprehensive, we will at least make sure that our cross-section of employers is categorically robust, and that it is reflective of Kyrgyzstan’s contemporary labor market. Instrumentation and Analysis: Our student questionnaire will contain three broad sections. The first section will capture the individual profile of the respondent, including his / her socio-economic status, post-secondary institution, discipline of study, preferred occupation, and social network. The second section will contain cross-nationally validated items that were used by the World Bank to assess non-cognitive attributes of the individual respondents (Cunningham & Villaseñor 2014). These items will be adapted for the Kyrgyz context. Factor analysis techniques will be used for this section of the student surveys to examine the relationship between observed indicators and unobserved latent factors and to reduce measurement errors. Finally, the third section will explicitly ask the respondents to prioritize a range of soft and hard skills in relation to their career and employment aspirations. Analysis of variance (ANOVA) will be used to test for differences in the mean responses between participants of different groups (for example, gender, field of study, type of institution, socio-economic status. north-south location and so forth). When it comes to employers, the items from the third section of the Student Questionnaire will be reframed for discussion in the Focus Groups. The qualitative data from employer focus group discussions will be coded and analyzed using MaxQDA.
As our main research question and sub-questions suggest, the scope of our proposed research is to develop a nuanced, evidence-based understanding of what the local job market – intertwined with the globalized economy - demands of higher education in Central Asia, and the extent to which those demands are understood by the students themselves in Kyrgyz higher education institutions. higher education The three hypotheses that we aim to test, also indicate the kind of results we are expecting to find: • Hypothesis 1: Overall, students from higher education institutions in Kyrgyzstan prioritize hard skills over soft skills. • Hypothesis 2: Overall, students from private universities attach more importance to soft skills than do students in public universities. • Hypothesis 3: Overall, employers attach more importance to soft skills than do students. Our own experience as teaching and research faculty in the higher education space of Kyrgyzstan has led us to believe that a strong disciplinary orientation dominates the competency discourse of Kyrgyzstan. We argue that such a situation persists as a direct legacy of the Soviet education system, and in turn prevents the soft skills from attaining a higher priority in the minds of both students and their employers. We posit that such a situation, if found true, would also underscore the lack of advising and counselling services in the higher education institutions of Central Asia. As the first empirical study of its type, we expect our research to put a renewed focus on these often neglected areas of higher education in Central Asia– academic advising and career guidance More specifically, we hope our study to inform the Erasmus + channels of European university collaboration in Central Asia for building higher education capacity
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