For the last five years, as a part of my work in two different organisations, I've been on panels that select and hire new employees. At both places, I've been struck by how much discussion there is about a candidate's education and experience or lack thereof, and how little about the candidate's skills, as in what the person can actually do.
In the national conversation about creating jobs, there is a stronger emphasis on setting up more BBA and BBS colleges and more universities which award degrees in specialised-sounding, if of dubious value, subjects. Indeed, in the last one year alone, people in eastern and far western Nepal have actually rioted to pressurise the government to establish universities in their areas.
All this is not surprising. A bias that is firmly entrenched in our minds from the era of the failed New Education Reform Plan of 1971 is that we continue to equate, both socially and culturally, the act of acquiring an education in a formal setting with the act of acquiring skills that the modern workplace demands. This equation was certainly true 20 or 40 years ago, when there were fewer educated Nepalis who had their choice of jobs.
To be sure, times have changed and have become more complex. But it is in this complexity that the old equation is less true today. There are now millions of educated Nepalis with skills that are similar to what thousands, if not millions, of other people have. These skills are neither unique nor advanced, nor particularly valuable for employers, inside and outside of Nepal, to start hiring applicants by offering high wages.
Indeed, thanks in part to the internet which offers free courses on just about any skill one wants to be good at, and in part to the stories of drop-outs who have done well for themselves in today's skill-driven national and global economy, the overlap between the two circles – one of educational attainment and the other of skill-sets that the evolving job market values – has gotten smaller and smaller, and is likely to further diminish in the coming years.
This is not the narrative we hear during talks about creating jobs through foreign investments, as though investors would easily find idly-sitting skilled manpower when they come here to set up businesses. Formal education is important, and with 70 per cent literacy rate (according to Nepal Living Standards Survey 2011), we should continue to raise the importance of schooling.
But educating people and attracting investments alone will not help create jobs when the neglected discussion is still about raising our collective skills (increasingly complex abilities with which one can complete a task in demand) which actually lead to and generate high-paying jobs inside and outside Nepal. Businesses, after all, pay more to acquire skills, and not so much to acquire education.
This is why, in New Nepal, we need to have consciously skill-centric focus on creating and sustaining jobs for most people. These skills could be about plumbing, carpentry, bakery, and the like on one hand, and about being medical, dental and hydropower technicians on the other.
For this, the government needs to look for ways to raise the importance of institutions such as CTEVT by offering more funds, by facilitating their linkages with reputed foreign counterparts, and by making it easier for any interested party to start and run accredited technical and vocational institutes in places in Nepal where there is demand. It is Nepalis with skills to sell to the market who will help make their families, their communities and their country prosperous.
Past Strictly Business columns