Columns

The overqualified worker and zero-hours contracts

Franklin JOHNSTON

Friday, May 16, 2014    

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WHEN an employer says you are "overqualified" it is no compliment; he is sending a message "you may have degrees but are not fit to be employed" often due to a mismatch of diplomas, degrees and personal abilities or the "can-do" spirit.

The challenge to the education system is to produce persons with viable competencies, work ethics and values. Education is the best investment an individual can make as it yields lifelong dividends and is an investment in self to empower, improve quality and life extension. So how might the tag "overqualified" apply to the graduates of our education system?

Education has lifted many of the poor to riches, and from ignorance to erudition in one generation. The tragedy is 90 per cent attend school yet few pass exams and fewer are educated. Education is not the same as exam passes or degrees. Degreed people may be poorly educated as we see daily. A diploma on the wall is good, but education is embedded -- it's you.

For eons we were educated by intercourse of elder and youth, mentor and novice, teacher and learner. The most important in the teaching/learning space is the teacher. No student attributes his success to the bursar, cook, classroom, or computer; so who stands up when students are not fit to sit exams, uneducated and end up broken adults? To be overqualified begins early when the majority can't perform at the level of the class they sit in. Who put them there? Yet, Grade 1 are not at Grade 1 level, those taking CSEC not at CSEC level right to degree level. To be overqualified may mean the diploma is devalued as the person does not have the expected competence.

Does school foster this mismatch? We assess school on outcomes-paper diplomas and personal accomplishment, aka education. An honorary degree is an affirmation of proven competence all others are a post hoc promise, most broken. Education begins at the early childhood level; when kids explore, discover, lay foundations, and need no push. It is a misnomer to call the facilitator of infant learning a "teacher" as it leads parents to expect pedagogy when early years are experiential, a journey; discovery of self, others, sensible quantities, and how things work. The pedagogue arrives at primary school, affirms competence in English, and opens the portal to complexity -- brain, emotion, doing; analysis, the "why", to induce, deduce, reduce. Then at secondary level it all blooms; how to manage emotions and a focus on a productive, fun life to come. When kids are promoted without acquiring grade-level competencies the seed of incompetence or "overqualification" is sown. The system is not geared for remediation; tragedy ahead!

Qualification is a marker. People acquire diplomas for cash or "honoris causa" or by study, sacrifice and exams. A diploma means terms were met not competence. A school should guarantee 80 per cent good exam passes and 70 per cent educated students. This does not happen now, so the Ministry of Education targets all students to leave school with a marketable skill. A student will have one thing he can do well. His diploma will be in sync with his competence and employers will not yell "overqualified!" when he shows.

So what is education? Mastery of literacies (social, financial, emotional, physical, etc) for progressive complexity. Job #1 of school is to enable mastery of English. In early years mobility of jaws, cheeks, tongue, orifice; control of larynx to inhale, exhale, utter diverse sounds is the beginning of wisdom. Job #2 is to nurture a spirit of inquiry. Parents go crazy by the "why? Why? WHY?" of their infants, unrelenting, implacable. Do not inhibit the "why", just channel it to answers that are in books and on the Internet. Many educated persons have no diplomas, but "please" and "thank you", how to reset a breaker, think through problems, model who uses English properly, are small items but big markers of good education.

Last week's banner over Karyl Walker's piece in the Observer hollered "Few jobs, hundreds of applicants". The heroine of the piece, denied a job in a fast food outlet, avers "Dem say mi overqualified" and was baffled. Overqualification starts early as students move up despite their incompetence. School may yield to parent pressure, teacher incompetence, or board laxity, but the job market is the acid test and brings all their devices to naught.

The education system trains people for the private sector; remind me, how many of the cohort of 40,000 do the civil service employ? To be overqualified may be having the papers but no skill and symptoms as arrogance, avoidance of hands-on work, "attitude", and sense of entitlement means values in the "Respect Agenda" got a blow. Employers spot this. Some feel many diplomas affect work rate and openness to strenuous work, so they choose malleable persons with fewer papers who are realistic, less mobile, and will not jump ship readily. Being "overqualified" is often a raft of things, not just the diploma, but a "can do" spirit goes a long way. Students who are not bound for academia should choose competency-based courses -- you will not only know how but you can do.

Zero hours contract

The zero hours contract (ZHC) is new jargon in the UK labour market. It is born out of flexi-time, high unemployment and is gaining ground. It may soon be here as the classic pre-conditions exist -- minimum wage, activist unions, a large jobless cohort so demand is soft and wage rates would normally fall. Critics say the ZHC exploits workers as they do not have a set job, set hours or set pay and the company holds the cards. It gives employers a lien on quality workers who are highly productive when they choose to work; they can control costs and deliver predictably priced products to consumers -- win win!

The ZHC is convenient for many workers. They get a contract to supply zero hours, the rate is agreed, they work on demand, have flexibility, and time to do other things. Some feel it is like apprenticeship as they got a chance to show their skills and vie for a permanent job if they wish. This may suit many of our workers who do not like sustained effort but want cash at intervals and those who hustle a lot may find a ZHC suits their lifestyles. The ideal of one job for life is no longer on offer and we need to explore all models of work to get production and productivity up. ZHC may drive wages down, but not for long as productivity rises when people work to their own rhythm. Stay conscious, my friend.

Dr Franklin Johnston is a strategist, project manager and advises the minister of education. franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com

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