Dr. Senthil Nathan co-founded and leads Edu Alliance Ltd, Abu Dhabi – a boutique management consultancy for education. In the past 10 years, he has consulted for 30+ universities and helped establish a few new universities. The client list includes several leading universities in the region. He has 30+ years of experience in university academic and administrative leadership and in civil engineering. He is a co-founder of EdTech company Edorer Inc., San Francisco. Prior to Edu Alliance, for over two decades, he was part of a core leadership team that developed the Higher Colleges of Technology, UAE from a simple beginning to become the largest university in the nation with 20,000+ students and 17 campuses. He served as its Deputy Vice-Chancellor for several years. As a dean, he introduced 30 degree programs aligned with the needs of the UAE industry. He has a Ph.D. in Engineering (Rice University, Houston), MSc (IISc, Bangalore), and executive education from Harvard and MIT.
I got in touch with my alumni class three decades after we graduated from our college. And when I reflected on the career progression of my classmates in these decades, I was surprised to see a vast disconnect between those who were successful in their studies and those who had excelled in their careers. Reasons for this “success gap” could be quite complex and multi-pronged. But one important reason is that many education systems “reward our students for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness” (to quote Prof. Sugata Mitra) whereas the real world does just the opposite. Many higher education systems globally do not encourage students in risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and innovation, though many do lip service to these attributes. Most of the college graduates are thus sent out of campuses ill-prepared to face the reality of the workplace.
Interestingly, this gap between real-world skills and graduate outcomes exists even in top research universities. Most of the professors in these research universities have never worked in the “real” world. Hence, these universities often produce basic researchers even at the undergraduate level, in the image of the professors who design and deliver the courses.
Exceptional individuals such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Ralph Lauren, Larry Ellison, Azim Premji, Steven Spielberg, Gautam Adani, and Michael Dell (all college dropouts) showcased their inherent aptitude for innovation outside the campus boundaries and without the benefit of university education. Millions of graduates around the world face the same challenge but do not always get the opportunities to demonstrate their innate talents in their social environments.
A recent study done by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann makes a disturbing conclusion, “Two-thirds or more of the world’s young people fail to reach the minimum skill levels required to compete in the international economy. These deficits are found worldwide but are most severe in the poorest countries”. Not only the fresh college and school graduates are impacted by this skills gap, but also more than half of all employees around the world need to upskill or reskill soon to embrace new responsibilities driven by automation and new technologies, according to the World Economic Forum.
The skills gap has been stubbornly growing over the past decades but is being magnified to an alarming extent in the age of Industry 4.0. I could relate to this skills gap personally. When I completed my higher education, I had 11+ years of university education from some of the best academic institutions in the world. However, I learned much more about my specialization in my first year of work as a structural engineer at one of the pre-eminent engineering consulting companies in the USA than from the previous 11 years of higher education put together. My line manager, the smartest engineer I have ever come across, truly understood and taught me the macro and the micro aspects of engineering design. The three years I spent at that firm helped me thrive in my career for the next three decades. That led me to ponder why our universities cannot emulate such a powerful learning environment that I experienced at that company.
Since then, I have been passionately trying to bridge the gap between academia and industry. I had the privilege of helping introduce 30+ degrees that were custom-designed for specific industries in the UAE. We took the entry-level job description of relevant professionals in these companies and reverse-engineered the curriculum to ensure that our graduates have the required entry-level skills. To validate the curriculum, we incorporated a one-month work experience as a core-requirement at the end of every year of these programs and refined the programs from the feedback of the line supervisors in the industry. This process also helped the companies to refine their own induction programs and their expectations of fresh graduates. To deliver such “applied programs”, we recruited professors with a minimum of 5 years of industry experience.
Much more can be done, must be done.
Universities must establish effective industry-advisory committees to advise them on the curriculum design and delivery of respective programs; and offer co-op programs in which students spend alternate semesters in industry and in academia as part of their undergraduate education. Stackable credentials, providing systematic and lifelong learning pathways to working professionals such as service industry staff or technicians, may be offered in collaboration with regional employers at convenient times and delivery modes. This will minimize the challenges faced by such professionals in their career development paths. Universities must have robust and timely processes to rationalize programs no longer needed and to introduce new programs in response to current industry demand.
The governments must demand this kind of close collaboration between academia and industry through policies and tax incentives.
Businesses have pragmatic resource limitations to accept many student interns. However, businesses must try their best to accommodate internships and co-op programs; participate wholeheartedly in program advisory committees; and fund tailor-made programs for universities to develop a small number of needed professionals.
All sides must try their best. Why?
The skills gap exacts a heavy price on countries and their social fabric: bulging youth unemployment and underemployment is a common challenge across all developing economies. Some of these young people exert their energies in negative areas and disruptive behaviors. 65% of the population in the MENA region is under the age of 30, and it is home to one of the world’s largest youth populations. Unfortunately, in 2022, a staggering one-third of 15–24-year-olds are jobless and not involved in education, exceeding the global average by 10%.
The digital skills gap comes at a cost. According to RAND/Salesforce, fourteen G20 countries could miss out on $11.5 trillion cumulative GDP growth. PwC projects that by 2030, the talent shortage and skills gap in the U.S. alone is expected to total a loss of $8.5 trillion. The startling projection of 85.2 million unfilled positions globally by 2030 underscores the gravity of the skills gap crisis.
I find that many stakeholders complain a lot about this skills gap but do little about addressing it. Corporate leaders seem to be content to develop their own induction and training programs rather than forging effective collaborations with select universities. The reluctance of universities is from ignorance or apathy of academics, lack of interest in their graduates’ success, and their bubble existence.
And sadly, the primary stakeholders, the students (and parents) are often oblivious to these issues while they are choosing their programs and universities. They consider university ranking over graduate placement data when they make their choices. In countries with massive higher education markets, there is often a sheep mentality in choosing program majors. Students do not focus sufficiently on their own skill development. If they vote with their feet on which universities they choose, then the universities may wake up to their responsibilities.
Next to political and economic factors, the skills gap is the major reason for unemployment and resulting social ills around the world. And this is growing to be THE issue of this decade as the AI revolution sets into the workplace. The time for collective action from academia, industry, governments, and students is NOW.