02 January 2007

The Belly of the Business Beast

Last Dec. 4, I found myself in the belly of the beast, so to speak, from the point of view of educators. I spoke at the widely-advertised “Tripartite Summit on Higher Education,” sponsored by the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines, at the RCBC Plaza in Makati City, Philippines.

I knew that I was asking for trouble by opening with a deliberately provocative statement. I had spoken to business groups before, but this was the first time I had an audience that could actually do something about one of my advocacies. I decided to do a Manny Pacquiao.

Here is the text of my speech (though it suffers from the absence of the powerpoint presentation, that gave the statistics in graphic and startling form). I entitled my speech "Three Fingers."

I know that you asked me here to talk primarily of the Far Eastern University (FEU)-ePLDT linkage allowing graduating FEU students to take a course called “Call Center Fundamentals” in preparation for employment in the ePLDT call centers, namely Vocativ and Parlance. I will talk a little bit about that tie-up in a moment, but first, I want to get something off my chest right away.

Every time the so-called mismatch is discussed about what education supplies and what industry demands, industry always points a finger at education, saying, “It is your fault.” You all know what pointing a finger means. It means that one finger is pointing at education and three fingers are pointing back at industry. I say now to you that, yes, education is to blame for the mismatch, but industry is three times to blame. It is your fault that industry demands what education does not, cannot, will not, and should not supply.

Let me borrow from two presentations that show how industry ignores the three fingers. Here is a slide from the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT) presentation last February. Government and industry are telling education what to do with curriculum, syllabi, and teacher training.

(The slide came from a powerpoint presentation done for the DOLE Workforce Development Summit Cyberservices by then Commissioner Damian Mapa. Mapa recommended that English should be taught in all four years of college, that a third of all English lessons should be on “conversational English,” that all college and high school teachers take English lessons, and that all high schools have “English-only zones.”)

Here is another slide from the same presentation (the slide said that there would be 2.45 million college graduates from 2006 to 2010). Government and industry project a need (for cyberservices) for 450 to 550,000 college graduates over a five-year period, as well as a need for 100 to 120,000 from the unemployed or underemployed. Even if we used these figures, we can see that cyberservices wants 22.5% of college graduates to pursue a career in cyberservices, rather than nursing, education, science, or the humanities. The figures, however, according to DepEd and CHED, are wrong, because there are actually only about 350,000 college graduates a year and therefore only 1,750,000 eligible college graduates over five years. This means that cyberservices wants not just 22.5% but 31.4% of college graduates.

(I then showed another slide from the Academe-Industry Collaboration Committee
Manpower Planning Survey of PMAP. The slide gave four recommendations: “Strengthen the linkage between industry and academe; Involve schools in solving some industry problems; Increased emphasis on communication skills; Formulation of competence guide by the industry to be used by the schools.”)

Here are recommendations coming from PMAP itself. Notice that PMAP does not say anything about how industry should improve, but is saying only how it thinks education should improve.

Just as education should solve educational problems, so should industry solve its own problems. If you guys in industry cannot solve your own problems, do not ask education to solve them for you.

To demand that universities deny their vision as universities, which is to be as good as, if not better, than the best in the world or at least in the region, is exactly the same as to say that Henry Sy should not aim to build the biggest mall in Asia or in the world, that Metro or BPI should not be as credible as Citigroup or HSBC, that our local firms or local branches of multinationals should not be as efficient as General Motors, Wal-Mart, or Exxon. Just as all industries strive to be as good as the best industry in the world, so do all schools benchmark with the best in the world. Just as industry has its own role models, so does education.

What are the best schools in the world? According to several recent surveys, the ten best universities in the world, not necessarily in this order, are: Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, MIT, Yale, Stanford, Caltech, Berkeley, Princeton, Columbia, and Chicago. In Asia, the top ten are: Tokyo, Kyoto, Australian National, Hebrew, Osaka, Tohoku, Melbourne, Tokyo Tech, Nagoya, and NUS.

Tell me honestly, do you expect a third of the graduates of these universities to have as their ambition careers in teleservices, E-services, IT outsourcing, IT enabled services, ICT enabled services, or business process outsourcing?

Education does not tell industry what to do, so can industry please stop telling education what to do? But since industry has been minding education’s business, I will now mind industry’s business. Since you insist on asking us to solve your problems, I will now give you my own ideas about how industry should solve its own problems.

Let us look at the facts. Every year, practically all 6-year-olds enter the educational system, most of them going into public schools. For every 100 of those who enter the formal school system in Grade 1, 62 will finish Grade 6 and practically all of them will move on to high school. Only 23 will finish high school, but not all of them will go to the post-secondary or tertiary or college level. Only 17 will go to college and only 14 will finish a four-year degree course. In absolute numbers, this means that, of the 2.5 million or so that enter Grade 1, only 1.5 million will go to high school, and only half a million will finish high school. Not all high school graduates go to college; only 400,000 will enter college and only 336,000 will finish a college degree.

The vast majority of these college graduates are nurses and will go abroad. They are not and should not be interested in a job in the Philippines, whether in cyberservices or elsewhere. In fact, FEU nursing graduates, which comprise the overwhelming majority of its graduates, are mostly now abroad (more than 80%, I think). Even if we do not remove the nurses from the potential workforce, however, we are still faced with an anomaly in the way industry thinks.

Let us subtract the number of college graduates from the number of high school graduates. We get roughly 200,000. Education will produce over the next five years 1.08 million high school graduates that will not finish college. According to the CICT’s own estimates, the maximum number of jobs available in cyberservices in the next five years for college graduates and the unemployed is 670,000. There is the solution to your problem. All industry has to do is to tap this vast pool of human resources.

Let me go back to the pointing finger. What are the three fingers that point back at industry?

The first finger is the insistence of industry to require a college degree for tasks that do not need college education. Here are some qualifications listed in wanted ads last week. For Purchaser, “graduate of any 4-year course.” For Quality Control Assistant, “candidate must posses at least a Bachelor’s or College Degree in any field.” For Receptionist, “Must possess a BSBA degree major in Marketing and Sales, Business Development, Economics, Finance or Accounting.” For Insurance Staff Reliever, “Must possess at least a Bachelor’s degree in any field.” For Transcriptionist, “Must possess at least a Bachelor’s degree in Sales and Marketing.” For Real Estate Consultant, “College Graduate.” For Medical Representative, “Graduate of any Science or Business Course.” Just scan the want ads in any Sunday paper, and you know that a college degree is required of practically every job. That industry does not really care whether the specialization of the applicant fits the job is itself a clear sign of bad business sense. By the way, a college degree is not the only popular requirement for all kinds of jobs unrelated to what one studies in college. The other requirement is, you guessed it, a “pleasing personality.”

The second finger is the unwillingness of industry to shoulder the costs of training recruits for its own purposes. It has long been known by linguists and language educators that there is no such thing as English for general purposes. All English is English for specific purposes. You need one kind of English to understand movies in English. You need quite a different one to understand the English that computer programmers use. You need another kind to understand the English that chess players use. Language learning today is always geared towards a particular purpose, whether it is to read scientific texts or to visit a foreign country or to order food in a restaurant or to become a call center representative. Schools teach the kind of English one needs to understand academic discourse, which is about as far from conversational English as legal English is to medical English. All industry needs to do to meet its human resources needs is to train high school graduates to speak the kind of English that the individual companies need.

Is that impossible? Not according to all the language schools that advertise on the Web. All these schools claim, and their products prove them right, that it is possible to learn a language, any language, in 200 hours. One foundation I head, and this is blatant self-advertising, has a program called “The 4S Approach to Literacy and Language,” which is being used by some call centers. We can take someone with terrible pronunciation and grammar and very little knowledge of English and we make that someone a call center representative in less than 200 hours. Ask me later if you want details. It’s a foundation, so the admittedly high fees go to charitable projects.

Instant learning of languages is not something new. Filipino scholars funded by Monbusho are asked to study Japanese for one semester and are able to attend classes in Japanese after only that one semester. American soldiers sent to war learn enough of whatever the language is of the country they are in to avoid being killed. If you can put your life on the line after only a few weeks of learning a language, you can certainly become a call center representative after only 200 hours of learning English. Answering calls is not a matter of life and death to CSRs, though they may look that way to those making the call.

In fact, in the FEU-ePLDT program, we do not even offer 200 hours of English language instruction. We offer only 66 hours. This brings me to FEU and ePLDT.

In 2003, FEU and ePLDT started a joint program aimed at supplying Parlance and Vocativ with fresh graduates trained not just in English but in Customer Service Management and American history, geography, and culture. The program consists of 108 hours of instruction over and above the usual subjects required by CHED for students to graduate. There are 42 hours of grammar, 24 hours of pronunciation and accent neutralization, 24 hours of customer service management, and 18 hours on America.

In the 2003-2004 or first batch, there were initially 69 students, 67 of whom finished the program. The terms of the MOA provided that trainees had to pass the normal ePLDT entrance exams. 59 out of the 67 passed ePLDT’s requirements. This pilot batch revealed a major deficiency in the training: most of the trainees resigned only a few days after they were hired, because they were not emotionally prepared for inbound calls. FEU and ePLDT then revised the curriculum to include interpersonal communication and some psychology.

The Summer 2004 batch went through the revised curriculum. Of the 37 initial students, 23 finished the training. This was a poor batch in terms of acceptance. I don’t have the actual figures, but there were very few that ePLDT hired. The main reason turned out to be the inability of the trainees to handle the initial job interview. FEU and ePLDT then revised the curriculum again to include mock interviews, as well as stress management.

Because of the changes, the 2004-2005 batch fared better. 35 students made it through the training and 30 were offered jobs for international accounts and 5 for local accounts, a 100% success rate.

Currently, there is a batch undergoing training, and we are hopeful that they will be as successful as the previous batch.

What are the best practices that FEU has instituted that may be of interest to those planning to start similar linkages? First is the presence of American instructors. Although Filipino English teachers will hate me for this, I think that the main reason our students do not learn English is they are being taught by Filipinos who have never lived in the UK or in the USA. I don’t think you will trust a chef to do a French dish who has never tasted a dish prepared by a French chef. If you had to have a heart bypass, will you entrust your life to a medical doctor who has never been inside an operating room? Will you trust a travel agent who has never traveled? The late Doreen Fernandez, then our best authority on food, used to explain why Philippine spaghetti is sweet, why Philippine paella does not look at all like the Spanish dish, and why there is no lumpiang shanghai in Shanghai. She said that the Filipinos that originally prepared these dishes had never tasted the original food and just made up the dishes according to rumor. Similarly, we make up our own kind of English because most of us have never listened or talked to Americans or the British in their own country.

One thing industry foundations can do, and I’ve said this again and again, is to shoulder the costs of Filipino English teachers visiting the UK or the US. One or two months in English-speaking countries will do more for English for a Filipino than all those grammar exercises and learning modules.

A second best practice is the use of an actual computer lab with software similar to that used in call centers. Hands-on simulation works wonders for training.

A third best practice is visiting an actual call center to get a taste of how it feels to work in one. This is not the same as practicum, because the time is very short, but it gives the potential CSR a chance to see that there is life in call centers.

A fourth best practice is to let the parents sign a contract with the sponsoring company. In the case of non-minors, who can therefore sign on their own, the parents can sign as witnesses to the contract. This way, the parents put additional pressure on the trainee to finish the training.

Let us go back to the fingers. The third finger pointing back at industry is pride or “fried chicken,” as we say in Philippine English. Industry is too proud to accept that education is itself an industry, with its own goals and objectives. Manufacturers do not tell retailers how to sell. Real estate developers do not tell bankers how to handle money. Although there is, of course, synergy and cooperation between different types of industry, there is also mutual respect. Education is also an industry. In fact, as you know from business surveys, FEU is one of the top corporations in the country as far as ROI is concerned. During the time of the late Brother Andrew Gonzalez, De La Salle University was one of the top corporations in the country in terms of profitability, although it was technically nonprofit and all profit was plowed back to the institution in terms of new infrastructure. That most of the taipans, and now even non-taipans, have deemed it wise to invest in or even to buy universities is a clear sign that education is a viable business. Industry should not tell universities what to do, but should give education the respect it deserves.

What, after all, is a university? Let us look again at Harvard and the other top universities in the world. What they do is what education should do. A university, in fact, all education from elementary to postgraduate, aims at educating, not training, persons. Industry needs trained employees. Education will not supply that training. Education exists for something else altogether, not to give people a chance to earn a living, but to live. There is a vast difference. Just look at Bill Gates. When is he happiest? He tells us himself – when he is playing contract bridge with his bridge partner Warren Buffett. That is living. That has nothing to do with earning money. In fact, Bill Gates hardly ever wins at contract bridge, because he is not a very good bridge player. But that is what makes him happy, not just the billions he makes from all that software. Of course, the billions help. I am not saying that industry should not make money. On the contrary, industry should make money, but universities are not interested or should not be interested in making money, just in making enough money to keep themselves alive to serve students. Bill Gates has a lesson there for all of us, whether we are in industry or education, or in the industry that is education.

Here are my own recommendations for industry. If industry wants to solve the mismatch from its end, not from the end of education, these are some things it can do.

First, industry should not demand a college degree for work that does not require Harvard-level education. I am very happy to note that, lately, advertisements for call center jobs no longer specify that the applicant should have a college degree.

Second, industry should financially support high schools to ensure that high school graduates are employable. After all, the revised Basic Education Curriculum adds livelihood as one of the major goals of secondary education.

Third, we have long known that one reason our education is weak is its length, or lack of it. We have only ten years of basic education, but every other country in the world, except one or two, has at least twelve. Industry should lobby for another two years of basic education, to be added to high school, in order to reach international standards as well as to increase the age of high school graduates.

Fourth, there should be a change in the way call center jobs are advertised. Call center jobs pay well, but that is the only thing good about them. They destroy families that can no longer sit down together for meals, they destroy the physical health of people biorhythmically attuned to sleeping at night, they ruin the mental and spiritual health of idealistic young people who have to listen to angry customers or to unresponsive clients, they lessen the chances of finding a suitable marriage partner.

I suggest that call center jobs be advertised as temporary, as a way to spend a year before taking on a job that one has studied for. For example, nursing graduates have to remain in the country for a year before they go abroad. Instead of being idle, they can work in call centers that cater to insurance claims and such, thus making use of their health vocabulary and knowledge. In fact, since they are good enough to go and work in the USA, they should be good enough to talk to Americans on the phone.

Fifth, industry should put its money where its mouth is. Fund Filipino English teachers to visit the UK and the USA, and see how dramatically the English of both teachers and students improves.

Sixth, industry should fund American and British teachers who can teach in our Teacher Training Institutions.

Having said all that about industry, let me now say something about education.

I head a professional organization of teachers and scholars teaching and writing in Filipino. The organization is called Wika, and it is devoted to making Filipino the sole medium of instruction in our educational system. I also am a member of the Philippine chapter of the English Speaking Union, which is devoted to propagating the use of the English language around the world, as well as the Foundation for Upgrading the Standard of Education (FUSE), which spearheads a lot of English-language programs. People sometimes ask me how I can reconcile these roles, not to mention my writing in both English and Filipino and writing about Filipino in a column in an English newspaper, or my teaching now in straight Filipino and now in straight English.

The answer is simple. There is only one way to improve the English of our students, and that is to make Filipino the medium of instruction in all subjects except English. When I teach an English subject, I teach in English. When I teach a non-English subject, such as literature, criticism, media, and even statistics, I teach in Filipino.

All educators know about the amount of research that has gone into the language of learning. There are hundreds of books and articles that prove that children learn best in their home language. Americans learn best in English, the Chinese learn best in Chinese, the Japanese learn best in Japanese, the French learn best in French, and so on. There is not even one book or article done by linguists (people with PhDs in linguistics) that says the opposite.

There are numerous experiments done in the Philippines itself that show that children that learn mathematics and science in Hiligaynon or some other vernacular language always score higher in exams than those that are taught in English. Even the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) shows that we scored relatively higher, all things considered, when our students took the test in Filipino than when they were forced last time to take it in English.

There is no question whatsoever that Filipino or another vernacular language should be the medium of instruction for math, science, and Makabayan. Even those that say that other countries are trying to learn English while we are supposedly trying to get rid of it conveniently do not mention that China will never allow English to replace Chinese as their medium of instruction, the Japanese will always use Japanese, and so on. The medium of instruction has nothing to do with whether we can learn English or not.

There is also no question whatsoever that Filipinos that finish college every year should know English. The country needs to know what is going on elsewhere in the world, needs to have people to do international business, needs to publish its research, and so on. I have shown you today that high school graduates that do not go to college can be taught BPO English in less than 200 hours per person.

But to learn English, students must have good English teachers. A good English teacher is one that has lived in the UK or the USA, even for only a couple of months. Remember that Filipinos learned English from the Thomasites in only one generation. Our grandparents still claim that they spoke better English than us, because their teachers were American.

The solution for the English problem is simple. Use Filipino to teach math, science, and Makabayan. Bring in good British or American teachers to teach English or make our own English teachers good by sending them out.

Education shares part of the blame for the mismatch, but it has only one part of the blame. Three parts of the blame belong to industry. It is time to stop pointing a finger at each other, because we only condemn ourselves. (First published in The Philippine Star, 7 & 14 December 2006)


Jennifer said...

wow. i wonder how did they (the industry) react?

zang said...

Nice Post
article rewrite