Design for change

8th August, 2019

A lot of us chose our career paths, or were pretty much chosen for us when we were teenagers. But, our aspirations tend to change over time and so do our circumstances. Take bank cashiers for instance. My mother used to be one, at a national Indian bank. Until I happened.

After that, she quit her job so she could care for me. A job she loved as it helped her live her life as an independent working woman. And after me, like a lot of mothers, she had to depend on my dad.

By the time she felt ready to go back to work, ATMs had started becoming the norm. This had an interesting economic effect. Since the productivity of the banks went up, they were able to open more branches and hire more people. Not to dispense cash, but to service customers directly.

So, the skills that cashiers previously required were simply not sufficient, and in some cases, mostly irrelevant. What became important now was to understand problems that their customers were having, wrestle with software that barely worked, and sell financial services.

This trend of routine tasks in jobs being automated away, has only accelerated since at a breathtaking pace. Fast forward to now, we are starting to have serious conversations about cars driving themselves, drones delivering stuff, fully automated manufacturing units, and what not.

My mum wanted to get back to work, so she enrolled in some computer courses at NIIT. Remember them? They’re still around, I checked. Suffice to say, the quality of education was sub-par, and she didn’t quite make the career shift she was hoping to make. She ended up becoming a teacher at a primary school, and I’ll never forget when she told me about her interview.

Apparently they asked her if she had any experience with teaching kids. And she said she’s been teaching my brother and me at home, but no. No pesky kids in a school. Besides, this was her first job, so how was she supposed to have any experience with teaching if no one gives her a shot?

This has stayed with me since, and at the time, I didn’t quite get that our education system was the real problem. If the system was designed to help people be prepared for work, this would be a moot question.

The bigger point here is that jobs are going to transform, and circumstances are going to change. We don’t really have an education system that’s cohesively designed for change.

At the time of this writing, my mother starts her master’s degree at a university. While she’s pursuing learning for its own sake, she would have loved a more career-oriented reskilling opportunity early on.

So, how could an alternative to the traditional education system look like? That’s something I’m exploring with ownpath, and on which I will write more on. Updates will be posted on twitter.

Thanks to Sanchit Satish for reading a draft of this.