The tragedy of Turkish engineers

The tragedy of Turkish engineers

People talking about the prospects of the Turkish economy these days keep bringing up the country’s deficiency in skills. “The average years of schooling in the country is only about seven years,” they say, “lowest among the OECD countries. Turkey has to increase that number.” I think it’s much more complicated than that though. It is indeed correct that two-thirds of the workforce in Turkey has less than seven years of schooling. But the share of university graduates in the workforce now also amounts to around 20 percent. That is where you start seeing the problem. According to labor statistics, 37 percent of female and 49 percent of male university graduates are underemployed, meaning they are working at jobs below their acquired skills levels. Now, that is a serious problem.

That is what I call the “tragedy of Turkish engineers.” And engineers are only one profession displaying the nature of the tragedy. Let me elaborate.

Universities are universal, as their name suggests. Turkey has universities providing a universal education, or at least some of the ones currently globally accredited or in the process of accreditation do. The graduates of these universities are roughly on par with their peers in any other country in terms of their skills and knowledge. Yet, they cannot find jobs commensurate with their skills and knowledge. Why? Because there are almost no companies offering jobs to these universal university graduates that match their skill levels. So it is not the lack of skills in the country, but the inability to put them into use that ails Turkey’s economy. This might be the reason why there is no strong lobbying effort on the part of the Turkish business community for a more skilled workforce. That could also be the reason for the impasse in country’s education reform.

Here we have had a single party majority government for the past 12 years, yet we have had five different ministers of education during that uncharacteristically long and stable stretch. If it takes six years to complete and reap the benefits of an education reform, we could have had two rounds of successful reforms by now. So far, both of those opportunities have been wasted. Discussions on education reform in Turkey are stuck on headscarves in classrooms, the compulsory education of Sunni Islam even for non-Muslims, or purges of teachers for their beliefs. There has not been a single substantial discussion on the technicalities of the education system. In England, compulsory computer algorithm classes are about to start for five-year olds. Good way to get ready for the brave new world of the “Internet of things,” and whatever else the future might bring.

Why is Turkey not worried about education? Because our companies are too small and too isolated to feel the need for better educated people.

A few weeks ago in this column, I looked at what graduates from top Turkish engineering schools are doing in life using LinkedIn data. Graduates from Turkey’s best engineering schools appear to be working for the marketing departments of big-brand, international manufacturing firms. Their Korean or German peers go to R&D jobs in manufacturing firms. Why this difference? Because there simply aren’t any manufacturing firms focusing on R&D in Turkey. That is the tragedy of Turkish engineers. They are trained in real engineering, then they are told they have to be salespeople for other people’s engineering. That has got to be rough on young, ambitious minds.