Potential CEOs or cyber coolies?

Article published in The Hindu, dated 20th Aug, 2010

(A few lakh students passing out as technical graduates every year, increase in the number of jobs as on date and yet, a talent crunch! That is the situation that most IT companies in India find themselves in. The time has come therefore to sit back and rethink strategies, even revamp our education system so that we continue to grow as a knowledge economy.) http://www.thehindu.com/business/companies/article583885.ece

Recession is almost forgotten and headlines across the media are screaming louder than ever that ‘Jobs are back!’ Campus interviews are on schedule and there are no more ‘people on the bench’. The need for employees is as good as ever and the process of recruitment has picked up its almost usual speed. This story is true of India as well as many other parts of the world.

While globalization has created, and continues to create job opportunities on a scale like never before, the availability of opportunities does not guarantee that a “graduate” can cash in unless he is really capable of meeting expectations. This is because employers seek and value people, who can act independently, think professionally and adapt seamlessly. And not just come in with a degree and theoretical knowledge.

A ‘job’ today is not just about a designation and a pay cheque, but about being useful from day one. Today’s enterprises need employees who are educated and employable, fit into their job roles, deliver on expectations and are entrepreneurial. Employees need to take the initiative and come up with ideas that are ‘out-of-the box’ and be responsible not only for outputs, but also for professional outcomes. Most importantly, they need to be reliable. The organization needs to feel the confidence that they can hand over a project or job to them, and not have to follow up or hand hold them constantly. This is a major worry in today’s recruitment environment.

The India story:

In a country like India which produces more than three million graduates a year, a quarter of which are from the engineering stream, the parallel increase in unemployment is worrisome. Unverified estimates suggest that our unemployment rates rose from about 7.8% in 2008 to 10.7% by 2010*. Our labor force is expected to be growing at about 2.5% annually, while job growth is estimated to be growing at 2.3 % off a smaller base**. Which means we are constantly creating a backlog of unemployed and under employed youth who then become representative of the collective frustration that now reveals itself in India with alarming regularity. All this is despite a growing demand for a skilled workforce and talent crunches across growing sectors.

Speaking for the IT industry, there is a widening skills gap visible in the market today. Many IT graduates are being churned out, but they may be actually considered unemployable by the rapidly growing IT and ITeS sector in the country. This is a cause of concern for an economy having the world’s second largest education system and providing one of the largest pools of skilled manpower.

The story is no different for potential global employers. Today’s graduates have the opportunity and they aspire to work in organizations outside the country. While these organizations recognize the inherent intelligence of Indian students and their capacity to deliver, they also expect a great deal of discipline, work ethic and focus. And a critical aspect for global employability is a degree of cross cultural sensitization and dropping of prejudices or mindsets that may accompany us from the socio-cultural environments that we grew up in.

Does this mean that many of our institutes are producing mere graduates instead of true professionals? Is there an “employability gap” and a need to revamp our education system as it were? If yes, then how do we go about doing that?

Ground reality:

Institutes imparting technical and business courses in India are many and continue to grow. Much has been said about educating the poor and dispossessed sections of society. Very little has been said about the middle and lower middle class, who can scrape together some funds and educate their children, but really have no access to high quality education even today. Our businessmen and/or politicians have been quick to spot this money making opportunity. Every day we see new institutes coming up and advertising heavily, with taglines such as “global campus”, “largest university” “hundreds of placements” etc. Yet those who are associated with the industry as well as academics know that many of them are peddling hollow promises. They have an ability to make students write an exam, regurgitate data and hand out a degree. But thats about it. Many of them charge a fairly large fee and attract thousands of students who come to them with stars in their eyes. Families struggle to meet the expenses in the hope that the next generation will break free from the shackles of hand to mouth existence. The tragedy is that this is often far from reality.

There is a distinct lack of exposure and depth that makes the students of many of these institutes unemployable. The result is a huge talent crunch, broken promises, shattered dreams and frustration for students and their parents. A recurring theme responsible for this situation is the old fashioned and blinkered quality of education being imparted by these mushrooming institutions across the nation. Differential literacy levels, poverty and the rural-urban divide have also contributed to the scenario, but to a far lesser scale. The silver lining in all this is that if these institutions can actually be encouraged to focus on delivering practically relevant education, we could harness the significant human resources that can propel this nation forward.

The crux of the issue remains that most professional institutions in India focus on teaching rather than learning. The learning environment is mostly teacher centric and students have very little exposure to the world they need to serve in. The syllabus is theoretical and makes little attempt to relate to the practical needs of the industry in terms of content. There is a shortage in practical exposure provided to students, and quite often, the faculty themselves have never been exposed to the industry. Hence they are unable to convey what potential employers will expect and prepare their students for the same. This means that many students go on believing the myth that just a professional degree and a high score would earn them a good job. They pass out from colleges but end up unemployed or worse under-employed!

What can we do :

As Indian organizations continue to increase their workforce and strive to maintain their position in the global marketplace, industry-academia alliances are required to enhance talent development amongst the youth at the grassroots level. Educational institutions must update the syllabus of technical courses to make them more industry relevant. Industry in turn has to open up, to provide corporate exposure for students and faculty and make them well equipped in terms of both skillsets and industry knowledge so that they don’t just get placed from campus, but hit the ground running for their employers.

At the graduation level itself, students need to be exposed to activities like group meetings, presentations and progress report briefings. There is a need to inculcate a sense of working within deadlines and delivering under pressure to mirror a global work environment. Students must be trained to develop a degree of cultural neutrality so that they are able to appreciate the differences across global corporate cultures. Alternate skills such as communication and presentation skills, need to come off the “optional” shelf, onto the “must have” shelves.

Training must also be imparted to college faculty and their skills must be honed to meet the needs of a changing global economy. Beyond associating for campus placements, academia must seek to network with the corporate world to provide regular training, conduct workshops for the students and the faculty, and provide regular updates from professionals who have a closer exposure to current business developments, needs and technical standards.

Existing industry-academia collaboration:

Having said this, there have been some attempts to bridge industry and academia, to create such synergies. Industry bodies like NASSCOM have devised the IT Workforce Development (ITWD) program to address the growing concerns of the industry as well as the challenges of the academia. Many IT companies are partnering with engineering colleges and universities to create universally accepted benchmarks like certifications and policy-level curriculum changes. Multinationals have established alliances with academia for faculty upgradation, internships, curriculum revision and research. Infosys launched the ‘Campus Connect’ program to align the education provided by various engineering colleges with the requirements of the industry. Wipro initiated the Wipro Academy of Software Excellence, in association with BITS (Pilani) to prepare fresh graduates for careers in software programming. Novell introduced the Linux Academic programme to bolster Open Source skills, Tech Mahindra set up the Mahindra College of Engineering to equip engineers with the skills required in a ‘fast changing global scenario’. The Cisco Networking Academy (NetAcad) program was devised to support the needs of national and global organizations. Such partnerships between academia and industry helps to plug the talent gap, make our youth more competitive and help them grow as professionals. In the long run, this will help us consolidate ourselves as a successful knowledge economy.

There are many such initiatives, but there are also dozens of institutions who are paying absolutely no attention to these urgent requirements. They know they can attract desperate students, especially from the smaller towns and cities, as long as they have the ability to dish out a degree. Unfortunately, demand supply economics ensures that there is little pressure on them to do more than this today. One can only hope that with the opening up of the education sector and increasing competition, the same market forces will one day force them to ask “how do I differentiate myself positively”. And then the fact that they need to produce employable and successful candidates, rather than just dish out certificates, will come home to them sharply. I wait for that day.

* http://www.indexmundi.com/india/unemployment_rate.html
** http://www.indiaonestop.com/unemployment.htm

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