Hiring blues

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India is teeming with graduates, but faces acute problems of skill deficit

Hiring blues
Talk of demographic dividend. India is a nation of over 1.2 billion population – and growing. About 65 per cent of this army of youth is, on an average, less than 35. By all credible calculations, sometime in the not-so-distant future, this average age could slide down further to 29.

Every year, millions of fresh graduates – churned out of engineering, arts and science streams, among others – enter the job market, looking voraciously at employment opportunities. The country’s economic liberalisation programme that paved the way for large-scale foreign investment since the 1990s and the IT boom that followed a decade later, met this never-ending demand.

Then came 2008. The global recession that year, coupled with unimaginative policies of the UPA government, failed to create a sense of confidence among foreign investors to look at India positively in terms of long-term growth. Naturally, the first casualty in such a scenario proved to be lack of job opportunities that the economy had on offer earlier.

Now with a new and stable government in place at the Centre, the signs are good and investors appear keen. The easing of global oil prices and the resultant lowering of fuel rates in India has added to the positive mindset – as has prime minister Narendra Modi’s ‘make in India’ campaign, aimed at boosting manufacturing, which if it works, is certain to generate large scale employment, even while the realisation of low operation costs will continue to drive IT/ITES outsourcing work towards India.

But there is a ticklish aside here. While India’s biggest asset is its educated manpower – the graduates coming out of colleges in hordes - the hard reality of life is that only a third of them are ‘employable’. The rest simply lack the required skill sets to get into employment immediately, a fact that the ‘make in India’ campaign would do well to be aware of. Says S Ramadorai, chairman, National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), “Employability of the youth is a big concern. By 2022, the average age of India will be 29 and this demographic dividend, if trained and skilled appropriately, can give us the edge over developing economies. To translate this into reality, we need to focus on creating the right platforms and opportunities for skilling, entrepreneurship and employment of the youth.”

Concurs S Ganesh, CEO, Dun & Bradstreet Technology and Data Services. “Our educational system is completely out of sync with the demands of modern industry in terms of skill building and personality development. There is a huge gap between our higher education system and needs of the industry. Industry and its needs keep changing. We do not get people with the right attitude. That is a big challenge.”

According to the latest ‘India Skills Report 2015’ brought out by Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in partnership with Wheebox, a leading online talent assessment company and others, India is sitting on an opportune moment in history with a demographic dividend of 65 per cent of her human resource pool aged under-35 and about 12 million such individuals expected to join the workforce every year. With demographic dividend, comes the responsibility of equipping the youth with employable training and in turn, employment.

With India metamorphosing into one of the fastest growing economies, job creation and skilling seem, not unnaturally, to be tools to ensure sustainable growth. The system, has however been plagued with theories of demand – supply mismatch and the absence of credible data.

It took a McKinsey report released around 2006-07 to set the cat among the pigeons. For the first time, the report highlighted the issue of employability levels of Indian graduates in the absence of required skill sets. Based on this report and subsequent industry debates, it was safe to assume that only about 25–30 per cent of fresh Indian graduates were ‘employable-ready’. This lead to calls for urgently addressing the needs to equip graduates with required skill sets, which in turn resulted in sprouting of ‘finishing schools’ across the country to help young aspirants fine tune their skill sets and gear up to become ‘employable’.

The latest CII India Skills Report, which covered around three lakh students in 29 states and seven union territories and over 125 leading companies from ten divergent industries and conducted ‘employability skill assessment test’, has concluded that 37.22 per cent of the candidates assessed were employable. This represented a slight improvement from the 33 per cent revealed in last year’s report by CII. Though the increase is not much, the report feels it is encouraging enough, since one has to consider that for something that requires more efforts at the ground zero level, the results will take some more time to come.

On the other hand, the job prediction survey done to understand the demand side from across industries, has indicated that hiring this year will be up by 20 per cent in the case of most industries, a vast improvement over the dismal state of affairs last year. This, the report notes, is very good news.

At the same time, it would be instructive to remember what the 2013 CII Skills Report had pointed out, “If we look at the current stock of skill landscape in India, the situation is not very good”. It found that of all students entering the job market across the country, hardly one-third meet the criteria of employment set by the employers. Many levels accentuate the severity of the situation when the economy is looking up. New jobs are getting generated, but are there enough ‘skilled’ people available for doing them? It is this gravity that has prompted various initiatives, forcing the government to adopt skill development as a national priority over the next ten years.

Notwithstanding the slight 3.7 per cent rise in employability, as indicated in the latest CII findings, these initiatives have a long way to go, if the gap between the supply and demand side is to be diminished. So, the speed and frequency of these efforts should be intensified, the report proposed. According to Ramadorai, government institutions, academicians and corporations have a responsibility in this regard, to work collectively and address the employability issue with appropriate wages and bridge the mismatch between supply and demand of skilled labour.

The NSDC team has been studying the employment and employability scenario with the help of its sector skill councils (SSC), which integrate academics with the industry. Qualification packs (QPs) have been created and national occupations standards (NOS) have been drawn up to build a connect between vocational skills and formal qualifications.

The national skills qualification framework (NSQF) through the national skill development agency (NSDA) is already getting the first breaks. About 800 entry-level job roles across 31 sectors have been defined under the NOS. Till date, NSDC has been able to assess and certify over three million youth out of which more than a million have already been placed. Some of them have been skilled enough to start their own entrepreneurial ventures.

“It is unfortunate that our universities, because of the education system we happen to follow, run behind numbers (marks). That is not helping the industry. In our group, we have adopted an approach — “recruit for attitude and train them for skills,” sums up MM Murugappan, chairman, Tube Investments of India, part of the multi-billion dollar Murugappa Group. He elucidates, “for instance, while recruiting people, we prefer a graduate with lesser marks, but who is willing to learn the job, than an aspiring employee with very high scores but not willing to fold his sleeves and soil his hands to learn the trade.” Relevant point.

In today’s fast evolving world, every employee is expected to know and understand multi-functions. It is not uncommon for the industry to expect an engineer to analyse a balance sheet and a commerce graduate to have a fair knowledge of engineering. The education offered to students must be designed in such a way that it will mould them to be multi-functional, adds Murugappan.

Vinod K Dasari, managing director of commercial vehicle major, Ashok Leyland seems to agree. “We believe in not just providing employment but also creating employable youth. We believe not just in creating new engineers but also developing future leaders,” he says. Dasari clarifies that “this is not some fancy statement, but the way we operate. Almost all our intake comes either from the GET (graduate engineer) or DET (diploma engineer) programmes.”

“We have also created the BLESSING scheme in Pantnagar, where we take 10+2 graduates and provide a earn-while-you-learn approach. For this, we have built a state-of –the-art training facility, which extends beyond machines and vehicles, and goes into building confident young adults with outstanding emotional and mental attributes,” he adds.

R P Sundarraj, professor, department of management studies, IIT Madras looks at it differently. “The problem is not necessarily with the education system per se, but has more to do with the hierarchical system that we practice at large in the society. As a result, correct thinking processes are not inculcated from childhood. For instance, where do we actually use what we learn, how, why and when? This is the way we teach students from the primary school level all the way up to higher education. Consequently, while the industry expects a Mark Zukerberg, the system that we follow is unable to throw someone or something like that”.

Sundarraj delves further. “Students have to follow what has been taught to them. That has been our approach. They should be taught to think and ask questions. It may not be out-of-the-world. Even simple questions would do. They should know how to use what they learnt, when and where and in what context. The very idea of doing a project by students is to help them to think and act. But children these days simply look at Wikipedia and copy exactly what has been written there. While this helps to at least learn new things, it is not sufficient. A few original ideas/sentences that people are encouraged to express, is better than a lot copied from elsewhere.” That’s a point.

According to K Purushothaman, senior director – Tamil Nadu & Kerala, Nasscom, the IT/ITES industry at present employs around 3.1 million people, which is set to become 10 million by 2020. This refers to only the IT workforce directly employed by the industry.

“The curriculum, especially those concerning technology and related areas, is outdated. The IT industry is the only business, which provides employment opportunities for maximum number of graduates. It has become easy to do an engineering course in India, given the large number of such colleges. Hence, it has become important for colleges to impart curriculum, which is in sync with the expectations and dynamics of business,” he points out.

Adds Purushothaman, “There are many companies, which have got their own curriculum and conduct knowledge sharing through campus initiatives. Nasscom too, as the industry body, through its Sector Skills Council conducts various initiatives for every vertical that we represent in the business of IT/ITES.”

“Since the number of institutions have gone up, most of them have not thought it fit to be connected with the industry. The industry is focused on running its business and may not have the resources or time to run behind institutions. As a result, we join hands with those institutions that have the passion and commitment to connect with the industry,” he said.

Adds S Ganesh of Dun & Bradstreet, “We do not teach people to question, to think, to constantly learn – be it manufacturing, services or agriculture, not just IT. Our education system’s failure lies in the lack of thinking and questioning capability. This has not been taught since childhood. The demand from the modern industry is for independent thinking, adaptability and maturity at a young age.’’

M Sivakumar, CEO, ICT Academy, a skill development initiative of the government of India, Tamil Nadu government and the industry, brings out a larger, philosophical point worthy of mention. “The root cause is because we have neglected the teaching community. They are our unsung heroes and the pillars that impart knowledge to students. In developed nations, the teaching community is revered and institutions are very rich. Benefactors donate liberally to these institutions over there. However, it is not the case here, be it the way we pay teachers or donate to institutions.’’

He elaborates: “since independence, we have adopted a system that is neither fully controlled by the central government nor state governments. As a result, education, healthcare and skill development suffered. Because of this holy cow approach of ‘not for profit’, these institutions have continued to languish. It is not a bad idea to privatise or at least adopt the public private partnership (PPP) route more effectively, than has been perceived so far.’’

Sivakumar has a point when he says the industry too has to respond in a big way to support such an initiative and be more open to connect with academia and skill sets providers and share the latest trends and needs.

Points out Narasimhan Pattabhiraman, a senior IT professional, “Over the last three years, a lot of new engineering colleges have come up. But, how many of them have seriously thought about investing in and creating a sophisticated and well-planned placement facility? Placement is the end result of the performance of the college. It is time, managements of these institutions realise this.”

He believes that colleges should get themselves involved in academic relationship management (ARM) activities. Only then will students through ARM get exposure to the industry even before they start giving interviews. “These ARMs are possible only when colleges have a vision to facilitate this. In fact, academic interface programmes are symbiotic programmes that help the college, the industry and the economy to grow. It’s a three-way benefit, but only a handful of colleges are involved, ” says Narasimhan, who visits engineering colleges across south India to help teachers and students to understand the industry and its needs better.

According to him, colleges need a proper curriculum in line with industry standards. “Bookish knowledge alone will not help, since today’s industry has moved away from the vendor-vendee relationship towards a partnership mode of business. In such a scenario, one should possess skills like acumen, intelligence and adaptability. These happen only when proper training is part of the curriculum. A better understanding of the industry, communication and business methodology in addition to their core technical skills that they learn in the college is essential,” he observes.

But, are such changes possible? If yes, then how long? “There is no magic wand. It cannot happen overnight and has to be an organic change. It will happen, but will take its time. Not surely in the next five years or so. The fundamental system has to change,” concludes IIT Madras’ Prof Sundarraj. He should know.

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