A college degree does not necessarily guarantee good skill sets useful in a work environment. To change that, companies and educational institutions need to work together to develop a curriculum to ensure a more productive workforce. Going one step further, industry professionals need to double up as faculty members – all possible in today’s digital world
DR. TARA THIAGARAJAN
In a country with over a billion people and the largest young workforce in the world, you might think it should be easy for companies to find and recruit young people but it’s not. It’s quite the opposite. About a year or so ago, I was interviewing candidates for junior branch manager positions.
About 70 per cent of the traffic to our website is to the employment section. A richer employment section that is better linked in to the college campuses would benefit students in making their job choices, learn useful things and eventually lead the right candidates to companies.
What does a finance company do? I asked them, what do you think is its main source of revenue?
Opening of accounts, said one. He was a high scoring commerce graduate.
Maintaining the systems and documents, said another after much pause and thought. What?
But you can’t blame the poor fellow, who with great difficulty has come from his village to a college, the first generation to do so in his family. He didn’t get into engineering, so he is in the botany stream. After three years of meticulous memorisation of hundreds of plant names and diligently learning to label petals and sepals, he has graduated with high marks and now needs a job. He better well get one. His parents sent him off to college knowing only one thing – if you go to college, you can get a better job than they’ve ever had; a job in an office. So, they worked like hell to make this happen, borrowing way beyond their capacity to pay the fees and giving up on the dream of buying a new cycle. What kind of job and how to find it is up to him to figure out. He doesn’t know who to ask for help. So, what does a finance company do? From the outside, you can see desks stacked with papers and computers, and people sitting in the cool fan breeze or in air conditioned rooms drinking tea every few hours. Maintaining the systems and documents is as good a guess as any.
The gaping hole
As of 2008, there were enough seats for only seven per cent of India’s college-age population, double the capacity relative to 10 years ago. What that means is that most of the colleges have sprung up in the last decade and over half the students are first-generation educated. It also means that suddenly these colleges need to find faculty. More often than not, the faculty story goes something like this. They graduated from the same college, tried for another job, didn’t get it and then became a college lecturer. Often, they are teaching several courses because most of the positions remain vacant. About 25 per cent of college faculty positions in the country are estimated to be vacant. The faculty doesn’t know much about jobs in companies. Only that they are difficult to get. But getting one is the holy grail.
The largest growth of educational institutions has been of engineering colleges. Many of these have sprung up over the last decade largely to cater to the burgeoning IT industry. They advertise to potential students by boasting about their placement success. At college entrances, banners are displayed with the names and faces of the lucky few who have made it into the large IT companies and the MNCs. However, the IT industry readily acknowledges that the students that come pouring out of these places are not ready for the workplace. They must be trained rigorously for up to six months before they can be useful. One faculty member tells me, our students know all the theory but they don’t know how to apply it. There is an enormous disconnect between education and the purposes it is meant for.
Waiting for the government to fix it is far too risky and time consuming when you need people next year and next month. Colleges are essentially a catchment for young people and in our own investigation, we have seen that raw capability is widely spread. There are superstars everywhere. However, they lack perspective on companies, what they do, what the jobs are like and therefore, a framework for how to prepare for the modern world. The large IT companies that recruit hundreds of fresh graduates every year have begun to think about it and have begun creating their own certifications and courses that they offer on campuses. However, this is difficult to scale.
For the education ecosystem to serve the purpose it is meant for – to prepare students to contribute meaningfully and productively to the world – companies that will eventually employ them must play a more active role in creating and disseminating education content. For the IT industry, an industry-led IT certification or degree would be far more valuable than the present college curriculum, for instance. It would have the distinct advantages of curriculum closer to what is necessary for productive application and the assessment would be a more reliable indicator of the candidate’s knowledge than their college marks. And for scalability, it would have to be digital, or present online. By being openly accessible, this could put the responsibility of training for job readiness into the hands of the students, getting past barriers of college entrance into the right stream. Colleges, for their part, might be grateful for curriculum that represents a faster path to placement and begin to readily promote it. And companies would have better trained entrants on a faster path to productivity, an enormous cost saving. However, while some industries are big enough, more uniform in their needs and more organised, others are not. So, what’s a smaller more specialised company to do?
Back in the old days when I was in college in the U.S., our campus placement offices had folders with profiles of companies that we could look through. That was before the Internet. Today, there are other means and the possibilities are numerous. It would be useful for any company to create videos and presentations that describe the nature of the jobs they are hiring for. What does the company do? What’s a day in the life like? What are the skills that you need? There could include specific skill training videos, even simple assessments that potential candidates and students can use to see if they have the right abilities. Put these on the website and then provide this information and links to colleges and placement offices through posters and other means. About 70 per cent of the traffic to our website is to the employment section. A richer employment section that is better linked in to the college campuses would benefit students in making their job choices, learn useful things and eventually lead the right candidates to companies. Eventually, the better parts of corporate teaching may find its way into supplementary college curriculum. Turning the people who are doing the job into the same people who are teaching the job may be a faster path to take people to productivity.
Dr. Tara Thiagarajan is the chairperson and MD of Madura Microfinance and a director of Microcredit Foundation of India. She is primarily a scientist, whose interests encompass understanding complex systems and using a science-based approach to solve large scale human problems through scalable for-profit enterprise. She writes a blog called, The Physics of Poverty (www.physicsofpoverty.com), which looks into a science-based approach to understanding poverty.