It is reassuring to hear from Sandeep Menon, Country Head, Novell India Pvt Ltd, Bangalore (http://bit.ly/F4TNovell) that recession is almost forgotten, what with headlines across the media speaking about jobs that are back, campus interviews on schedule, and no ‘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, reports Sandeep, during a recent interaction with Business Line.

His worry, however, is whether we are generating potential CEOs or cyber coolies. “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 (information technology) companies in India find themselves in,” frets Sandeep. 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, he argues. Our conversation continues over the email.

Excerpts from the interview.

On today’s needs.

While globalisation 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; not those who 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 organisation needs to feel the confidence that they can hand over a project or job to them, and not have to follow up or handhold them constantly. This is a major worry in today’s recruitment environment.

On the India story.

In India which produces more than three million graduates a year, a quarter of whom are from the engineering stream, the parallel increase in unemployment is worrisome. There are estimates suggesting that our unemployment rates rose from about 7.8 per cent in 2008 to 10.7 per cent by 2010.

Our labour force is expected to be growing at about 2.5 per cent annually, while job growth is estimated to be growing at 2.3 per cent off a smaller base. Which means, we are constantly creating a backlog of unemployed and underemployed 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 organisations outside the country. While these organisations recognise 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 sensitisation and dropping of prejudices or mindsets that may accompany us from the socio-cultural environments that we grew up in.

On the quality of education.

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 these institutions are peddling hollow promises. They have an ability to make students write an exam and regurgitate data, and hand out a degree. But that’s about it.

Many of these institutions 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.

On the teaching vs learning divide.

The crux of the issue remains that most professional institutions in India focus on teaching rather than learning. The education 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 teachers 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!

On what can we do.

As Indian organisations 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 skill-sets 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 such as 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.

On the industry-academia collaboration efforts.

There have been some attempts to bridge the industry and the academia, to create synergies. Industry bodies like NASSCOM have devised the IT Workforce Development (ITWD) programme 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 such as 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 organisations.

Such partnerships between academia and industry help to plug the talent gap, and make our youths 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 that are paying absolutely no attention to these urgent requirements. They know they can attract desperate students, especially from the smaller towns and cities, looking for 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.

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