An industry-academia interaction organised by the Kerala State Higher Education Council discussed the hot topic of employability. G. MAHADEVAN says it identified critical gaps in skills, attitude and values to be plugged.

Are Kerala’s fresh graduates employable? What does industry expect of the products from the State’s colleges? Do they have the confidence to take on the challenges at the modern workplace?

Representatives of industry and academia brainstormed these issues at a recent seminar organised in Thiruvananthapuram to find out how the two can work in synergy for ensuring that Kerala’s students fare well in the job market.

It was the first in a series of such events planned by the Kerala State Higher Education Council and its committee on industry-academia linkages. For the inaugural venture, the “industry” was information technology (IT). Sector-specific workshops will be held in the coming months.

Representatives of the IT industry from Technopark were clear about what they found lacking in college graduates who they sought to employ.

Binu Jacob, chief executive officer of Experion Technologies at Technopark, narrated how during an interview, one candidate was asked to get the names of everyone in the room.

The said candidate, in an apparent attempt to know someone’s name, stood behind an executive’s cabin and called out “Mahesh.” The executive turned round and told the candidate, “I am not Mahesh, who are you looking for?” “I wanted to know your name,” the candidate replied. This, Mr. Jacob told the gathered academics and industry personnel, was the level of “skills” that the average recruiter had to deal with.

Gautham Shankar, chief executive officer of the Technopark-based GES Infotek, narrated how out of a batch of 80 engineering students who wrote his company’s entrance test, only two qualified. Of the two, only one got a job.

Referring to salary structures in the IT industry, he said, “Ten years ago, 10 engineers could be engaged in India with a salary of one person in the U.S. Over the years, salaries in the U.S. and Japan have remained constant, forcing the industry here to reduce human resources to four or five. All the same, productivity has not gone up.”

Rejin Narayanan, chief executive officer of the Technopark-based Ingen Robotics, lamented that unlike their counterparts in Europe or the U.S., students here do not seem to have the confidence to perform a task — say, writing a computer programme — in a satisfactory manner.

In other words what the three CEOs told the seminar was that quality and employability should necessarily be among the “learning outcomes” of courses offered by Kerala’s universities.

That was not all. The CEOs pointed out they also had a serious problem with the kind of values that college graduates had. A large number of candidates came to them just for the money and not for a career. The thought that they should grow with a company never occurred to many candidates“Owing to the cultural shift from joint to nuclear families, youngsters today lag behind in understanding business in its totality. Commitment to stick to a company is missing and many are unable to deliver when given tight deadlines,” was what Mr. Jacob had to say on the matter

A clear message that Kerala’s universities should overhaul the way they formulate their syllabi was given by the academics who spoke at the seminar’s sessions. A major argument they put forward was that industry experts should, wherever applicable, be part of the committees that put together the syllabi for various courses.

Biji James, Head of the Department of Commerce at Mar Ivanios College, seeking to underscore the total absence of the industry from academia, pointed out to the CEOs that 80 percent of his students had never seen Technopark, never known how companies work and what life there was like.

S. Jayakumar, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, posited that the expected levels of interaction between academia and industry did not take place because companies was unable to spare time for students and because they did not see any returns from any ‘investment’ in academia. Yes, it was also true that academia’s inherent strengths were not marketed well to the industry. The overall orientation of teachers, wherein they considered only teaching as their main responsibility, did not help things.

Following extensive brainstorming sessions, the academics and the industrialists came up with the following suggestions:

Setting up of quality circles (joint industry academia committees)

Companies should adopt batches (from the first semester) to help groom them.

Specialists from the industry should take a few hours of classes for courses in their field.

Short-term courses by industry experts outside the scope of regular curriculum based on market requirements.

Syllabus committee should include industry representatives.

Apprenticeship should be reintroduced.

Project templates should be given.

Industry should have involvement in institutions, as in, for instance, the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.

Implement high standards of assessment criteria and practices.

Creation of an incubation centre.

The committee on industry-academia linkages, headed by S. Rajeev, Director of the Asian School of Business, is now expected to consider these suggestions for possible inclusion in its preliminary report to be submitted in July. The committee is expected to give its final report by 2012-end.