What was done effortlessly by a fifth grader in the U.K. needed a commerce graduate in India!

We often hear two contrasting views on the employment scenario. On the one hand, employers cry hoarse about non-availability of talent in the market and, on the other, we hear about millions of youth who are unable to find a well-paid job several years after completing engineering or other professional degrees. A recent survey suggests that over 70 per cent of the engineering graduates in India are unemployable. What ails these graduates or the so-called degree holders? Why are they not suitable for employment?

Let us understand what is meant by suitability for employment. I was transitioning a business process of a large U.K. bank to our office in Chennai during my stint with a large IT company. The process was quite simple. The bank had developed a system for analysing the financial statements of borrowers. The numbers had to be extracted from the statements submitted based on some simple rules and input into the system. The system would process the data and generate the borrower's creditworthiness in the form of a business grade. This business grade was used by the bank's relationship managers to arrive at the credit limit for the borrower or to decide whether to lend him at all.

As part of the transition process, I wanted to know the qualifications and the skill sets of the resources. The bank's project manager told me that some of the resources had completed their tenth grade and most of them were fifth graders. In India, I knew for sure that we would hire very bright commerce and accounting graduates for this process.

This is the big difference. What was being done effortlessly by a fifth grader in the U.K. needed a commerce graduate in India. And, I can't imagine a resource that has passed standard V doing this work in India. It is definitely not the question of thousands of graduates being available in the job market for taking up this job. Corporates will be more than willing to have less qualified resources for doing the job if they can deliver because that would mean a lesser salary burden. We simply cannot train a fifth grader to perform these tasks. In fact, if truth be told, even after hiring some of the brightest minds we barely managed to survive the transition pressures measured by stringent performance criteria.

Does that mean a fifth grader in the U.K. is equivalent to a graduate in India? That is also not true. It is because the Indian education system is inherently flawed due to imperfect delivery of the curricula, an archaic examination system, shortage of skilled teachers, inadequate supplementary reading and the student's inability to correlate theory and practice. “Education does not consist of passing examinations or knowing English or mathematics. It is a mental state,” said Jawaharlal Nehru. In summary, we miserably fail to elevate the thinking capacity and increase the breadth of faculty of the students while imparting education. This failure is deep-rooted and starts right from primary schools and gets compounded at institutes of higher learning.

Residual talent

Of all these issues, I would pick the shortage of quality teachers as the wrecker-in-chief. The reason is quite simple. The teaching profession, barring a few passionate individuals in the IITs, IIMs and some private institutions, is a job for the residual talent in the employment market.

The best engineering talent goes to the U.S. for higher studies and the cream of what remains is hired by the large corporates. After the small and medium enterprises complete the trawling, the leftover is looking for alternative sources of employment. Some of these people park themselves temporarily in teaching professions in private colleges or software training institutes. Over the next few months, they equip themselves with the requisite skills and look for opportunities in the mainstream employment market unless there are compelling reasons to stick to their current job.

There is nothing wrong in this approach because it would be embarrassing for a person to see his students earning two or three times his monthly salary coupled with frequent trips to foreign lands. I may sound blasphemous here, but the reality is we are left with teachers who continue in the teaching profession just because they are not able to find a job elsewhere. It is well-nigh impossible for these resources to inspire the student community in a graduate / postgraduate course. This is a sad and bitter truth confronting the education sector today.

Reading habit

I would also like to touch upon the issue of supplementary reading with a specific example. Gandhiji, during his days in England for his bar-at-law course, meets a person called Fredrick Pincutt. This meeting is sought by Gandhiji himself to ascertain his readiness for practising law. In Pincutt's evaluation, Gandhiji's general reading was very meagre. He says every Indian should know Indian history in detail. He also tells Gandhiji that although this has no connection with the practice of law, he ought to know this because knowledge of the world is a sine qua non for a lawyer. This will help him read a man's character from his face. Pincutt was also surprised that Gandhiji had not read about the First War of Indian Independence. Gandhiji immediately realises the importance of what Pincutt said and humbly accepts that he has not had much supplementary reading.

The reason for highlighting this incident from the Mahatma's autobiography is to emphasise the importance of cultivating the reading habit at a very young age to be successful in life.

I have another anecdote from my U.K. transition experience. We were designing an IT infrastructure to move scanned documents offshore and enable the processing through a workflow system. It was a complex project and we were interacting with a senior software developer to put the design together. He was around 30 and, in my opinion, one of the best software designers that money could buy. Curiosity got the better of me one day and I wanted to know his educational background. He told me that he had completed eighth grade in South Africa and migrated to the U.K. in search of employment. He was working as a courier boy for a year when he underwent software training and built his design skills. I was startled, to say the least. My team of two engineering graduates with three to four years of experience between them was no match for him. There are several such examples I can quote. None of the project managers and senior people that I met during the next two years was a college graduate.

Even after completing the transition, we were struggling to train the floor resources on Management Information (MI) and state-of-the-nation reports. The West had moved forward rapidly in operations management practices and our skill sets were woefully inadequate even for the catch-up work. And we had the floor overflowing with cost and chartered accountants, engineers and management graduates.

I am not trying to build a case for discontinuing our education methodology. Our method of teaching has the highest success percentage in the world in building literacy among people. The West has paid a heavy price for not paying attention to the delivery of education in society. My worry is we are bringing in a kind of under-employment where people do work that is much below the skill sets they are supposed to have. These resources will not be able to go up the corporate ladder and it will be very difficult to give them a career path. Ideally, we would want these graduates to upskill themselves and move up the value chain so that they don't become redundant. The government and society at large have to wake up to the reality that one day an African country might become the world's back office and IT hub and do to us what Bangalore or Chennai did to the western world. Before that, we have to make sure that our education system gets upgraded suitably and can mass produce well-rounded personalities who can take India on the path of glory.

(The writer's email is murali.pasupathy@naethra.com)

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