Solving unemployability in India

TL;DR: India has an alarming unemployability problem with less than 10% of graduating students able to make it to the jobs they studied for. An outdated, rigid education system, cultural barriers and the lack of alumni + business network support seem to be major convicts of the crime. Cclub and AFS offer learning models that we can use to design solutions for this problem.

Photo by Saulo Mohana on Unsplash

Chapter 1: What is the problem?

On another rainy Koramangala evening, Product folk from across the city were valiantly fighting through the standstill Bengaluru traffic to get to another Crosstalk meetup session that we had been looking forward to for a month. The brave leader of my (apparently amphibious) Ola sailed through a flooded 80 Feet Road to drop me off at Investopad.

Ranjeet Pratap Singh (founder of Pratilipi) was telling Ujjwal Trivedi (Senior Product Manager at CouponDunia) the story of how he quit a comfortable high-paying job to start the “Medium for Indian languages” — which is also one of the most reviewed apps on Google Play Store. As an avid Hindi reader, he explained, he had realized that Indian language content and writers were not easily accessible online — that too in a market where the mainstream demand for Indian language content is exponentially increasing. (Read this piece from The Ken for more about this market).

At this juncture, we asked Ranjeet what his most immediate, but the hard-to-fulfill need was. His answer was something that has been resonating throughout corporate and startup offices in India and was even mentioned by our former and late President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam as one of the biggest problems faced by our country:

EMPLOYABLE TALENT!

According to Aspiring Minds National Employability Report published in 2016 (based on a study of more than 1,50,000 engineering students who graduated in 2013 from over 650 colleges), as many as 97% of graduating engineers want jobs either in software engineering or core engineering.

However, only 3% have suitable skills to be employed in software or product market, and only 7% can handle core engineering tasks.

According to the HRD ministry, India has 6,214 engineering and technology institutions which are enrolling 2.9 million students. Around 1.5 million engineers are released into the job market every year. But the dismal state of higher education in India ensures that they simply do not have adequate skills to be employed. However, it is not just the case with engineers. An ASSOCHAM report published in 2016 states that only 7% of MBA graduates from the 5,500 B-schools in the country, excluding those from the top 20 schools, get a job straight after completing their course.

Chapter 2: Why is it this way?

The rain had stopped but we were too deep into the discussion to notice. Sipping on our hot chocolates and cappuccinos, we started digging to the core of the problem.

The education system

In India, education is way too structured and streamlined. Once you get into a stream after Class 10th (Science, Commerce, Arts, etc.), it’s very hard to get into an alternative stream of education. A college education provides no scope for a broader view as well. If one is majoring in engineering, then other domains like economics or business are either not present or given no importance. Sometimes, it is so bad that students studying Electrical Engineering have no clue of Mechanical Engineering even though both skills require a co-dependency.

However, the reality of the market is different: you’re required to understand much more than what you majored in.

You need to be aware of the company’s business model, what market needs are, how the economy is developing, how to deal with clients, what policies affect the business, relevant innovations in the sector, etc.

Being a specialist is a thing of the past and generalists rule the world today.

Just look at Elon Musk or Steve Jobs to know what generalists can do. Majoring in one course does not cut it and colleges don’t seem to care. Some students who understand this need use college clubs to fulfill this but these clubs seldom get enough support to be successful.

Also, majoring in a particular course doesn’t even educate the student in that field:

– Most learning material is outdated and the student seldom gets an opportunity to apply a theory to the real world in order to learn from that experience.

– Internships happen just once or twice in the full span of the course.

– A mammoth curriculum (which is squeezed into a limited window) eats into the time needed to explore the actual application of theory.

→ The common myth in the education world is that students do not want to learn once the course tenure is over.

Cultural barriers

As defined by Dutch social psychologist, Dr. Geert Hofstede in his study of cultural dimensions of more than 50 countries:

India is a collectivist and high power distance country which means that we believe in decisions that value groups over the individual — and we revere authority.

These cultural intricacies mean:

– Children are not given enough of a choice about career and so, they are generally not even interested in exploring alternative career options based on their skills.

– Parents are very protective of their children and consider it a responsibility to take care of all their needs.

→ Therefore, Indians rarely take up part-time jobs or freelance during their education and it’s no wonder that we never get to understand what it means to work in the real world!

Another interesting cultural dimension was explored by Dutch-French organizational theorist Dr. Fons Trompenaar.

He defines India as a country that prefers ascription over achievement. This means that as a country, we generally appreciate age, experience and “family name” over expertise and achievement.

This bias extends to the job market — even amongst entrepreneurs. In Ranjeet’s words, “VCs say that you don’t have business experience. Bloody hell, neither did Mark Zuckerberg.”

Youngsters are devoid of opportunities so many times because they just haven’t clocked the number of years to qualify for a job even if they have the skills for it. However, there is a change happening with the emerging startup culture in the country.

Network support

Except for the few premier colleges, most colleges in India have failed to harness the power of alumni, mostly because of two reasons:

1: These colleges don’t have a good alumni connect program.

2: College alumni are ashamed to be identified with their alma mater.

Thus, the learning and connections they garner in the real world are seldom used to help juniors get a head-start when they graduate.

And non-premier colleges have no access to the corporate leader and entrepreneur networking opportunities that could have made an impact with connections.

Chapter 3: How do we solve this?

As the coffees started getting cold and empty, we started getting desperate for some solutions to the demogorgon-ish monster of unemployability. Fortunately, some of us had some experience applying learning models that could offer a solution.

The Cclub model

Cclub is a swarm of WhatsApp groups started by one of our Crosstalk friends to help non-premier engineering college students be more employable. Their website’s headline bluntly states:

https://cclub.io

The WhatsApp groups cover a broad spectrum of topics including recommended reading, project collaboration, random chit-chat and even learning Urdu. Our friend enthusiastically showed us a deck for Cclub on his computer:

“The idea is to throw a lot of ping pong balls to open up the students’ minds. We give them a lot of random content that makes sense.”

He compares the system to nature by using the analogy that a student is like a tree that adapts to the constraints. Students who are entrepreneurial tend to go towards multi-level marketing schemes whereas other students find various college clubs and online resources to achieve their goals. Cclub is building an exploratory information highway (He points us to a talk by Lalitesh Katragadda— the creator of Google MapMaker — at Unpluggd 2016 where he talks about the concept of information highways) to guide these students towards their goals faster without really telling them their destination. They eventually figure it out.

Another important aspect that Cclub focuses on is the network. Cclub connects the students to people working in different fields through AMAs (Ask Me Anything) where they answer questions from the students, generally about what their future career could entail. Cclub also connects these students with each other for collaboration and peer learning.

He points out that this network is especially helpful to female students as they generally miss out on networking and collaboration opportunities due to stringent college restrictions in India about how long they can stay out– and sometimes even who they can talk to.

The Cclub concept was a hit with students and what started as a small network of students from a single college grew into a network of students from 8–10 colleges in 1 year just by word-of-mouth.

The AFS model

AFS is a 100+-year-old organization started by American ambulance drivers who volunteered to pick up the wounded from the war zone during the World Wars regardless of the side they were fighting on. After the Second World War, they came together to heal the planet through empathy. They believed the best way to build empathy is to make friends across borders and therefore, the AFS Intercultural exchange programs were born.

AFS ambulance drivers picking up the wounded from the war zone

I was a high school exchange student with AFS and currently, I am on the Board of Trustees of the organization.

An interesting fact to note is that AFS uses David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle to help participants gain personal, interpersonal, intercultural and active global citizenship skills.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle
  1. Concrete Experience: The participant first has an intercultural exchange experience.
  2. Reflective Observation: Through periodic orientations and monthly counseling sessions, the participant reflects on the experience and reviews what happened.
  3. Abstract Conceptualisation: Through some learning content, AFS orientation leaders and counselors help the participant derive learning from the experience.
  4. Active Experimentation: The learners are encouraged to draft out an action plan to understand how to use their learning back in the real world which leads them to another round of experience.

The cycle continues and learning evolves. The learner does not blindly make the theory her Bible but just uses it as a tool to make sense of the experience. The learner also gets to validate the theory in the real world and therefore, the learning comes from the application of the theory and not the theory itself.

An AFS workshop in progress

This approach makes the learning relevant for the learner. AFS also believes in the concept of lifetime learning and provides more opportunities of learning for participants after their exchange period is over.

This approach could be used in Indian college education as well where learning happens through validation of the theory using frequent real-world assignments with an opportunity to reflect on the results of each assignment.

Theory needs to follow experience and not the other way around.

Learning need not be rushed and learners should be allowed to learn at their own pace. The focus needs to be on providing learners with the tools to continue learning themselves instead of having a non-negotiable and time-bound curriculum.

Chapter-4: The Conclusion

Although the above models may not be perfect solutions to the unemployability problem in India, they definitely give us a direction towards possible solutions. This is a problem that needs us to act fast if we really want to take advantage of our demographic dividend.

Please let us know in the comments what your thoughts are about the unemployability problem and how we can solve it together as a country.

Sr. Product Manager at Clipboard Health, No-code Instructor at Bubble, Intercultural Trainer, Geek Blood

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