How do corporates see and treat the problems in employability?

With low level of skills and willingness to learn, jobs aren't easy to come by, but in-house training and on-the-job training by the corporates helps improve the skills and employability for management graduates. What does the scenario look like?

This article is supported by SVP Cities of India Fellowship

Bengaluru has slowly become India’s top MBA destination, and along with it, the city has witnessed an exponential rise in the number of multinational companies and startups setting up shop here. This mutual dependence between the two – colleges and companies, sets a precedence for better partnership along the lines of skilling and employment opportunities.

With this as the focus, this article looks at the issue of employability among management graduates, trailing the issue at every level.

Schooling culture

The issues surrounding employability in India start from the very beginning of a graduate’s educational journey – school. The overall narrative of schooling in India is that it focuses only on rote learning via outdated textbooks that focus only on one achievement – marks. The issue with “mugging up” is not entirely detrimental to the child – it does promote important skills such as memory and structure – but simultaneously it pushes the student into a narrow form of knowledge collection that is devoid of any understanding and application.

The fall out of the methods of learning and teaching – this “culture” – then carries over to higher institutions; as a result the outgoing student finds oneself inadequate for the industry. Thejaswi Udupa (director of RoofandFloor (an online real-estate market) and an IIM graduate himself ) claims that the root of the issue of poor placement records is that, “We prioritise the wrong things. We prioritise rote learning and discipline over curiosity and learning, at all levels of education. Until that changes, these problems will persist.”

There are some structural improvements taking place across education boards in order to make the entire process more comprehensive – from changing grading parameters, to increasing play time along for school-going children, with filtering and making the syllabus more relevant.

Higher education

It is imperative then, that these changes filter into the higher education system, for there are similar issues even in these institutions – facilities and faculty form the largest share. A comparison between Bengaluru’s top institutions and the tier-2 and 3 colleges should provide us with an insight as to why our higher education institutions fail. In a detailed interview with Citizen Matters, V Ravi Kumar, the Head Placement Officer for the Symbiosis Institute of Business Management (Bengaluru) outlined the reasons why Tier-1 institutions such as his stood out. The institution is an outlier among other management institutions in Bangalore; with a 97% placement rate for 2018.

At first he did accept the overall issues faced by Indian students in areas of placements and employability.

“The increase in the number of institutions that offer the MBA course has gone up, even the IIMs are part of this phenomenon. This in some way has led to the overall drop in quality of students and faculty. Even we have seen a slump in the quality of students at the intake stage. For example, the SNAT (Symbiosis National Aptitude Test) has had to drop its cutoff rate from the higher 80s to the mid-80s.”

“As you know, the UGC has already classified the various colleges in India (based on infrastructure, placements, faculty etc.), into Tier-1, 2 and so on. The IIMs and ourselves are some of the few institutions to enjoy a Tier-1 position, so comparisons between our curricula, placement rates and faculty, to those in the lower rung is like comparing apples and oranges.”

“Internship tie-ups, feedback and networking important”

Barring differences in infrastructure, Kumar pointed to the various courses, workshops, training modules and student profiles maintained by SIBM(B). Even before the students join, the college pushes upon them the importance of the task ahead. Scaling up their 3 credit internship course in the beginning of the first year from April-May to a 9 credit course, SIBM has ensured that the students take job prospects much more seriously; furthermore their tie up with Harvard Business School allows them to expose the incoming students to the international format and content of the curriculum.

Kumar also spoke about the results of their internship programme. “Our internship tie-ups with the corporate sector, along with our soft-skill courses (communication, work-place manner etc.), go above and beyond the traditional focus on domain knowledge. Close to 40% of our students get PPOs after their internships, and the rest that do not, are cycled back, reviewed and course-corrected to ensure that by the second year they are on par with the rest.”

Addressing the issue of incompetent faculty, Kumar spoke about the compulsory bi-annual training programme that the college conducts along with ISB and IIM, and how a large portion of the faculty comes from industry, or are well-known, accredited academics with published papers and teaching degrees. This ensures some degree of “industry focus”; an element of collegiate education that is lacking in many Tier-2 and 3 universities.

Finally on the lucrativeness of the MBA degree itself, Kumar sees the rise of a more moderate tone in the last few years and for the upcoming ones as well, “It is really 50-50, the MBA as a course, with its curriculum is always good to have; but what really sets it apart is the “networking package” that comes with it. Students across years have a greater connection between themselves, the faculty and corporate and that makes job seeking, security and switching much easier. Also, the entrepreneurial side of our courses and interactive workshops with established startups also ensure that our students start somewhere in the field of business, locally on campus, along with friends or for campus-mates.”

“Those who have the drive get help”

A Placement Head for a tier-2 institution (who does not wish to be identified) claimed that, “…over the last few months we have seen a dip in Corporate’s requirement for MBA graduates because of the economic slowdown, but 80-90% of our graduates do find placements.” But what really stood out in this conversation was the shift in onus. “Students who show the drive, who want careers are those that are helped. Some in the beginning seem motivated but eventually leave the idea of a career. I can say that 10-15% of our graduates join family businesses while 20% end up starting their own businesses”.

On being asked about faculty training and college programmes, the reply was simple yet vague. “Our faculty is very good, and we are very strict about the quality of the students we let in. Even though we have many seats to fill, we make sure students are worthy of it. Sometimes we let someone with lower academic standings to enter the university because we know that at the end of it all, with some luck, the student will fit corporate’s demands. Every year we take feedback from recruiters, and corporate invariably influences the course structures. We have MOUs with a variety of foreign institutions”.

On the other hand, when asked about how the college views the MBA programme, the source was unable to comment, citing the fact that the inhouse placement programme had been developed only in the last few years in terms of the degree and that it [the college] depends entirely on its alumni network to secure placements.

Of course the issues of employability and mitigating them, remain a matter of time, and hopefully the top-down structural reformation taking place across regulatory bodies will allow the quality of students to rise in the coming years. But what is of serious concern is the lack of industry-focused training within our institutions; what must be the result of a strong corporate-governmental agreement is absent. Updating the syllabi and hiring “better” quality faculty will only result in students with higher technical knowledge and not the skills the market requires. It is important for the corporate sector to dictate its terms well, and also ensure that the students it hires can hit the ground running and that responsibility lies also with the sector.

Furthermore, the more deep-rooted issues revolving around our schooling culture – rote learning, the pure focus on marks, parental pressure, the need to keep claiming degree after degree, with no work experience  – must be negated with a newer form of schooling and learning. According to BK Birla, founder of Check4spam, “There are some changes that can be made to how courses are structured. I went to IIT Kanpur – that was a long time ago, but there we had the options of electives – subjects of our choosing; that help in bringing a certain unique experience to the student. Today that offering is trickling down to other colleges as well.”

Corporate & Industry

The Lenovo model – hiring and training

The most glaring element of the “employability issue” is the gap between the industry’s rapidly changing requirements and the knowledge and skills imparted to graduates in colleges across the country. The lack of an industry focus in college syllabi is what makes students unfit for the jobs they seek. This issue persists even though 78% of universities agree that industry-academia tie ups will better the entrepreneurial ecosystem and boost the skill tree of students involved.

Unfortunately, only a few institutions and organisations, on either side afford to actuate any skilling initiative; establishing a scenario where either party campaigns to get rid of the problem within their own isolated environs. This invariably causes problems of overriding emphasis on differing skills and knowledge – either extremely industry focused, or not.

This autarchic mode of skilling is in part due to the change in the requirements of traditional jobs and even the types of companies present in the Indian market today. Specifically looking at the IT sector, Birla’s view is that, “the Indian IT industry was primarily a services industry, where work was done within a single parameter – time, give and take the importance of quality. Now the industry is based on the consumer-products format, where firms have to understand and guess what the consumer needs/wants.” The now-pervasive consumer-based approach of the modern economy versus the traditional product-focused business model is what demands completely new set of skills required by both the employer and the employees. While problems with technical and domain knowledge is still prevalent across streams, dealing with them is a much simpler matter; but how do we deal with the lack of acumen among our graduates?

Firms like Lenovo India that recruit only management graduates from the top B-schools in the country have maintained a “trial period” for new hires in the first year of their employment. Along with this, the first month is dedicated to a detailed company orientation and training programme that intimates the recruit with the day-to-day business practices, places him/her in project scenarios; working with members from different functional areas, but in their own segments. It also outlines the terms of engagement between employees and those outside. “Many recruits have no prior experience; they are not groomed for the corporate culture. Through our training programs and constant feedback, we make sure that they are exposed to the leadership circles and understand what is expected out of them.”

Voonik model: training and hiring

Another firm that follows a similar model of induction is Voonik, an online fashion retailer that exclusively caters to women. Raghu Lakkapragada, the Chief Opperating Officer, spoke about how the company mitigates the issue of employability by ensuring that the prospective recruits are exposed to the expectations of the organisation, while simultaneously being tested by it. “We don’t directly hire freshers, we first put them through a year-long internship program, where we impart both technical and non-technical training through multiple projects and scored tests”.

Additionally, “the professionalism – communication and organisational skills – is imparted to them in  the same period”. Having hired engineering graduates from tier-2 and 3 colleges for both tech and non-tech roles, along with management graduates from tier-1 colleges – such as IIM Shillong/Indore or ISB – Lakkapragada has a broad experience with the issue of employability, and finds only one real problem area – that of attitude. “There is a disparity between the perceptions of the candidate and the realities of work life. There is this need for instant gratification among most recruits that are based on these perceptions.”

But, Voonik’s model has worked in their favour, “We know that our training module and structure works.” The periods during and after the internships are bookended by interviews, that assess the recruits’ expectations and whether they fit into the organisation. “Those who don’t fit the job requirements are immediately filtered out, while those who do, stay.” Lakkapragada acknowledges that this may not be solely the success of the company’s training programme, but also the social perks of having batched recruits, i.e. those coming from the same schools prefer to stick together for a few years. But among all one motif stands out: “What is startling is that we have seen those without previous technical training excel at coding positions and those with specific technical degrees become superstars in the customer services segment. This shows that learnability as a skill is key in determining where a recruit can feel comfortable and perform well.”

Thejaswi Udupa echos the same opinion: “What companies want out of fresh college hires, and what such students must adopt as their credit is the willingness and ability to learn. In the beginning, willingness is more important, but there must soon be enough demonstrations of the ability too… through outcomes.”

Ample scope for skilling

KPMG, one of the top recruiters for the past year claims to follow an intimate training module with its hirees from campus recruitment to inhouse induction programmes. It also ensures that academia is not kept in the dark about corporate’s demands, and provides constructive feedback and support to the students and faculty alike.

According to Unmesh Pawar (the head for the People, Performance and Culture department for KPMG India), “Traditionally the approach has been around functional and technical skills with very little importance given to developing the human side when it comes to students. As student’s graduate, important skills like all-round creativity, complex problem solving and innovation should take center stage.” The issues of attitude and aptitude carry themselves even in these top firms where, “client requirements can be challenging” and, “it’s imperative that employees are ahead of the curve on solving complex problems for our clients through client-centric attitude, adopting a solution-oriented mindset, and more importantly, being trusted advisors to them.”

Unmesh, like others agree that, “When it comes to Corporate India, there exists a dearth of holistic professionals who aren’t mainstream,” therefore preventing any form of vocational training and all-round corporate skilling before these graduates are pushed into the network.

In order to mitigate any issues of employability, KPMG has begun a variety of initiatives, one of which is the ASPIRE Programme that begins to hone students from the school-level, and another is the KPMG Business School “that does a great job of providing a phenomenal learning experience in this digital age.” And concurrently, “Many of our colleagues also contribute back to colleges by helping shape their curriculum and conducting master classes for the students.”

The Bangalorean-startup culture allows for a more traditional method of determining one’s skills on the job, according to Thejaswi Udupa, “…the current favoured approach seems to be to throw these fresh graduates into the deep end and see who can swim up. While from a company’s perspective it is logical enough an approach, it tends to have adverse effects on the individuals who fail to cope. And this is where there is a role for third parties who can help skill these people.”

This article is supported by SVP Cities of India Fellowship. The Insights into Bengaluru series on ‘Employability’ includes:

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