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Hot degrees fetch young India lukewarm jobs

A growing gap between the demands of the market and the education and skills that universities offer is spawning a generation of overqualified but underemployed youth. Charu Sudan Kasturi reports. Working class blues

delhi Updated: Oct 14, 2012 14:07 IST
Charu Sudan Kasturi

Amitesh Kumar is still getting used to perplexed looks from colleagues when he talks of his Alma mater, IIT Guwahati at his workplace, a Gurgaon call centre.

It wasn't the job the 24-year-old son of a lower division clerk from Darbhanga, Bihar, had dreamed of after an IIT engineering degree. But four months after he lost the consultancy job he landed straight after IIT, Kumar is still looking for better work than managing IT services for the call centre.

"This isn't what I was supposed to be doing," Kumar said. "But I don't have a choice."

It's a reality confronting an increasing number of young Indians across the country. A growing gap between the demands of industry, and the education and skills that many universities offer, is slowly spawning a generation of overqualified but underemployed – and dissatisfied -- youth.

Among urban, salaried Indians outside agriculture, 3% men and 3.8% women over 15 were seeking either more work or different work in 2004-05.

The numbers of these "invisible underemployed" – as this category of dissatisfied, employed citizens is called – have risen to 4.4% among men and 5.2% among women according to the latest National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) statistics released in 2011.

In rural India, the increase is invisible underemployment is even sharper: from 3.1% for both men and women in 2004-05 to 8% for men and 5% for women.

Some, like Kumar, are waiting to find jobs better suited to their education. But others, like Mumbai-based MBA graduate Ravinder Singh, are slowly giving up on dreams of making it to the top rungs of the corporate ladder.

Singh, who graduated from Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT), has spent almost every night the past six months applying for consulting jobs at Indian and global companies.

"I've only heard a no," Singh, working at his father's export business, said.

"I've learned to accept that my MBA doesn't guarantee me a job."

It's a crisis that industry has been warning the government about for a few years now. Repeated studies by industry chambers have shown that a majority of the country's graduates, including those specializing in engineering and management, are unemployable.

"When lots of MBAs come out of graduate school, they may have an understanding of organizational behaviour and management practices learned in classes, but they can't actually get work done in the real world," said Pooja Gianchandani, director and head of skill development at FICCI.

"That makes them unemployable."

The UPA government has recognized the skill deficit that threatens to derail India's potential to gain from a historic demographic dividend – over 60% of the country's population is under 30, at a time when the West, Japan and China are all aging.

The National Skill Development Mission, headed by the Prime Minister, aims to train 500 million citizens in skills ranging from modern agricultural techniques to plumbing, carpentry and industrial technologies by 2022.

The human resource development (HRD) ministry under Kapil Sibal is finalizing a National Vocational Education Qualifications Framework that will for the first time allow students to crossover between formal education and vocation streams.

But many of the programmes planned under the skill development mission are yet to take off, and those that have started are only starting to make a dent. The Industrial Training Institutes programme, starting in the 1960s, is stuck with a curriculum built for the public sector and specifically for manufacturing, when it is the private service sector that is creating jobs fastest in India.

A part of the problem is cultural, say experts. Unlike the west, hands-on service sector jobs have traditionally been looked down upon in India.

"There's no social appreciation for skilled labour, like say, a plumber," Gianchandani said.

"That needs to change, though it will take time."

New York-based Raj Gilda, who with his wife and friends runs a non-profit, Lend-a-Hand-India, that provides vocational training to schools across Maharashtra, found that his biggest challenge was to convince parents.

"I had to tell them that their kids would eventually become engineers, for parents to agree to have their kids train in welding or carpentry," Gilda said.

An explosion of professional schools – mainly engineering and MBA institutions – trying to cash in on India's growth story since 2000 is equally responsible for the underemployment crisis, said Bakul Dholakia, former IIM Ahmedabad Director.

All engineering schools together offered 8,25,791 seats at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in 2007-08. Today, they offer 19,05,802 seats. From about 2000 B-schools – public and private – at the turn of the century, the country today has 3844 schools offering MBAs or post-graduate diplomas in management.

In terms of the number of B-school opportunities available, the increase has been even sharper – an almost three-fold hike from 1,14,803 seats across undergraduate and postgraduate levels in 2007-08 to 3,13,920 seats in 2011-12.

Many of these B-schools run predominantly with visiting faculties.

"These visiting lecturers, typically from industry, basically relate their experiences to students," Dholakia said.

"That's important, but can't substitute for actual B-school case studies."

At least the top 2000 B-schools get "good" students, Dholakia said.

"Why are these institutions then unable to train these students in the skills that make them employable?" he asked.

"Unlike a BA or BSc, professional schools are all about jobs. If a school offering professional education is unable to get students jobs, it has failed."

Over 400 B-schools have shut down over the past two years, according to the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), India's apex technical education regulator.

"I see this phenomenon as the B-school market getting back to a healthy, sustainable state, from an unreal boom over the past decade," said Ulhas Vairagkar, director of TIME, one of the country's most popular coaching class networks.

But allowing the market alone to decide the fate of professional schools also leaves students at the mercy of fly-by-night institutions, Dholakia warned.

The AICTE – which needs to approve every B-school before it can start – should start revoking licenses of institutions that consistently show poor recruitment records, he argued.

"Right now, these shoddy B-schools are giving a bad name to the whole of management education in India," he said.

"We need to get our act together quickly."