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Covid-induced recruiting slump likely to affect skills, employability

In the last 14 months, while colleges and universities have switched to the online mode for classes and exams, they were hard-pressed to find a digital alternative for research work, hands-on skill training and laboratory work, and compulsory internship components of some courses
By Fareeha Iftikhar and Kainat Sarfaraz
UPDATED ON MAY 28, 2021 05:39 PM IST

Lack of on-site internship experiences, prolonged closure of educational institutes restricting access to the lab and practical work, switch to digital mode of learning and Covid-induced recruiting slump are likely to affect the skills and employability of students currently studying professional courses.

Education institutions have mostly been shut for regular classes since March last year. Last November, students were allowed to return to the campuses in a staggered manner only for research, practical, and laboratory work in accordance with Covid-19 guidelines laid down by University Grants Commission (UGC). However, even before the work could have resumed on the campuses, the second wave of Covid-19 hit the country, and education institutions were again closed for students in April.

In the last 14 months, while colleges and universities have switched to the online mode for classes and exams, they were hard-pressed to find a digital alternative for research work, hands-on skill training and laboratory work, and compulsory internship components of some courses. Several university officials feared that the lack of industry experience and expertise may affect the recruitment process in the coming years.

Impact on internships and job opportunities

The pandemic situation did not allow thousands of students to join internships and on-field training, which are essential for them to polish their skills for future job opportunities. Many of them ended up joining online internships.

Aparnendu Tripathi, a final-year student of civil engineering at Delhi Technical University (DTU), said, “Internships help us understand how workspaces function, observe the flow of work, deal with manpower and resources on the field. For civil and mechanical engineering students, particularly, missed being on the field. The online mode wasn’t helpful in acquiring those skills.”

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Mohammad Usman Siddiqui, a final-year engineering student at Jamia Millia Islamia, said students are worried as the lack of offline internships may affect the recruitment process. “For mechanical and civil engineering, candidates need to be in the field and the lack of experience during internship also affects recruitment. Of the 88 students in my batch, only four students have been placed so far,” said Siddiqui, who has not been placed yet.

Siddiqui added the rise in “pool drive” recruitment was also affecting the number of students hired from a particular college or university.

Explaining the meaning of the “pool drive” system, Hena Singh, the in-charge of Delhi University’s (DU) central placement cell, said, “Earlier, companies would register with the university and that would offer a level-playing field for all DU students from every college. Now, they are opting for consultancy firms or agencies that connect them to students which means employers can pick if they want to opt for campus colleges or off-campus colleges. Companies also do not have to agree to the base salary proposed by universities if they approach students via these agencies as compared to university placement cells.”

Singh said the central placement cell had arranged for around 1,400 internships till May – fewer than previous years when the university arranged around 3,000-4,000. “The second wave of Covid meant several families and students were affected by it. Many wanted either paid internships or could not enrol for training because of their situation at home. This too added to the lack of industry experience,” she said.

Officials at several universities said even as the number of placements and internship offers in the IT and digital sector has gone up, some sectors have been severely affected amid the pandemic in terms of job opportunities.

Nisha Singh, placement officer with Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University or IP University, said, “The manufacturing sector and the core branches of engineering including mechanical and civil have been affected by the pandemic situation since there are no jobs available. Last year we also witnessed the same. We had started some drive in March and April for students pursuing these courses but then again the lockdown was imposed.”

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Singh said that the journalism students at the University are getting internship opportunities only from online news portals or content management companies. “The jobs are less in comparison to the regular time,” she said.

Blow to technical and skill-based learning

Mayank Kumar, a student of mechanical engineering at Netaji Subhas University of Technology (NSUT), said, “Most of our course is based on practicals and laboratory work. It’s been over 13-14 months that we could not resume work offline. Even as the university is conducting online practical classes, it feels we are completing the course for the sake of it. I have no idea how we will fill this gap.”

Several other students pursuing courses that require extensive on-field experience also shared the same concern. Sanjh Sharma, a final year student of multimedia course at IP University, said, “Generally students pursue internships during summer and winter breaks or do individual projects such as filmmaking during this time. We could not get any such experience. We are in fact doing all our photography and videography assignments at home. Not all of us have high-end laptops and devices to practice editing. What will I do even if I get an internship?”

Manasvini Yogi, OSD, Delhi School of Journalism, DU, said, “We could not give them field reporting assignments due to the pandemic. We had online assignments and workshops, but it cannot compensate for the practical experience,” she said.

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Not just technical courses, but field research has also been hit. Sonali Garg, 33, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Environmental Studies of Delhi University, said with the rise in Covid-19 cases across the country, researchers fear another “drought” of work. “My research work involves amphibians – mainly frogs, which are seasonal animals. We collect raw data from the field, come back to the lab and then do molecular research. Last year, we could neither visit the field nor the labs. This year, I took a health risk and travelled to a site to collect raw data. But it didn’t work out as planned. We had thought that work may resume this year but with the rising cases, it becomes uncertain. Since my research is funded by external agencies, I have a timeline and research targets to meet. That has gone for a toss due to Covid-19,” she said.

Officials at some universities said that the Covid-19 pandemic prompted many students to choose higher education over jobs to brush up their skills and fill the gaps.

Rihan Suri, placement officer at Jamia Millia Islamia, said, “Many students are opting for higher education to build on their skillset for two years or are changing their fields to sectors that are now hiring...Students haven’t been able to come to university regularly and practical knowledge for professional courses has taken a hit. This will affect the experience and quality of trained professionals in the coming years. This can be compensated when the situation is better as students are more into self-training now.”

Meanwhile, DTU has used innovative methods to help students. Rajesh Rohilla, head of training and placement, said the varsity conducted in-house training for around 800 students involving faculty members and industry experts in addition to the online internships.

“The industrial training component of students coincided with the first and second waves of Covid in the country. This left an impact on their training and skills. To address this, we organised the in-house training wherein students developed projects using simulation and available digital tools to gather as much experience as they can,” he said.

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