Earlier this week, many of the Tweet-sending, blog-reading, link-sharing and overall nation-building masses went into a tizzy over a post on The New York Times India Ink blog. Titled ‘An Open Letter to India’s Graduating Classes’, the piece by a partner with professional services firm KPMG pointed out a number of shortcomings in the legions of fresh graduates that India produces each year.
“There are five key attributes employers typically seek and, in fact, will value more and more in the future. Unfortunately, these are often lacking in you and your colleagues,” says Mohit Chandra.
The substance of Chandra’s blog post is hard to disagree with. A number of times in the past, this column has talked about the ‘unemployability’ of the vast majority of our fresh graduates. Many of them, including most of those from our top-flight elite institutions, graduate with little more than the ability to pass examinations. (Which ability, I cannot emphasise strongly enough, has no correlation whatsoever with actually possessing knowledge or understanding the subject of evaluation.)
Chandra broadly points out five key shortcomings: poor communication skills, poor problem solving, low engagement, a lack of interest in continuous learning, and a lack of professionalism.
All these are, no doubt, crippling problems for any individual in any walk of life, leave alone fresh graduates. And yes many, many Indian graduates suffer from them.
The post ends with a call to action: “Be aware of these five attributes, don’t expect the gravy train to run forever, and don’t assume your education will take care of you. Rather, invest in yourself—in language skills, in thirst for knowledge, in true professionalism and, finally, in thinking creatively and non-hierarchically.”
But if Chandra is talking to fresh graduates, he is perhaps talking to precisely the wrong constituency. Because, while I agree that our graduates are hardly manna from heaven, I also believe that they don’t choose to be that way. They don’t transform into shallow, hierarchical, unethical, non-professionals 15 minutes before they graduate.
They don’t sit up and think one day: “You know what? The Indian economy is booming. I am entitled to awesome things. I think I will become a complete tool now.”
I am sure there are some genuine, wilful jerks in our colleges. But the vast majority? Merely products of a system that crushes them repeatedly, year after year, for exhibiting precisely the skills Chandra wants to see more of.
Let us start with hierarchies. A culture that puts elders on a high pedestal, demands unquestioning obedience from children, and shoots non-conformity at first sight, even in companies themselves, has no right to expect its young people to magically blossom into non-hierarchical whiz kids come graduation time. And no business school or graduate college can undo in six years the conditioning that society has done for the first 18.
‘Thirst for knowledge’ must be seen likewise. This thirst cannot evolve independent of schools or homes that encourage inquiry, experimentation and scepticism. While a brief glance at CBSE textbooks indicates that this is changing, we have an educational system that still obsesses with method rather than meaning, and theory rather than practice. And because we are petrified of any subjective evaluation at any level, we equip our young people to deal with a barrage of objective evaluations. This means answering standard questions with standard answers. Where does the issue of non-standard answers, creativity and originality even arise?
Similar observations about professionalism and communication skills can be made. But here colleges and business schools have a greater role to play: skills can be taught and ethics can be imparted.
(I am not even going to get into the issue of what locus corporate India—or corporates anywhere—has to lecture about ethics. That would be too easy, lazy and beside the point. Recently Ernst and Young asked executives all over the world if they would pay a bribe to retain business. Globally, 15% of surveyed executives said they would. But in India, 28% said they were ready to bribe for business. India performed worst.)
But even if you account for social conditioning, poor schooling and inadequate training in college, there is still one step in the graduate employment process that should push back and help unsettle the entire chain: the hiring process.
Simply look at the process of campus placements, where companies can hire in a highly controlled environment. They have access to all the students they want, all the resumes they need and often don’t have to negotiate salaries at all: campus jobs usually come with standard pay packets.
Unless things have changed drastically in the last decade, I recall companies picked resumes and prepared short-lists primarily on the basis of academic performance. The toppers always get picked. Indeed the factors that Chandra mentions—communication, professionalism, ethics—figure, if at all, only at some later stage.
In other words, where are the incentives for graduates to turn away from books and try other things?
Graduates must take Chandra’s message to heart. But so must parents, teachers and the recruiters themselves.