Mind the Employability Gap

March 31, 2020 Arush Dhawan

It was April 2010. Our entire batch of 54 chemical engineers was having farewell dinner with our faculties and sharing experiences. One of our favorite professors started speaking. He shared a couple of funny instances about how few of us tried to outsmart him in exams but in the end, failed. However, the best part of his speech came at the end. He said, something that his professor told him when he was graduating,

“We have not made you engineers, we have made you ready to become engineers. Go, learn and become proud engineers once you join corporate world”.

These words have stuck with me since then and I found them very apt in today’s scenario when engineering as a course is seeing a downturn. Admissions are going down year on year. Those graduating are not being considered employable enough to join corporate. Employability, or rather lack of it, has become the talk of the town.

Has the current generation, Gen Z as we call them, really become that unemployable? Is something wrong with the entire generation? Are the previous generations much smarter than Gen Z? To find out answers to these questions we brought together close to 40 chairpersons/top management people from prominent universities in North and South India, along with few corporates - the best set of people to find solutions and implement them.

2 different events, 2 different locations, 5 corporates, 40 chairpersons but challenges - same.

Having witnessed both the discussions, I can safely categorize the problems in following three buckets:

  1. Outdated delivery mechanism in colleges
  2. Corporate wants ‘A complete package’
  3. Decision Paralysis

Outdated delivery mechanism

We all love our childhood stories. I am sure all of us would have read, heard, told the story of monkeys and the cap seller. It’s 2020 now. The grandson of the cap seller is now continuing the same business of cap selling. One day he was walking through the village when he felt tired and decided to take rest under a tree. While resting he started playing a game on his mobile phone (we don’t sleep anymore :P) and lost track of his surroundings. Once his game got over he realized the caps from his baskets have all been taken by the monkeys. He remembered his grandfather’s story and throws the cap on his head, however, this time one of the monkeys comes down and takes away the last cap as well, saying “Even our grandfather shared the story”.
You may be wondering about the significance of this story here. While this is a humorous addition to the classic tale, I feel it fits well with our topic. The grandson failed as he assumed the method that worked in his grandfather’s time will work today as well. He could not be more wrong.
The same is happening in our college education as well. The current generation has moved online. They feel engaged in courses that are more practical and less theoretical. In our employability survey, live projects came on top, as a means of engagement on campus. Amidst all this change, the teaching mechanism and curriculum has stayed the same for years. In the times of YouTube and Instagram, it is almost impossible to engage Gen Z with age-old pedagogy style. Moreover, the courses being taught in colleges are not in sync with corporate requirements - leading to a widening gap between jobs and skills.
Is this the reason this generation is not motivated enough to perform? If they are not engaged how can we expect them to perform. Is this the cause of poor placements and hence lower admissions in engineering? Well, it surely came out as one of the top challenges that colleges are facing. Can we do something about it? More on that later.

Corporate wants ‘A complete package’

Automation has not taken away our jobs. Automation has removed trivial/mechanical/irrelevant aspects of our jobs so that we can now focus on critical aspects of our roles such as improving delivery to clients. Earlier it took anywhere between 6-12 months before a fresher was asked to sit in front of clients, however, with increased automation and cost pressures companies now want to make them billable within 6 weeks.
This leads to our second challenge - corporates want ‘A complete package’. To make them billable faster, corporates expect freshers to have desired coding, aptitude and communication skills before they graduate - a fair ask in my view. Unfortunately, the ground reality is different and again in some way linked to the first challenge that is widening the job-skill mismatch.
I strongly feel while aptitude is something that gets developed in school days, other skills such as coding, communication can be improved by timely effort by colleges and students. Rather than focusing on these skills few weeks or months before placements, if timely and systematic interventions are planned right from the first year (and in an engaging manner) then job readiness of students can definitely be improved multiple notches.
As someone rightly pointed out during our discussions:

“Since engineering is a 4-year journey, a technology that is in demand today may not be so relevant 4 years down the line”.

Hence the focus should be on giving these basic skills to students. The intent should be to improve the overall quality of students. Once that is in place placements will automatically flow.

Decision Paralysis

Switch, authored by Chip and Dan Heath, talks about decision paralysis, wherein having multiple options, even though they are good ones, is not necessarily good. It leads to decision paralysis and more often than not people end up getting confused or falling back to default option.
It won’t be wrong to say, the current generation, unlike earlier generations, is spoilt for choices, leading to confusion and/or choosing engineering as the default option, without much interest in the same. This ultimately leads to a lack of ambition and a decline in performance.
Can we do something about it? Is there a way we can guide these students and give them ‘life skills’, not just technical skills? You may be investing resources in giving them technical skills, however, if the student is not clear about what he/she should be doing, all that effort will go in vain.
What can be those life skills that we can impart them to help choose the right path and survive in today’s VUCA world? Something for all us to ponder about.
While all of us in this environment are dealing with these problems/challenges, the situation is not that grim. All is not lost. This generation can also do/is doing wonders, all they need is both emotional and logical attachment to the task at hand. How can we do that? More on that in 2nd and concluding part of this series.

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About the Author

Arush Dhawan

Arush Dhawan is the National Lead – Institutions at Aon's Assessment Solutions. He is an expert in providing employability solutions to colleges and has a deep understanding of online assessments, recruitment, talent & human resource technology. He and his team are working on bridging job-skill gap and providing #equalopportunity to candidates by providing solutions from admissions to placements.

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