Thursday, August 07, 2014

Education for Employment: What Employers Want

In course of my initial approach to understand India's skills landscape, I have been interviewing a few recruiting managers over the last few days. The issues I came across ranged from wholly predictable to somewhat surprising, underlining not just the drift of the modern workplace but also the unique challenges an Indian recruiting manager are facing.

I am conscious that these conversations are, by no means, representative. I was talking to people from only two specific industries, and it is obviously quite a small sample to draw conclusion about the Indian labour markets. But this was still worth writing about as the starting point of a more complete project I want to embark upon, to understand the interfaces between employment and education.

When I asked my correspondents what their greatest challenges were, the responses were somewhat mixed. Almost everyone talked about, in one way or other, about finding people with right abilities in the numbers they need: A straw poll tells me that only 20% of the people recruited who matched the profile desired by the employers, and there are some compromise being made for the majority of candidates.

However, the definition of 'right abilities' was somewhat surprising: As it turned out, the recruiters may be placing greater emphasis on Communication and Presentation Skills, and 'right attitude', than the technical abilities. The consensus was that while specific technical skills can be taught, communication and behavioural skills are much more difficult to deal with. Indeed, this is where the compromise is being made, people with inadequate communication skills are being recruited because there is no other alternative. There was no consensus, however, on whether this means the technical skills of the recruited candidates are usually adequate: Most of them thought these were inadequate too, but it mattered less, but a few thought they were getting the right level of tech skills.

The recruiting managers cited that the required volume and the urgency of the requirements are far too great for them to be 'perfectionists'. They were also conscious that there is a huge churn - one recruiting manager told me that they have to replace at least 30% of their total workforce every year - which, rather paradoxically, makes them less sensitive to getting the recruitment right. On my suggestion whether they could perhaps reduce the churn by tightening recruitment was mostly met with a rather fatalistic reply: That this is the way of the market and it is unlikely to be changed. Overall, this approach to recruitment might be a reflection of the business model of some industries, which depended on recruitment of lots of people with basic technical skills, but the approach seems to be universal. I talked to one successful business which runs a chain of diagnostic centres, which had quite a similar challenge and a similar approach, though their requirement of technical skills were quite specific and higher compared to an industry like insurance; surprisingly, they also suffer from a high level of churn, perhaps a reflection of the competitive nature of the market.

The idea of churn seemed to be all pervasive - which is not surprising - but this led to surprising conclusions. Most people accepted this as a given, and built recruitment strategies with the assumption that most people they are recruiting will leave the job quite soon. The recruitment focus was therefore based on numbers and not the skills, and communication skills mattered more than technical skills. Piecing all these together, it seemed that someone with a good communication skill can easily secure any job and can command a good salary because of the competitive nature of the market, but high level technical skills mattered much less (which may not be a correct impression, but skewed because of the limited scope of my survey).

The other big issue that came up, surprisingly, is the question of mobility. I perhaps somewhat mistakenly assumed that the issue of mobility has been resolved - post-liberalisation Indians are much more mobile than my own generation - but it still seemed to be an issue. Indeed, there were differences among industries here: The IT recruiters did not think mobility was an issue anymore, but everyone else did. It also seemed that there are some unspoken regional preferences in recruitment, though it was difficult to ascertain whether these were personal preferences of the recruiting managers or a more institutional approach. On the other hand, there was no clear gender preferences: That I even brought up the question offended some of my correspondents.

Indian employers reported spend the least among the BRIC countries in training their staff. Almost everyone, however, seemed to need to prepare the candidates for a significant period of time before they become productive. Despite the complaints about communication skills, the training seemed to be focused on technical skills rather than communication, partly because of the attitude that communication skills can't be improved and partly because of the fear of churn (some respondents, however, perhaps knowing my background and interests, noted that cross-cultural training is much needed). Apparently, the overall data (that Indian companies spent least on training) is not representative of the sectors such as IT and Financial Services, which may spend more than other sectors, though the countervailing concerns about churn remains a factor.  

One thing everyone agreed upon is that the educational system is failing to meet the requirements of the employers. In the light of the employers' requirements, primarily framed in terms of good communication skills, willingness to travel and commitment to a career, this was somewhat surprising. The levels of technical skills may disappoint the employers, but this is not what they are complaining about most. However, one could perhaps guess that Indian classrooms are hardly the place to develop these 'desired' skills: The culture of teacher-led education (with students never having to present or do an activity), somewhat mono-cultural classrooms and little thought and exposure to the world of work, the average Indian educational institutions usually fall short even on those rather straightforward requirements. This is perhaps the reason for success of the 'finishing school' business in India (a term that invariably cause surprise and derisive laughter among my British colleagues) but none of my correspondents thought that the 'finishing schools' actually work. Their common observation was, perhaps correctly, that the changes needed are fundamental and not just the cosmetic kind that the 'finishing schools' end up providing.
So, what should the schools do? Apart from providing good technical skills, their job seems to be cut out in terms of changing the culture of the classroom, providing wide ranging career counselling and work exposure and allowing cross-regional exchanges and work experience placements. This seems rather obvious, but most schools don't even get to do this. In fact, the recruiting managers thought they keep their academic calendar so busy and their efforts so focused on purely academic pursuits that they miss out on creating even a basic level of student experience. The Indian colleges may not agree to this, and cite their range of extra-curricular activities, but the relative weight of these activities is clearly out of sync with how the employers look at this.  

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