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Bridging the gap between education and employability


For years now, employers ranging from software service providers to retail chains have been complaining how difficult it is to find fresh graduates with the skills their industries require—whether the technical acumen to trouble-shoot business processes and systems or inter-personal and conversational skills to deal with customers and colleagues.


Amit Bansal and Vinay Nijhawan, alumni of XLRI School of Business and Human Resources, Jamshedpur, and Chandrashekar Shetty, an alumnus of Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, decided to do something about it. In April 2007, the three men started educational services provider PurpleLeap in Bangalore to work with companies and colleges to turn out graduates with requisite professional skills.


Bansal, Nijhawan and Shetty, each with at least a dozen years of corporate experience, worked together at software firm Talisma Corp. Pvt. Ltd in Bangalore. It took them 18 months to put together a course module of practical applications supplementing the regular curriculum of students across cities. Lessons are delivered using a combination of satellite technology, the Internet and on-campus trainers.


“Our experience came from the corporate story, when we used to hire students,” says Bansal, chief executive officer of educational services provider PurpleLeap, which now has a presence in 14 states. “It always took six to eight months for the students to be ready (for jobs). We realized that the talent needed to be moulded and so we sat together to come up with a way to make the students more employable.”


Started with Rs.70 lakh contributed by the three founders, PurpleLeap received a combined investment of Rs.10 crore from New Delhi-based Educomp Solutions Ltd, the Kindergarten-to-standard 12 education provider, and Pearson Education, a unit of London-based Pearson Plc, in 2009. By the end of 2010, they had trained around 10,000 students from 50 colleges across states. Some 30,000 students are presently enrolled for its course, and Bansal hopes to reach 50,000 by the end of 2011 in partnership with 150 colleges.


The company approaches colleges and sets up on-campus centres where students who enrol for its course typically spend between 50 and 60 hours a semester learning business skills such as problem solving and effective communication and technical skills that have practical applications in industry. On average, students pay Rs.3,000 per semester.


“In another five years, we hope to supply 30% of the requirement of the industry,” says Bansal.


PurpleLeap faces competition from education companies like SEED Infotech Ltd, Global Talent Track and HCL Infosystems Ltd that are also trying to tap the business opportunity offered by the gap between employers’ expectations and the abilities of new graduates.


India turns out about 350,000 engineers and 2.5 million other university graduates annually, yet at any given time five million graduates are unemployed, according to industry lobby Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci). A survey by McKinsey Global Institute found only 25% of Indian graduates are employable, Ficci said.


“Many students don’t know how to interact in a professional environment or send a professional email and handle basic computer programmes. These basic skills are very important,” says Saurabh Chandra, chief executive officer of Neev Information Technologies Pvt. Ltd, a software services provider.


Hiroshi Saeki of the World Bank’s Education team for the South Asian region and co-author Andreas Blom published a research paper in August on the skills gap that said 64% of Indian employers are only somewhat satisfied or less with their current engineering staff’s skills.


“The improvement of professional skills would be needed for Indian engineers to be more competitive in both the national and the global market,” Saeki says.


In a recent walk-in interview, Neev Information Technologies was able to hire only 10 of 400 candidates who applied and that after relaxing its standards, says CEO Chandra, who blames educational institutions for the problem. There has been little change over the years in college curriculums, learning materials and conduct of examinations to make them relevant to changing labour market needs, he says. For the past three years, Neev Technologies has been hiring graduates who have attended campus-based training programmes.


“The overall emphasis that they (training programmes) give on non-technical aspects helps the students to adjust to a work environment,” says Chandra. “Colleges and regular training programmes are concentrating on the technical side, but the real gap is on the non-technical side.”


The World Bank paper by Saeki and Blom, based on a survey of 157 employers across the country, backs up that observation. Some 93% of the respondents rated “understand professional and ethical responsibilities” and ability to work in a team as extremely important skills. The survey put what it called core business skills, including reliability, teamwork and entrepreneurship and communication skills, above technical ability. For PurpleLeap, the real business opportunity for its on-campus training centres lies beyond the metros in small cities and towns that offer “huge growth potential,” given that they tend to lack the qualified and experienced staff and well-equipped facilities of their big-city counterparts, says Bansal.


For students, the certificates they receive improve their placement prospects, says S. Nityanandam, dean of the computer science department at PRIST University in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, which has tied up with PurpleLeap.


“The students find it helpful and are more motivated as people from outside are coming and training them using different techniques,” the professor says.


Granted, such programmes have a positive impact, yet more needs to be done to improve the system of education and bridge the skills gap, says the World Bank’s Saeki. Giving more autonomy to educational institutions and tie-ups with industry will increase their ability to respond to labour market needs, he says.


“Interaction with the private sector is, in general, not sufficient, especially in the area of collaborative research, internship, researchers’ exchanges, etc,” he says.

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