We were just as clueless 40 years ago

When my friends and I were growing up in the late seventies in India, selecting our subjects of study in high school and later in college/university, were a done deal. There was not much to go on with. It was Science, Arts or Commerce in high school as broad streams of study – which opened up a few more opportunities in college/university. Science students could choose from physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics as the vanilla options. Or, branch out to more career-oriented studies like engineering and medicine – which opened up further options either based on the stream of engineering we chose (mechanical, electrical, electronics, etc.) or later during post-graduate studies with specialisations which was mainly true for medicine.

Arts students, which comprised mostly of women, could choose from vanilla options such as literature/language (e.g. English, Bengali, Hindi, etc.), economics (which was sometimes classified as a science subject), history, political science, geography, education, philosophy, comparative literature and international relations. Commerce students were limited to commerce subjects like accountancy and economics, which helped them to branch out to chartered accountancy and cost accountancy later on. There were special subjects too, like agriculture, architecture, anthropology, geology, instrumentation, law, marine engineering, mining engineering, paper technology, pharmacy, psychology, statistics, textile engineering… among quite a few others.

Computer science was introduced in the eighties when I had left college and, as it is true for millions of others in my age group, I learnt to use computers on my own. Of course, the great levellers were management studies (or business administration) and the Indian Administrative Services which produced millions of civil servants for our country. Both options were offered at post-graduate levels and coveted by many students from the time they undertook undergraduate courses. Management studies were for the elite – usually hand-picked students from wealthy and upper middle-class families who went on to lead private (typically multinational) companies. They talked of business goals, strategies and profits while they collected handsome pay-packages and built lifestyles envied by the rest of us.

The Indian Administrative Services offered job security and immense power as civil servants in the government – be it administrative services, foreign services, revenue services, the police… among a plethora of choices… and welcomed graduates from lower middle-class to wealthy families. From an economic dividend point of view, the Indian Administrative Services were far more democratic as a job and even lifestyle leveller. There was also the perk of making additional money collected for/from favours – a topic that was known universally but talked in hushed tones. Apart from money, what was – and still is – most attractive about doing a post-graduate management programme or joining the Indian Administrative Services is the status and prestige they promise.

However, very few students accomplished the feat of a getting into a management programme or the Indian Administrative Services. Most of us in high school or in college/university were clueless about our careers. There was no career guidance or student counselling services available to us. Our teachers knew nothing about careers, except for what they taught us in class. And even there, I had my doubts. Our parents were no better. Yet, they had fixed notions about what we should study and which careers we should choose from the limited options presented before us. You could say we were like living zombies, under parental control, unable to take decisions on what we wanted to do with our lives and which careers to pursue.

In other words, we were clueless. Which was not too different from how most high school and college/university students and their parents feel now… in spite of thousands of options before them. Perhaps the Indian education system and/or how we view education as an entry or springboard to our jobs and careers need to change.


My friends with children in high school and college/university complain that their children are clueless about their careers. They are unsure about what subjects to choose and study, typically at college/university levels, in order to firm up on a career which will be rewarding for them and will make them happy. Most of my friends, as parents, believe that a foreign education is best for their children if they can afford it (and they are willing to borrow large sums of money to accomplish this) – and if an admission can be obtained in a reputed university overseas, there’s nothing like it. This usually means studying in countries like the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, Singapore, etc.  If this preferred option fails, then they are open to an education in one of the best Indian colleges/universities that their money can buy.

Image courtesy www.nyc.gr

Image courtesy http://www.nyc.gr

What my friends and their children are also clueless about is what to study and which college/university to study in. Today, there are thousands of courses to choose from and hundreds of thousands of colleges and universities to study in… in India and abroad. The general belief is that a foreign education is better than an Indian education; and, hence, the higher education industry segment has become one of the fastest growing businesses globally. Unlike most countries where the working population is on its way out, India is a youthful country where, apparently, 12 million students are getting into higher education very year. That means, at least, 12 million decisions on higher education and on subsequent careers need to be made every year.

With this in mind, several things are happening at the same time. The Indian government is getting busy planning and establishing private colleges and universities across India through Public Private Partnerships (PPPs). This, of course, means India also needs to plan to produce hundreds of thousands of academic and support professionals to cater to these colleges and universities. Not to mention setting up systems for administration, evaluation and certification. On the other hand, colleges and universities abroad are targeting the Indian higher education student population as a source of their intakes and income. They are offering a wider spectrum of courses to study, in many more modules and combinations of electives, and are willing to go to great lengths to offer financial aid to deserving students.

All this has created further confusion among Indian students and their parents. Now, with so many more options presented to them, they are just as clueless about what to study, where to study and which career to pursue as they were before. Perhaps more so, as, for Indian students and their parents, the universe of higher education has grown far too fast for them to comprehend. In this milieu, Indian high schools, colleges and universities are still unprepared to counsel their students and offer career guidance. Private agencies, as education consultants, which have come up in response to this need mostly offer rudimentary information on courses, colleges/universities and admissions for a fee. Their team members are poorly trained (if trained at all) in student and career counselling, let alone conduct psychometric tests and evaluation to determine student aptitude.

Are startup hires different from others?

If you’ve read my previous post, Not a respectable career choice, on how fresh engineering graduates feel about joining startups at the entry-point of their careers, you would have realised that startups are not a priority choice for fresh graduates – engineering or otherwise. This presents a tough situation for startups as, in most cases, startup enterprises neither have corporate reputations to speak of, nor are able to pay high salaries to attract experienced industry executives. So, they have no choice but to fall back on hiring fresh graduates, or others trained in specific vocational skills.

Like all businesses, large and small, most startups feel it’s essential to have a good team to execute a project or run their businesses. They may not have large funds at their disposal, but they know that if the team isn’t right, then it’s bad for the business. Things don’t, and won’t, work well. During my meetings with entrepreneurs across India, I discovered insights which I feel are worth sharing here – if only to pass on wisdom to other would-be entrepreneurs, or perhaps graduates who may change their minds and consider joining startups after reading this blog post.

Owners of startup ventures are no different from CEOs in large businesses in believing that quality is important. Perhaps one difference is that they cannot risk hiring three persons to do a job if one right person can do the job efficiently. So, startups automatically tend to look for and hire efficient people… at least, from the lot that comes knocking on their doors. Of course, startups face a serious problem: most hires don’t stay long. Most startup employees leave when they get better jobs. Which happens all the time! Retaining people is a serious challenge for startups.

One way to solve this problem is to keep looking for people until the right ones come along. That’s, of course, time consuming. Another way is to identify people from universities, colleges and vocational training institutes and offer jobs to the right ones – or the ones who would consider startups as career options. One entrepreneur told me that he was a faculty member in an engineering college, and while teaching and working with students, he would identify the right students and ask them if they’d like to work with him. Some have joined him. Others have provided references to prospective hires. Many startups hire their teams through references.

What kind of a mindset and maturity does the entrepreneur need to have to identify and hire the right people? Well, seldom do startups hire by the hundreds. They hire fewer people based on their projects and needs. An engineering startup, for instance, may work on a core technology or a niche business area and have a smaller core team who remain stable for a while. A core team cannot be replaced frequently, so retaining the core team members is a priority for startups. Startup salaries, though on the lower side compared to industry standards, are normally based exclusively on merit. The better a team member performs, the more money he or she earns.

Therefore, the mindset of the person who joins a startup, as a fresh graduate or someone leaving behind other job offers in bigger companies, is somewhat different. And, that’s what owners of startup ventures need to check thoroughly during job interviews. They have to identify and select the right candidate in first few minutes… before getting into the technical questions.

Those who join startups are entrepreneurs themselves. Being an entrepreneur is all about taking risks. So, joining a startup means these persons are mini-entrepreneurs themselves… that they take a known risk on joining a startup. That they know that the job is not scalable; that they can get better salaries elsewhere; that they can lose their jobs at any moment… if funds run dry. Knowing all this, if these persons are still willing to join a startup, they are considered to possess an entrepreneurial mind and are, most likely, the right kind of people for startups.

In turn, they get trained heavily and are enriched in knowledge. This craving for knowledge in lieu of better salaries offered by large companies and the chances of a better life and lifestyle that come with better pays and stable jobs is what drives people who chose startups over others. Apart from this, they have the mindset to get things done on their own… above and beyond their job description. Because they feel that the product they create is their product, not the product of the company they work for. They have a high level of motivation to get things done on their own.

So, they choose more of an adventurer’s life than a more-settled life. They choose a high-risk high-reward option as against a low-risk low-reward option in a larger company.

Not a respectable career choice

A recent article, titled Indian graduates, especially women, don’t want to work for startupsby Diksha Madhok in Quartz India talks about the reluctance or disinterest Indian engineering graduates have in joining and working for startups. The article is based on a recent study of 120,000 students who graduated last year from more than 500 engineering colleges.

The study, which was done by Gurgaon (Haryana) based career consulting firm Aspiring Minds, finds that only 6% of engineering graduates (both male and female students) would aspire to work for startups. Another 32% would consider small and medium enterprises as a career choice; while 62% of engineering students would prefer working for bigger companies.

Image courtesy qz.com and Aspiring Minds

Image courtesy qz.com and Aspiring Minds

The article mentions that, in comparison, 18% of students in China and nearly 50% of students in the US have indicated their interest in working for startups or small companies – broadly described as businesses employing less than 100 persons. That’s probably because India’s startup industry is in its nascent stages and the startup ecosystem is yet to be formed, suggests the article.

The article also offers possible reasons for such reluctance to seek employment at startups and/or small companies by graduate engineering students:

One of the reasons for such a lukewarm response is that working for startups is still not considered a respectable career choice by one’s family and peers. Startups tend to lack job security and the resources of larger firms. 

“At a social gathering, you want to show off and tell people that you work for a big, famous company,” says Varun Aggarwal, director at Aspiring Minds. “If you work for a big brand, your marital prospects are also better.”

[Citation: Indian graduates, especially women, don’t want to work for startups by Diksha Madhok in Quartz India; Aspiring Minds, Gurgaon.]

The education-skills disconnect

There’s a skills shortage. Not just in India, but the world over. Corporate organisations, large and small businesses, start-up firms, governments, NGOs, healthcare and utility services, industries far and wide, and even education and training institutions which have the onus of producing skilled manpower for the industry and the world’s economy, are all complaining that there aren’t enough skilled people, nor enough people with the right skills, to meet the demand in the marketplace. In short, there’s a disconnect between the supply of skilled manpower from the education institutions and what’s in demand by the industry.

In Asia, where the demand for skilled people is far higher in sheer numbers than anywhere else in the world, governments in specific countries are investing heavily in education and training. India is a case in point, where the college-going population and, in turn, the working-age population (estimated to be growing at 12 million every year) thereafter are growing in leaps and bounds. To manage the growing college-going population, the Indian government plans to introduce another 800 universities and 35,000 colleges by 2020, mainly through public-private partnerships (PPPs).

Despite this focus and growth in higher education in India, employers, be they public or private organisations or the government, complain that the large majority of university graduates who enter the working population are unfit for the jobs in the marketplace. Not only do these graduates not possess the ‘technical’ skills required for the jobs, they lack soft skills as well. They even lack skills and attitudes necessary to adapt to new technologies at work and the discipline to fit into the work culture. These drawbacks mean further investments by the employers to prepare the newly-hired employees into the workforce.

For one thing, the university education curriculum is slow to change with the times. Thus, falling behind in providing state-of-the art education and training needed in jobs in the marketplace. Most of the education is theoretical, with very little focus on practical teaching which is expected to provide actual skills. Moreover, many universities, colleges and training institutes – particularly the new privately-owned ones – lack qualified and experienced faculty members to impart the education and training needed by the industry. There seems to be a skills shortage here too.