Bridging the skill gap

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The need for school–industry–trade houses partnership

Mayuk Dasgupta, Head of Project & Strategic Alliances for the Vocational Education & Training (VET) initiative of the Aditya Birla Group; Nikhil Kr. Taneja, Group Head – HR, S. Chand Group of Companies; Praful Tickoo, AVP, HR Analytics Lead, Genpact; and Shatrunjay Krishna, Senior Principal at Korn Ferry share their views on the present educational system, the desirable skills they seek in the employees and how schools can prepare children for better tomorrow.

In today’s dynamic and ever changing environment, students need to develop life and other meaningful skills to be prepared to face the global economy. The focus must shift from not only understanding theoretical concepts but also to test and practice. So, what do employers seek in their employees and what can schools do to prepare students for the future?

Q: The National Policy on Education appears to be focusing on skill development among students right from the school level. As an employer, what kind of skills do you think the schools should focus on the school children to make them future ready?

Mayuk: Holistic skills training comprises of the right set of domain skills, knowledge & positive attitude towards the work. This trinity of KSA can be developed from early adolescent by allowing students to explore their interests and explore ideas which are beyond the academic syllabi. For example, a student keen to learn Robotics must take up additional interest in this subject while continuing with the compulsory curriculum. Similarly, a student with interest towards photography must hone his or her skills while being in the formal school set up.

Students must be encouraged to explore, there must be a reward for inquisitiveness, and learning must become fun and discovery. The focus must shift from not only understanding theoretical concepts but also to test and practice. Failures must be a way to innovation and creative thinking. Collaboration with peers, demonstrating empathy and respect for others, valuing resources and understanding sustainability are essential ingredients for becoming future ready.

Nikhil: In today’s dynamic and ever changing environment, students need to develop life and other meaningful skills to be prepared to face the global economy. It is pertinent to infuse skills like Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning.

Analysing and applying knowledge rather than collecting information is critical for success in workplaces of the future. And to assist in this transition, educational institutions need to include data analytics in the curriculum.

Praful: It has to be a mix of technical skills as well as soft skills. I would personally emphasize more on softer aspects such as curiosity, learnability and the ability to constantly unlearn and relearn – to stay relevant. We need to do away with the concept of preparing students for a “future job” in mind, they should be taught to solve problems instead.

Shatrunjay: We cannot predict future in today’s world, so any discussions on technical skills has limited value. The world is changing fast and technical skills typically follow boom and bust cycles. As one technical area becomes a major economic trend (e.g., IT in 1990s) it goes into skill shortages. In some time, everybody gravitates towards these skills and we have a skill glut on the hand. These cycles typically run their course over 15-20 years but these cycles are shrinking and increasingly difficult to predict. On the other hand, behavioural skills like problem solving, resilience, self-awareness, working in teams, emotional intelligence are very useful in ever changing environment. They are both skills for life and for economic opportunities. These are the skills that need to be strengthened in our children. It will make them ready to face the uncertain future. In fact, with the help of these skills, we expect them to shape the future.

Q: In a world where skills are fast changing, what kind of core skills the students must acquire to engage with their future world of work?

Mayuk: Future of workplace demands people who can work in a diverse and multi-cultural team, demonstrate sound multi-tasking skills, having cognitive flexibility to survive in the different work environment and ability to collaborate at work. Emotional intelligence and critical thinking are the two most important aspects of individual behaviour which will make a difference to both the organization and the individual.

Nikhil: For the students of today, what’s clear is that they’re going to need to continue to learn zthroughout their lifetime. As mentioned earlier as well, it would help if these students had the skills that are required to deal with information because those are the core skills that are necessary these days to help one learn new things. The ability to learn things on your own to some extent will be driven by the core skills the students have and how they can handle and process information.

The most important message is that the students need to prepare for themselves. There’s far less structure, there’s far less predictability in the world today. One can’t say for sure that if they invest in a particular set of capabilities today, they will be valuable 10 years from now.

Praful: Effective communication skills, logical problem solving skills and of course basic digital savviness is a must.

Shatrunjay: The core skills are behavioural and can be termed as whole brain skills. These can be further classified into two buckets – fact based logical reasoning and problem solving from left side of the brain; self-awareness, situation awareness and overall emotional intelligence from the right side of the brain. Obviously, children are different and each one of them uniquely gifted, so we cannot claim to make them uniformly strong in these. Every child will need some minimum level of development in either side though. Fact based logical reasoning will become foundation for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and some will excel there but they would also need right brain skills like situational awareness to make STEM meaningful for society and business.

Q: There is a general feeling that in most industries/business core skill required become contextual and dependent on current situations. Hence it would be too premature to impart such skills to the students at this age. What is your view?

Mayuk: Competencies are a life-long treasure and remain as the building blocks for the individual. If the foundation of knowledge is healthy, then the situational adjustment becomes flexible. For example, demonstrating integrity at the workplace is a function of the individual value system which in itself is a culmination of stable social and behavioural constructs developed during childhood. The right set of attitudes and social skills can be designed better at the younger age due to the neurological conditioning of the human brain which is difficult to do with an adult. Essential workplace skills like integrity, social etiquettes, gender diversity, managing conflicts and ethical decision making are some of the skills which will remain vital for organizations throughout centuries.

Nikhil: The future will definitely be different! As the emerging technologies evolve, and these are quickly replaced by as yet unimaginable new ones, students will need to become increasingly nimble and adaptable with lifelong learning as their modus operandi.

Future learners will need an excellent start in early learning if they are to cope with mid to late 21st century challenges. It is therefore vital that the student’s competency in creativity, collaboration, self-regulation and problem solving be undertaken as early as possible. And the education curriculum emphasise the process and the outcomes of both soft and hard skills to create the most competent learners and professionals.

Praful: I agree … And one more supporting argument is that by the time students graduate from schools with one core skill, that may become redundant as jobs and external scenarios are changing quickly these days. That’s why I emphasized on skills such as curiosity, problem solving etc which will help them despite changing business scenarios.

Shatrunjay: Teaching specific technical skills would be premature but schools should be the right place to learn whole brain skills as discussed above. Business skills are contextual but still they draw from a given core. Take, for example, language skills. It’s contextual but once we have a core of language skills, we learn different language applications. Linguists believe that there is something called universal language and once a person learns one language, she can learn other language also, if time and opportunity is provided. The right and left brain skills are basic building blocks for everything and if a person learns them she will pick up contextual business skills also relatively easily.

Q: It is said that a number of students entering into the world of work have adequate knowledge of skills, but their sense of enterprise and hands-on falls short of their understanding. How would you view this situation?

Mayuk: The generation Z or Internet generation of our time are more informative, tech-savvy and independence seekers. A large percentage of the youths entering the workforce have the sound explicit knowledge, however, lacks the tacit part of subjective, cognitive and experimental learning. Sea change must happen in the way the academic design and delivery occurs across the disciplines. Drawing an example from the German Dual-system of education, the learning emphasis is more on combining the theory and practice into action and tightly knit with industry-led on the job training. Such models help the student to understand the dynamics of the work environment and hone the essential skills learned during the program. One more important aspect is to develop the entrepreneurship skills of the students as a compulsory part of academic curriculum. New age workplace demands employees to innovate and become intrapreneurs. Equal responsibility lies on the shoulder of the organizational leaders to play the role of a ‘Mentor’ and facilitate learning and cultural orientation for the students entering the workplace.

Nikhil: Education may be the passport to the future, but for all the good teaching out there, it would seem that our educational institutions are somewhat lacking to impart some of the most important life skills; those of life skills and of hands on application.

Most new recruits I come across have a lot of knowledge, but their thinking is fuzzy and they are unable to articulate their thoughts.

The purpose of education is to prepare students for a life that will surely be volatile and uncertain. Curriculums and educational institutions need to focus on this. In order to better prepare them, the students should design their own quality criteria and set their own study goals. They should be encouraged to research, learn experientially, use technology and take charge of their own progress!

Praful: I agree – and this is a deep rooted social phenomenon, where grades become more important than the ability of children to learn. And I guess the entire ecosystem is responsible for this because we, as a society, have not figured out a better way to assess the competency of our children. And better grades do not necessarily translate into a well-rounded individual because the actual work situations are much different than what schools expose them to.

Shatrunjay: There is a bit of paradox here that we need to resolve. Our system shelters kids from schools and colleges to face the real world. In the western world, summers is the time where students do summer jobs. They become hands-on and understand how initiative and can-do attitude is important. Our kids are a bit sheltered. In 15 (or more) years of education, they hardly get to know the real world. Our examination system is also oriented towards book knowledge than real world experience. So students knows but cannot do. There is a bias for knowledge in the system as opposed to bias for action. In the real world, especially business, the situation is reverse. So when students join the workforce they have all the knowledge but do not know how to put that into action. This is a big gap and hurting both businesses and new entrants to the job market. They take 2-3 years to unlearn bias for knowledge and learn bias for action. In the world of work bias for action is very important and education system is underpreparing our kids in that.

Q: School–industry–trade houses partnership appears totally missing in the Indian scenario. One of the reasons is attributed to the priority of these agencies on profit making rather than social engagement. How do you think we can achieve an optimal solution to this problem?

Mayuk: Collaboration is inevitable across sectors and spheres of life. Current scenario in Indian calls for an unholy equilibrium of industry-academia harmony. The essence of any collaboration is to have a win-win solution for every member, and this can only happen if there exist common objectives.

Industry-academia partnership can happen across diverse fields like revamping the existing curriculum and content with inputs from industry experts and addressing the skill gap in India. Industry bodies can guide schools for setting up of the right set of training infrastructure required for delivering the programs. Capacity development of the existing faculties is one area where significant work is needed. Technology enabled learning and upskilling the faculty can be a significant intervention by the industry. Faculty exposure visits to industry, internships and guest lectures by industry experts will further strengthen the learning and improve classroom delivery of knowledge.

Trade/industry bodies can also undertake research projects related to the challenges of school education and publish white papers and organize workshops & conferences to encourage participation by industry and academia.

Nikhil: There is a real disconnect within the School–industry-trade houses partnership. It is the responsibility of both schools & industry to partner in education system so that schools are equipped enough to meet the challenging environment. Therefore, I feel both have to extend their support to each other & create such a system that students are skilled to take on industry challenges immediately when they enter into their profession.

Praful: Well, this is a tricky one. First of all, we need to agree that report cards, beyond a point, do not reveal much about children. Also, we need to imbibe the culture of experiential learning, rather than spoon feeding. Children must not only know how to solve a problem, but they should be able to identify them too. And these are precisely the skills that we need in good employees across industries. I don’t see this becoming a norm in next 3-5 years because the change needs to happen at multiple levels, but I can already see a number of schools making an effort in this direction already. So, future looks much brighter!

Shatrunjay: This is a complex problem. Business are normally not interested in training folks especially for longer duration. High attrition or business model change can wipe out the entire investment on training. Businesses need profit for survival so it is unrealistic for us to expect that they will go out of their way just to train for public good. In my view, schools have to travel some distance in this direction and shun their current isolationist approach. They need to shed their baggage and proactively engage with the industry. Sadly, this is not happening for a variety of reasons. In India, student community has low bargaining power and students are getting the same standard academic stuff year after year. In many cases, students don’t even feel what they are missing. They feel that only when their join the workforce and it’s too late by then.

One more thing I would like to point out that situation has some silver lining. In some cases, some bridging agents emerge and that helps. For example, there are specialised agencies or businesses running courses/training on specific vocational areas. There are many online skilling companies emerging that train folks entering workforce or folks interested in re-skilling themselves. In the IT heydays it was Aptech and NIIT and now many online companies providing training. We need more of these vocational agencies.

Mayuk Dasgupta
Mayuk Dasgupta

Mayuk Dasgupta is the Head of Project & Strategic Alliances for the Vocational Education & Training (VET) initiative of the Aditya Birla Group. Mayuk is responsible for ideation of strategic projects, industry partnerships, employability & building the technology interface for the VET business. He has over 18 years of work experience in multiple sectors spanning HR outsourcing, vocational training, skill development and Internet & Digital initiatives with companies like Kelly Services, IndiaCan Education & Tech Mahindra. Mayuk has extensively worked into ideation and execution of large-scale technology-enabled employability projects, Govt. sector skills initiative and Finishing school programs. Mayuk is a Management Graduate and Ph.D. scholar at the Birla Institute of Management Technology (BIMTECH). He has completed his Doctoral Summer School Program from IIM Ahmedabad and has published his research with referred journals of international repute.

Nikhil Kr. Taneja
Nikhil Kr. Taneja

Nikhil Kr. Taneja is Group Head – HR with S. Chand Group of Companies. He is a seasoned HR professional with more than 25 years of rich experience in HR domain. Nikhil has been conferred with ‘100 Top HR Minds’ in India by World HRD Congress in Feb’18. Under his leadership existing company got certified as ‘Great Places to Work For’.He is a certified trainer having done extensive work in areas of HR, Strategic Leadership and Organization Development in multi-cultural business environments with large Indian organizations. He is an avid reader of management literature.He is a certified Psychometric Test Professional from Fore School of Management. An active member of National HRD Network, SHRM, AIMA, DMA, etc,he is Member of Managing Committee of DMA and Advisory Board of Top Rankers Consulting Co. Ltd.

Praful Tickoo
Praful Tickoo

Praful Tickoo works with Genpact as AVP, HR Analytics Lead. Praful has 12+ years of work-ex in IT/ITeS domain and is a certified Six Sigma Black Belt. He currently leads AI, Machine Learning initiatives to help organization make smarter people decisions.He holds an MBA from SP Jain School of Global Management and a B.E (Electrical) from V.J.T.I, Mumbai University.

Shatrunjay Krishna
Shatrunjay Krishna

Shatrunjay Krishna is a Senior Principal at Korn Ferry based at the Gurgaon office. He has over fourteen years of experience working on a range of business and HR issues across sectors – conglomerates; Hi-tech and internet; infrastructure & utilities; consumer goods and pharma; and government & state owned enterprises. He advises HR departments, CHROs, CEOs and company boards on human capital risks and their mitigation; company strategy execution; people, organization and rewards issues.He has written several articles and published research papers on executive compensation, organisation design, talent strategy and human capital risks in reputed business journals, magazines and newspapers. He is also accredited on leading psychometric assessment methodologies. Prior to joining Korn Ferry he was leading Rewards, Talent and Communications line of business for Willis Towers Watson in India.Shatrunjay is post graduate in management (HRM) from XLRI, Jamshedpur, India. He has attended IIT Kanpur and SCRA (Ministry of Railways) for undergraduate education in engineering. Prior to joining Korn Ferry, he has worked with Willis Towers Watson, Ministry of Education- UAE Federal Government, Aon Hewitt, and Ernst & Young. Shatrunjay was an officer with Indian Central Civil Services (Indian Railways Service) before joining private sector.