Do employers know what they want?

Employers need to tell educators what they need, and educators need to show their students how to navigate this brave new world

Meeta Sengupta
Published: 25, Feb 2013

Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at

The phone rang mid morning.

“Madam, you teach. I need advice. My son has just finished his B.Tech. Can you tell him what he can do now?”

The mind boggled.

A trained engineer, presumably above the age to vote did not know what to do next to find himself a job. Which could only mean that he had no idea of why he did the B. Tech engineering degree in the first place, and that nothing in the four years had prepared him to understand the industry he was supposed to be studying. It seemed that nobody was helping him find his feet in the world of employment. Nor had anyone helped him understand what it would take to become employable. His education barely connected him with employment opportunities.

Surveys have placed the proportion of employable graduates at about one fifth of graduating candidates, or even lower. There is a large body of anecdotal evidence that has potential employers shaking their collective heads in frustration - they cannot find the right people to fill their vacancies. On the other hand, myriad business schools churn out graduates who sell music door to door. Very little to do with what they might have expected or thought they were being taught.

Do kids know what they are getting into when they choose an area to study? Probably not in the land that is barely managing to outgrow the ‘I shall make my child into a doctor or engineer’ syndrome.

I scroll through rants - ‘they are qualified engineers, and they cannot do simple puzzles”, says one. “I interviewed graduates and they could not put together a simple sentence”, exclaimed another. “Its not just about English, the students could not even discuss an issue in their own language”, despaired a third. “I have no idea what they are taught, but it does not show up in their interviews”, said a fourth kind person.

Do professors/institutions have any idea what they are teaching to?

The gap is clear, and what is even more clear is that this as much about the future as it is about the present. Bridging the gap is challenging governments across the world, but no other country has the surge that we call the ‘demographic dividend’ like India. This is a global problem that seeks global solutions.

Schools and colleges offer structured environments, stable power systems and clear reward mechanisms. Real life is clearly not like that. Task based work is slowly being passed on to machines and will continue to be transferred to lower cost devices. Stenographers and short hand artists have transitioned to assistants who deal with the chaos of diaries and travel. Employers need people who can deal with chaos and with uncertainity. Schools are not geared to such flexibility.

Do employers know what they want?

Employers are in the business of demanding skills and competence. They seek three clear types of skills - Technical or content is the first. This cannot be compromised on and clearly has been in recent years. Thus the rant against educational institutions who seem to have dropped standards, often for commercial reasons. The second skill they need is clear and consistent communication. Graduates really must be able to build and put forward a cogent argument with near perfect grammar. Language is about precision in meaning - poor language will always lead to confusion and loss. Thirdly, employers need their employees to be aware of the people around them and be able to work with them. Working through people is often categorised as a ‘soft skill’, though personally I see nothing soft about it. It takes nerves of steel to work with people who may or may not see things the same way.

Really the solution seems to be very simple. Employers need to tell educators what they need, and educators need to show their students how to navigate this brave new world. Problems arise when Employers realise that this is not as easy as it looks because they are expected not only to create norms and learning outcomes for current needs but also forecast their needs decades into the future. Very few sectors can really predict what they will need in the future. Educators too must admit to being a bit lost - how would they know what employers want unless they are told? How would they be able to predict the learning needs of the future unless they invest in it? Would they be ready to teach those new skills?

Looks like there is a bit of work ahead.


Post Script: There is work being done via sector skills councils, National Skills Development Council etc. but it is a long road to travel.

  • ‘Employers Need to Tell Educators What They Need’. | IDA Blog

    [...] Read the full article on Forbes India by Meeta Sengupta, an experienced educationist and advisor to... [...]

    on Mar 4, 2013
  • Manoj

    A well written piece, and it shows the weakness of employers in communicating with those preparing potential employees. Why? Indian companies have many outdated and unskilled managers, they not only do not know what is needed, they are often unable to evaluate - so a job description for entry level employees reads like a Vice President's - 'fit', 'academic excellence', 'prior experience in a wide range of skills in the same industry'. And yet, those hired do not meet even 50% of the must-have skills mentioned?? This is'nt to say that education standards in India are globally class-leading, but with experience of consulting on this aspect in 4 countries apart from India, the situation is quite different than the employers make it out to ne. E.g., a MNC medical equipment manufacturer approached us for help with falling product sales in India. A survey showed the customers hated them because of erratic and poor after-sales service. The HR head India pointed out he selected the best service engineers, his hiring rate was only 4% and dropping - the lowest in any country. The CeO was convinced the problem lay with poor education and unskilled engineers in India. Our analysis showed 89% applicants rejections were for 'poor communication skills' and 2% for technical skills while induction training had a drop-out rate of 35% for 'weak technical skills' and almost none for communication skills. We quickly realized the recruiters, all from arts backgrounds, were over-checking what they could - ability to speak good english, but were not checking for the essential troubleshooting skills. Despite protests from local management, the recruiters were asked to pass the same tests as used to recruit engineers. The hiring rate went to 31%, saving the company $320m/year in hiring and training costs, while the customers who recommended the company's products went up from 11% to 48% in 6 m time. The project was a great success.

    on Mar 4, 2013
  • A. MUBARAK HUSSAIN, Divisional Manager HR & IR., Floram Shoes (I)P.LTd.,

    I feel that each and every employer should and must know about their employer needs and personal problems which are in proper reasons. In my experience those who are having heavy personal problems, could not concentrate in their work, with this result the progress of the work will be reduced. If we try to solve or even we hear about their problems it should be good. If we solve their problems the progress of the work will be good. But the problems should be reasonable. A good personal touch with all will create a encouraging enviornment.

    on Mar 3, 2013
  • Kanchan Kumar Chattopadhyayk

    In general sense there is no limit for demand , it gallops like horse.More the people get, irrespective of employers , more will be the demand. Since , as the time passes , talents are in exuberance like grass which perplexes the employer in recruiting personnel whom they select for a position where mediocre can excel, they have option to recruit benevolent high merits.

    on Mar 1, 2013
  • Saikat Roy

    Sad but true I guess. A lot of engineering graduates get into the course just because their parents said so - the all knowing parents however never take a simple skill or interest assessment of the child or even their opinion about whether they would rather study something else. And employability and learning in class - the variation between the 2 is just too much for the common Indian parent to understand - I spent money on him so he should magically get employed seems to be the common feeling.

    on Feb 26, 2013
  • Khan

    unfinished article. Could be better with a few more examples, a bit more detail into what really is processed each by the student/faculty/employer. A few more detailed examples & the moral of it would really help people understand & associate with the article. Well written though but not enough for the person who really is in the midst of it.

    on Feb 26, 2013
  • s anand

    Valid points by the columnist. My 2p bit: Is education only about job skills or about learning and assessment ? In a fast changing world companies cannot predict what knowledge employees should have for job 10 years hence. They do know they need flexibility and open minds - to retool , to learn new applications of old skills. The problems with Indian education are manifold but a good long look at teaching practices and teacher competence would not be unwelcome.

    on Feb 25, 2013
  • Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti

    The concern in the article is valid and is well presented.
    I wish to express a take that may appear a bit dated, but I feel is relevant. The objective of education isn't merely, not even primarily, to churn out industrial workforce. The primary goal of education is to churn out educated people first, educated citizens next, and then educated workforce. My experience with employers and employees tells me that the first of these objectives is all that our employers have been really asking for in most cases all along. That emcompasses an analytical mind, powers of communication and social skills. If these faculties are developed, the technical aspects aren't a big problem. Except for very specialised job-profile, a mechanical engineer will pick up all the electrical engineering needed for any electrical engineering job within weeks, provided he has his fundamentals at the right place.
    In that sense, I would suggest a small correction on the final point made. I would say, the educators should focus on sharpening the general intellect of their students. This doesn't requires any 20-30 years of foresight, nor is this requirement going to meet obsolescence any time soon.

    on Feb 25, 2013
  • Jyotindra

    I fully agree with the views expressed in this blog. I as a professional architect have come across so many young aspirants for jobs who are at sea with simplest of requirements of professional field. The quality standards have dropped in technical education as education has almost divorced itself from what real professional field demands. A solution can be infusion of some of the active professionals on part time basis to teach. The second is inclusion of a short course on communication skill, and the final & most important one is introduction of compulsory practical training prior to graduation with not necessarily large but certainly active professionals. In most cases where these aspects are addressed in formation of curriculum the results have appeared better. Hope this catches up more.

    on Feb 25, 2013
  • Raja

    Excellent piece. Not just thought-provoking but also nails down the biggest reasons for employer-employee disconnect in today's world. Education, as the bridge, still seems to unfortunately live in a sort of vacuum of its own.
    Here's a thought.
    Instead of employers "telling educators what they need" and educators "not knowing unless they are told", why not get employers to talk directly to students? If a CxO (or a senior mgmt guy) can spare a couple of hours every 2 weeks to discuss industry matters/practices with students, a connect will be built and the student will be much more purposeful (and motivated) in his pursuit of his course. And it will pay rich dividends for the employer also.
    The mechanics of how to organise this are just a detail. It can even be done by video-conferencing if physical presence is an issue.
    Just an idea! I think it works in other countries already - maybe not adopted quite as commonly in India yet.
    And hey, when I say "he" and "his" her, I obviously mean "she" and "her" too. :-)

    on Feb 25, 2013
  • prabal chandran

    nice article.the need of the hour is to make youngsters understand what they need to possess to do the course and then utilise the learned stuff to become short awareness abt course and where it would lead them needs to be spread.

    on Feb 25, 2013
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