Amrita Koul couldn’t get a job after she graduated last year. She was 23, with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Jammu’s Model Institute of Engineering and Technology and good scores. Few companies came to the campus for recruitment, the college curriculum did not include any internships with companies, and there was no placement department or career counsellor to consult on campus.

As Koul’s dilemma illustrates, employability has been, and continues to be, a problem. Graduates can’t get jobs and a professional qualification like an engineering degree is no guarantee of employment either. Ten years ago, a study by consulting company McKinsey & Co. and software services industry lobby group Nasscom had already flagged this trend. The study, Extending India’s Leadership Of The Global IT And BPO Industries, said only 25% of the country’s engineering graduates were employable straight out of college.

Amrita Koul. Photo: Faheem Hussain/Mint
Amrita Koul. Photo: Faheem Hussain/Mint

In recent years, entrepreneurs have stepped in to address this mismatch. They work on identifying job seekers’ strengths and areas of weakness, help them measure their abilities through tests, train them in soft skills like communication, and then set them up with firms for interviews or internships.

When a test helps

Amcat, or the Aspiring Minds Computer Adaptive Test, is one such job-enabling test. It grew out of a conversation at the US’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when Varun Aggarwal, a postgraduate engineering student, and a group of other students met to read the McKinsey-Nasscom study. Aggarwal decided to work on the employability problem with his brother Himanshu, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi.

In 2007, they set up Aspiring Minds, an employability evaluation company, in New Delhi and developed the Amcat test soon after. “Being engineers, we first looked at devising an accurate system of measurement that would help both candidates and companies. Today one million job seekers take the test every year," says Himanshu, co-founder and chief executive officer of Aspiring Minds. These include engineers as well as graduates looking for jobs in the information technology (IT), hospitality, finance and insurance sectors.

The 3-hour test, which costs 900 per student, is administered in specially set-up centres all over the country. It has various segments, including domain knowledge in disciplines like programming, and elements of cognitive reasoning, analytical ability, English and communication. After completing the test, students are given their scores, 14-page detailed analyses of their performances and recommendations on how to improve their chances of getting a job by working on weak areas like logical reasoning or communication.

Like many others, Koul also took the Amcat test last year. Her relatives in Bengaluru, whom she had been staying with, had heard it helped get a job. She was told that if you prepared well and came in the top percentile, you were likely to receive interview calls from firms that have partnered with Amcat and have access to student scores. Koul scored well in English, logical ability and communication, and was advised to work further on coding and better her domain knowledge. She did just that using Internet resources. Soon, she started receiving interview calls from IT companies and start-ups. Eventually, she got a job as a programmer with Mindtree, an IT services and consulting firm in Bengaluru.

The right mentoring

Even a decade after the McKinsey-Nasscom study, “the statistics are grim", says Pune-based Rahul Kulkarni, co-founder of DoNew, a start-up which helps graduates equip themselves with work-relevant skills like Web design and digital marketing, and sets them up with companies and entrepreneurs.

Kulkarni says that of the 1.5 million engineers that graduate every year in India, few get the jobs they aspire for. “Some of these students have missed getting into the IITs by a few marks. There is no real difference between a student like this at an engineering college in a small town in India and an engineer who gets to work at Google," says Kulkarni, who worked at Google for six years and then at analytics start-up Sokrati for two years. The difference between successful candidates and others lies in certain crucial soft skills, he says.

“The engineers from smaller towns are smart too. But they don’t know how to communicate. They need to acquire dynamic skills and the ability to figure things out on their own to hit the ground running," says Kulkarni. This is where right guidance and mentoring can help.

A crash course

Talerang, another start-up set up in 2013 by Mumbai-based Shveta Raina, trains candidates intensively over six days at a go, or one day a week over six weeks, at a cost of 15,000. Students define their short- and long-term goals, learn to make presentations and an elevator (sales) pitch on their capabilities, discuss the ethics of business through Harvard Business School case studies and learn to use Excel and PowerPoint. The training is followed by interviews for an eight-week internship with one of Talerang’s corporate partners. These include firms like Zodius, Aditya Birla Group and Godrej.

The idea for Talerang came from a research project undertaken by Raina while she was studying at the Harvard Business School. Her India-centric research indicated that “83% of educational institutions believe that their graduates are ready for the market, but only 51% of employers agreed with that", she says.

Yash Mimani, an economics student of Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, says he got interested in the Talerang training when he read a mail from them: “Academic brilliance is not equal to professional success."

Mimani attended their training session, and immediately got an internship with investment firm Zodius. He says Talerang helped him plan his career. “Talerang had an exercise where we had to write down our goals for the next few years. Just the simple exercise of writing these down helped me. I wrote down two-three goals like organizing a college festival, doing a successful internship, and have actually managed to achieve all these," says Mimani, who’s all set for a job in consulting after he graduates next year.

The value of internships

Internships are not part of the standard college curriculum, as both Koul and Mimani discovered. Yet they offer practical experience that beats the classroom.

Oyster Connect, based in Noida, adjacent to the Capital, has set up its business model on such internships. “There are students who are not so keen on classroom learning, but do very well on live projects," says director Rimy Oberoi. Students may sign on at a nominal cost (thereby being guaranteed projects) or they may choose to apply for projects and then receive 70% of the stipend paid by the company, which can vary from 2,500-10,000.

At Oyster Connect, all projects are online, in areas like sales, finance, operations, human resources and IT. So though students may not get actual office experience, they have the flexibility of working from anywhere in the country. Heena Sah, who has a postgraduate diploma in management from Navi Mumbai’s ITM Group of Institutions, did four projects for start-ups in different areas through Oyster. “I worked on social media marketing for the start-up Thinkskills Consulting (an education company), and I worked on getting sign-ons for CashKaro, the discount coupon and cash-back website. For start-up Room On Call (a budget hotels marketplace), I had to get 30 different hotels to sign on," says Sah. “I got better with communicating, with speaking, interacting with people twice my age. I also now know about the hotel industry."

So, though employability continues to be an issue for the millions who graduate every year, the smart ones now know that they have to equip themselves better.

“Students need a transformation. Many students haven’t even read the newspaper. They need a wake-up call as to what the business world is and what are the issues," says Raina. And they have to work at it and seek help where needed.

Some of them are beginning to do just that.

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