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Small-town engineers learn soft skills to better career prospects

Small-town engineers learn soft skills to better career prospects

Mahesh K.V. now shaves every day, dresses better and feels comfortable speaking to women.

Fifty days into a finishing school for those who aspire to enter information technology (IT) sector, Mahesh says he feels this is his last chance to get himself together—and that’s why his family dug into savings to pay for the programme. “Most of my friends are already earning thousands of rupees while I am not," said the 22-year-old civil engineering graduate from Gulbarga, Karnataka. “I have to give this my best shot."

To transition from civil engineering to the more lucrative IT, or so he hopes, Mahesh enrolled at the Raman International Institute of Information Technology in Mysore.

The tech sector’s insatiable hunger for talent, coupled with demand from students such as Mahesh, is spawning the growth of finishing schools that specialize in IT across the country. And while some enterprises and academic institutions see this as a business opportunity, even governments are making plans to set up such schools in their quest to link the unemployed with a piece of India’s boom.

“Though India produces a large number of engineering graduates every year, employability of most of these graduates is a big concern," says Rajdeep Sahrawat, vice-president of the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom), an industry body. “Many institutes lag in addressing the skill requirements of the industry and individual companies are increasingly finding it too expensive to tackle this."

By some estimates, nearly two-thirds of India’s 350,000 engineering graduates every year need re-skilling; only about 10-15% of the approximately two million other students graduating in other disciplines are suitable for employment in IT services and related industries such as business process outsourcing.

Indeed, scores of finishing schools have existed across India for some time to address these shortcomings—offering courses to improve spoken English, acquire American or British accents or to learn other skills, from usage of cutlery to interview techniques. But the IT finishing schools are a newer breed.

They do not just train students on people skills, but also impart knowledge that the technology sector needs but isn’t widely taught in engineering colleges.

Raman International, which claims that it set up one of the first IT finishing schools, was inundated with applications for its inaugural batch—more than 3,000 applications for 70 places. “There is a large chunk of students who are not from elite engineering colleges and who need additional training. Our aim is to cater to this segment," says Catherine Suchita J., business head at Raman’s IT finishing school.

For a fee of Rs85,000, students are given a laptop, complete course material and a promise they will acquire new skills, including cutting edge software development, and an IT job at the end of the course. In the first month, students at Raman have already been given some grounding in soft skills, including dressing and conduct in a corporate environment.

“The corporate environment is simulated in the classroom. No casuals and Mondays are tie days," says Mahesh. The next stage of the programme, which will begin shortly, involves technical training.

Mahesh says he already can perceive some changes. “I used to be very introverted, but now I am beginning to open up," he says.

According to Suchita, the finishing school has generated a lot of government interest.

“We have requests from the Union government as well as state governments to set up similar schools across the country," she says, adding these plans could take some time to materialize.

Nasscom, too, has been attempting to involve the government in setting up such finishing schools for the tech sector. Earlier this year, it successfully lobbied the ministry of human resources development, which oversees education, to participate in setting up informal finishing schools at seven National Institutes of Technology—including in Warangal, Suratkal, Durgapur, Kurukshetra and Allahabad. The objective was to offer short-term courses on specific technologies in demand—embedded software development used in gadgets such as cellphones, for example.

“If we have a larger number of students graduating with the desired skills, the whole industry stands to benefit. Currently, most of the smaller companies are hamstrung because they don’t have the right talent," says Sahrawat.

In the next phase, Nasscom hopes to expand the programme to other institutes. Prasanta Bora, alumni coordinator of the North East Professional Institutes Forum, a body of 11 engineering and management institutes in the North-East, says he looks forward to such schools coming up in the region.

“We found that our students lack in certain departments. They are not very good at group discussions or in the personal interviews," he says. Last year, the forum managed to place only about 120 students of the total 700 students that graduated from these institutes.

Training company Dale Carnegie Training-Walchand PeopleFirst Ltd is exploring entering such regions to provide locals the necessary skills to get jobs. The first Walchand Dale Carnegie Finishing School, which will shortly commence operations in Bangalore, is being set up with the support of the Karnataka government. It recently took part in an employability summit in Kohima to explore opportunities in the North-East.

“The real India is in the non-metros and that’s where a big chunk of the talent is," says Raj Bowen, chief executive of the company. “But this talent needs to be equipped with the right skills... we are also in exploratory dialogues with several other state governments as well as universities and business houses," he adds.

The NIIT Education Society, a not-for-profit organization of NIIT Ltd, has begun an initiative to impart tech skills to students in urbanizing India. The society set up a district learning centre in Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh, to provide intensive training programmes to more than 200 students a year.

The programme’s capacity will be increased by another 200 students in the next two years. “Once the model is tested it will be rolled out in other districts in the country," the company said in a statement. It attempts to give graduates the skills that “will enable them to accomplish gainful employment and secure future."

As for Mahesh, he dreams of a job at tech giant IBM Corp. Over the course of the next year, he expects to be trained in software development, as well as soft skills such as communication, team spirit and confidence. He says: “Now I am much more optimistic about my chances."

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