Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Pre-pre-pre-pre placement training

It was about a week after all the final semester exams were over. The campus dies down, at least almost. But, as a faculty member who has the unenviable task of injecting some level of responsibility, besides some knowledge, into the students, I am required to mark my presence on the campus. In a way, I am happy about it, because it gave this opportunity for me to rant.
To get back to the narrative, I saw three of my students who had just finished their pre-final year courses, ambling towards the campus canteen, the one frequented by students. I felt, whether these were day-scholars (what are they in the night? Night owls?) or hostel residents, they had no business being on the campus, spoiling my own peaceful stroll. I asked – “What are you doing here, in these ungodly summer days?”
The answer took me by surprise: “we are undergoing pre-placement training. We have exams tomorrow.”
I really should not have been surprised. Given the focus the university places on placement of its graduating students. But, don’t blame the university.
It is perhaps as much as a decade since we started hearing, from industry associations/lobby groups like FICCI, CII, ASSOCHAM, NASSCOM, that our graduates are not employable. Our universities are not imparting saleable skills; too theoretical an approach they employ. No wonder our graduates are languishing in the unemployment lines. So on ...
Our academia must have paid no heed to these plaints. The fact that it didn’t is what brings the to-be senior students to campus during their vacation period, to be imparted saleable skills.
One needs to pause and ask, what these special skills are that academia is ignoring. NASSCOM will be ready with the response – Java, C++ ... Other lobbyists may not be able to give such focused answer because the required skills vary among themselves quite hugely. For example, how would you say, “You need to be able to talk to the factory hands in their language.” What are those languages? Tamil in Chennai, Marathi in Pune, Bengali in Durgapur, Hindi/Haryanvi in Gurgaon ... To couch this complexity, business merely says, without saying anything, soft skills/communication skills, team work ...
How much of communication skills can be developed in the students in an academic environment? Literally zero. Students would rather go by the ear, learn the lingo of their cohorts, the student body which is campus-slang infested.
In one class, I was telling students that they are lucky they are able to use calculators (pronounced in toto, deliberately) as they were not allowed in examinations in my time. Then, acting very innocently, I asked how they refer to their calculators, say, to borrow one. They shouted, in unison, “Calcy!”
Then, they had the surprise of their life, when I said, “Oh, you’re soooooo ... laaaaaast century! We too used the same abbro (my abbreviation for abbreviation!)!” There is a point to this digression (if it has a point, it ain’t a digression, please note).
Teaching communication skills sans campus-lingo on a campus is a non-starter. So, do the industry lobbies want students to be taught non-campus lingo on campus? Better still, Infosys lingo, Wipro lingo, TCS lingo ... – the campus recruitment biggies? An exercise in futility.
The next in line is team work. This is so rich. Now many of our universities are shifting to the relative grading system. The crux in the system is whether you score or not you cannot allow your classmate to score (I am exaggerating, but let that be). How much team work can be developed in this? Zilch. On the one hand, for employability you need to develop your ability to working in a team but to get employment you have to face cut-throat competition. Nice, very nice.   
Coming to empathy, soft skill is presumably one. But, try displaying it with your subordinates in a company. You go out the company door before you finish empathizing. Empathy does not add to the bottom line. Soft skills and bottom line are definitional antipathies.
Now, what exactly can the universities do to make their graduates more employable? Back to NASSCOM and its Java, C++ ... One poser to them – can they provide employment opportunities for all the graduates coming out of our universities? Don’t answer that.
Now, long time ago people used to suggest that one should have a cup of strong, black coffee after a party to sober up and drive home safely. To disabuse one of this notion, it used to be pointed out that after drinks, you feel sleepy as well as drunk. No sobering up – coffee does not do that to you. So, drinking coffee without letting the effects of drinking run through your system will just make you behind the wheels very awake and drunk!
So, getting trained on computer skills (euphemism for down-market coding) and soft skills will merely make you unemployable but with the skills for writing code! Hard skills, however difficult and time-consuming they are, are the pivots. Industry lobbies do not want our academia to realize this and they are succeeding.
These are hidden from the ken of the students. One of the tools used is to arrange pre-placement training. Students never learn that the skills in these training sessions will not be useful beyond the interview room, if that.
But, that too is becoming pass̩. Then, add another layer Рpre-pre-placement training. Then another ... To add legitimacy, conduct exams, but call them screening tests (a little more HR lingo, I suppose). This too, the budding engineers must learn, within the basket of saleable skills.
As the three students got into the cafeteria, looking at them, a sense of empathy, across a span of 40 years, flooded me. I expect to be out of my job soon.
Raghuram Ekambaram

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