Wall Street Journal has a story India Graduates Millions But Too Few Are Fit to Hire. It reports the travails of the customer support firm 24/7 Customer:

 India projects an image of a nation churning out hundreds of thousands of students every year who are well educated, a looming threat to the better-paid middle-class workers of the West. Their abilities in math have been cited by President Barack Obama as a reason why the U.S. is facing competitive challenges.

Yet 24/7 Customer’s experience tells a very different story. Its increasing difficulty finding competent employees in India has forced the company to expand its search to the Philippines and Nicaragua. Most of its 8,000 employees are now based outside of India.

In the nation that made offshoring a household word, 24/7 finds itself so short of talent that it is having to offshore.

“With India’s population size, it should be so much easier to find employees,” says S. Nagarajan, founder of the company. “Instead, we’re scouring every nook and cranny.”

This issue is very familiar to us at Zoho, and I have blogged about this in How We Recruit: On Formal Credentials vs Experienced Based Education. Unlike most companies, we do not start out with the assumption that all of the colleges actually impart an education. That may sound overly harsh or pessimistic, but actually assuming that colleges do not impart an education is liberating, because then you keep your expectations very very low. You learn to devise recruitment and training systems that are tailored for this reality, rather than rely on the paper credentials doled out by various educational institutions. The path to profit in business is to a solve a problem, and I look at educating employees through experience as one of the entrepreneurial challenges to be faced head on, particularly in the context of a developing country like India.

More broadly, even in countries with a highly sophisticated and developed educational infrastructure like the US, much of the real education in highly skilled jobs, particularly in high technology, actually happen on the job. I remember my own experience as a freshly-minted PhD in Electrical Engineering from Princeton, being humbled by how much I had to learn on the job in Qualcomm before I became productive. Much of that learning came from people who were much less credentialed than I was, people who had the benefit of years of experience to guide me. I learned an important lesson on that first job that has stayed with me: never to value someone just based on their impressive paper qualifications. I believe I am not the first to discover this lesson on the job. If that is the case, why do companies rely on a college degree to such an extent in the US?

Ultimately, an impressive college credential from a good college serves to a prospective employer as an extended IQ test, a sort of legal signaling device. In the US, colleges are allowed to base their recruitment on SAT scores (essentially an IQ test), but employers could get in legal trouble if they were to conduct any such tests. So knowing that a college is rigorous in its admission standards is a way to signal prospective employers that the graduates from that college are already vetted. I believe that college credentials as a requirement for most jobs would vanish, if employers were allowed to perform the tests that colleges routinely require of their students.

In a country like India, where so many of the colleges are new, no such signaling mechanism operates right now. So a college degree is essentially worthless as a signaling device, as so many employers in India are finding out. Such being the case, why even rely on the college degree? Why don’t employers take the matter into their own hands, and start imparting training as part of their recruitment effort? Those questions are what led us to create our own training program, which we call Zoho University, to come into being. Today, over 10% of our employees have come from this program, and we expect this ratio to go up to 30% in the next few years, as we expand our program.

So I agree with the thrust of the WSJ article that most graduates coming out of India’s colleges (aka degree mills) are not fit to hire, but I contend that it is the employers that can and should solve the problem. Expecting anything else is a misreading of the actual ground reality of how education and skills are actually acquired. 

  1. KurianOfBorg

    I believe some courses which are very broad reaching and applicable to the whole IT industry such as system administration will retain their value. Of course, the curriculum would need to be updated ever year, or even every few months in order to remain relevant. So someone who studied the same course 5 years later would learn very different things.

  2. KurianOfBorg

    I’d like to comment on your last point. People who struggle to verbally communicate will also have a problem with non-verbal communication. If they are software developers, this becomes apparent when they design non-usable or unintuitive user interfaces that fail to communicate with the user.

  3. Ashish (Pocha) Sharma

    Sridhar, I started an initiative to address the problem (to certain extent). I have knowingly kept it to a select few (the best of the lot) to make sure the corporates can see the quick value out of it, with the hope that the exclusivity/brand would attract more. Please check http://stalkninja.com & I would be glad to have your thoughts on the same.Ashish

  4. Ashish (Pocha) Sharma

    Sridhar, I started an initiative to address the problem (to certain extent). I have knowingly kept it to a select few (the best of the lot) to make sure the corporates can see the quick value out of it, with the hope that the exclusivity/brand would attract more. Please check http://stalkninja.com & I would be glad to have your thoughts on the same.Ashish

  5. Adi

    Sridhar,Have been following your articles regarding recruiting engineers in India from colleges, Your approach has been Interesting.Do you think it will be help if we can bridge the gap by providing skills required for industry, evaluation criteria for those skills open for students? Like let students start trying these skills by building samples during graduation itself as part of their assignments, labs, mini projects etc.

  6. Adi

    Sridhar,Have been following your articles regarding recruiting engineers in India from colleges, Your approach has been Interesting.Do you think it will be help if we can bridge the gap by providing skills required for industry, evaluation criteria for those skills open for students? Like let students start trying these skills by building samples during graduation itself as part of their assignments, labs, mini projects etc.

  7. VJ

    Sridhar, I read the WSJ article, and among other things it also highlights these key points. 1) Inability of graduates to communicate effectively in English 2) Graduates lacking a grasp of educational basics such as reading comprehension
    3) The system being prone to inculcating rote learning rather than critical thinking and comprehension. (“…It found that about half of the country’s fifth graders can’t read at a second-grade level.”)Effectively it all sums up neatly in this one sentence from the article – “The average graduate’s “ability to comprehend and converse is very low,” says Satya Sai Sylada, 24/7 Customer’s head of hiring for India. “That’s the biggest challenge we face.””On those lines, with Zoho University’s training program, what is the strategy to impart soft skills such conversational English language skills and comprehension? I do not think this is the focus at Zoho University and I do believe that though most of these skills can be acquired, they have to be imbibed into students at a very very young age (school level) so that the skills are at the fore when a candidate is in a position to be employed. In my opinion, comprehension and conversational skills have a lot to do with an individual’s inclination and regular practice/usage and can be difficult to train at a company curriculum level. Hands-on, on-the-job technical skills training is much easier.Having said that Zoho is a software development house (and not a call center) and only a handful and not ALL recruits have to have these soft-skills, so the take away from the article may not be entirely applicable as it seems to be orientated towards a call center/customer service kind of work environment.Your thoughts please?

  8. VJ

    Sridhar, I read the WSJ article, and among other things it also highlights these key points. 1) Inability of graduates to communicate effectively in English 2) Graduates lacking a grasp of educational basics such as reading comprehension
    3) The system being prone to inculcating rote learning rather than critical thinking and comprehension. (“…It found that about half of the country’s fifth graders can’t read at a second-grade level.”)Effectively it all sums up neatly in this one sentence from the article – “The average graduate’s “ability to comprehend and converse is very low,” says Satya Sai Sylada, 24/7 Customer’s head of hiring for India. “That’s the biggest challenge we face.””On those lines, with Zoho University’s training program, what is the strategy to impart soft skills such conversational English language skills and comprehension? I do not think this is the focus at Zoho University and I do believe that though most of these skills can be acquired, they have to be imbibed into students at a very very young age (school level) so that the skills are at the fore when a candidate is in a position to be employed. In my opinion, comprehension and conversational skills have a lot to do with an individual’s inclination and regular practice/usage and can be difficult to train at a company curriculum level. Hands-on, on-the-job technical skills training is much easier.Having said that Zoho is a software development house (and not a call center) and only a handful and not ALL recruits have to have these soft-skills, so the take away from the article may not be entirely applicable as it seems to be orientated towards a call center/customer service kind of work environment.Your thoughts please?

  9. JalCooper

    There have been news reports in the UK that school leavers are not sufficiently qualified and trained to go into the work place according to various employers.

  10. JalCooper

    There have been news reports in the UK that school leavers are not sufficiently qualified and trained to go into the work place according to various employers.

  11. Thinker

    Glen- in the end, I don’t see how your idea leads to anything different than the current education system over time: each company’s curriculum will eventually not be good enough for other companies, and will be deemed just as worthless as current ones are? If the only value in knowledge is to use it with employers, then these ideas are spot on. But I contend that university level education- maybe not in today’s version, but surely that of maybe 50-100 years ago, produces people of intrinsic value to society and commerce, even to the degree that many of them stay in that environment for a career.

  12. Thinker

    Glen- in the end, I don’t see how your idea leads to anything different than the current education system over time: each company’s curriculum will eventually not be good enough for other companies, and will be deemed just as worthless as current ones are? If the only value in knowledge is to use it with employers, then these ideas are spot on. But I contend that university level education- maybe not in today’s version, but surely that of maybe 50-100 years ago, produces people of intrinsic value to society and commerce, even to the degree that many of them stay in that environment for a career.

  13. Sridhar

    @Glen, I have sent you an email on this.

  14. Sridhar

    @Glen, I have sent you an email on this.

  15. Alan P

    I agree, whnere has this idea that Grads will be useful come from – there is usually (in my experience) 12 months in the OECD to make them useful. Why should India be different (if anything it will be longer)

  16. Alan P

    I agree, whnere has this idea that Grads will be useful come from – there is usually (in my experience) 12 months in the OECD to make them useful. Why should India be different (if anything it will be longer)

  17. Glen

    Sridhar, I met with Dale Dougherty in San Francisco several months ago to discuss alternative models of accreditation and his fast tracking post he did on you and Zoho University. I run a startup focused on this space — the idea that we need other ways of assessing/credentialing student competencies. Do you have any interest in making the Zoho University courses public? Eventually, we would love to see curriculum created by companies for specific career paths. e.g., perhaps a curriculum for a system administrator from Zoho University. You can also imagine different paths from Google, Apple etc. If you are interested in connecting, then I’d love to discuss ways we might utilize what you’ve done with Zoho U to impact a larger population.

  18. Glen

    Sridhar, I met with Dale Dougherty in San Francisco several months ago to discuss alternative models of accreditation and his fast tracking post he did on you and Zoho University. I run a startup focused on this space — the idea that we need other ways of assessing/credentialing student competencies. Do you have any interest in making the Zoho University courses public? Eventually, we would love to see curriculum created by companies for specific career paths. e.g., perhaps a curriculum for a system administrator from Zoho University. You can also imagine different paths from Google, Apple etc. If you are interested in connecting, then I’d love to discuss ways we might utilize what you’ve done with Zoho U to impact a larger population.

  19. MBA tutor

    You are right in that the value of the education is close too nil! However what I believe Indian graduates have is an attitude and desire to succeed. It forces them to work harder than their counterparts in the US!

  20. MBA tutor

    You are right in that the value of the education is close too nil! However what I believe Indian graduates have is an attitude and desire to succeed. It forces them to work harder than their counterparts in the US!

  21. LIFE_REFACTORED

    Sridhar, you hit the nail on the head when you said why even value a degree. I’d say the same about the certification mills as well. They are equally worthless. They’ve become more a rite of passage than anything else.At best they add special effects one’s resume.

  22. LIFE_REFACTORED

    Sridhar, you hit the nail on the head when you said why even value a degree. I’d say the same about the certification mills as well. They are equally worthless. They’ve become more a rite of passage than anything else.At best they add special effects one’s resume.

  23. kingsley2

    Sridhar, I think some of the comments on HN also bring up a valid point – our system forces students to choose a career path entirely too early. You have to decide your group in 11th standard and learn fairly advanced topics very early. Knowledge acquired without interest is impractical for professional use. Example: too often I deal with interview candidates who can explain OOP and design patterns to kingdom come, but are unable to even find a factory class if it’s not named that way.Pragmatically, yes, employers should solve this problem, and your approach is quite interesting.

  24. kingsley2

    Sridhar, I think some of the comments on HN also bring up a valid point – our system forces students to choose a career path entirely too early. You have to decide your group in 11th standard and learn fairly advanced topics very early. Knowledge acquired without interest is impractical for professional use. Example: too often I deal with interview candidates who can explain OOP and design patterns to kingdom come, but are unable to even find a factory class if it’s not named that way.Pragmatically, yes, employers should solve this problem, and your approach is quite interesting.