Bridging the skills gap with industry: Academia partnerships

Lokesh Mehra, Regional Manager, Corporate Responsibility, South Asia, Cisco Systems


The shortage of appropriately skilled labour across many industries is emerging as a significant and complex challenge to India's growth and future. According to NASSCOM, each year over 3 million graduates and post-graduates are added to the Indian workforce. However, of these only 25 percent of technical graduates and 10-15 percent of other graduates are considered employable by the rapidly growing IT and ITES segments. Hence, what we have today is a growing skills gap reflecting the slim availability of high-quality college education in India and the galloping pace of the country's service-driven economy, which is growing faster than most countries in the world. As businesses propose to double and treble their workforces and India Inc. strives to maintain its position in the global marketplace, it has become imperative to prepare and plan for a world-class, competent, talented and innovative workforce.


It is widely held that knowledge, skills, and resourcefulness of people are critical to sustain development, economic, and social activity in a knowledge society. Given the current high-paced growth and dynamic investment climate in India, the demand for knowledge workers with high levels of technical and soft skills will only increase. With expansion taking place across sectors: banking and financial services (BFSI), retail, manufacturing, pharma, SMBs, outsourcing / offshoring companies, service providers, etc there already exists a large need for IT talent. It is also estimated that India would require a workforce of 2.3 million employees in the IT and IT-enabled services sectors by 2010. However, over the past fifteen years, India has produced 1.6 million professionals and faces the uphill task of producing another 0.8 million in the next two years.

In this demand-supply gap scenario, a look at the Indian education system will reveal that the number of technical schools in India, including engineering colleges, has actually more than trebled in the last decade, according to the All India Council of Technical Education. Part of the skills gap problem is that only a small percentage of India's young go on to higher education. No more than 7 per cent of Indians aged 18-25 go to college, according to official statistics. Even a more fundamental level of education is proving difficult with nearly 40 per cent of people over the age of 15 being illiterate. Ironically, it is becoming even harder to create a robust and continuous pipeline of talent. The university systems of few countries would be able to keep up with such demand, and India is certainly having trouble. The best and most selective universities generate too few graduates, and new private colleges are producing graduates of uneven quality.

Further, universities and educational institutions have been unable to update their syllabi in tune with the high speed changes taking place in the world of technology. Hence, the students churned out are not equipped to meet the current industry requirements and often companies have to incur additional expenses (time and monetary) to train new hires. Besides the technology aspect industries also evaluate competencies ranging soft skills, team building, overall attitude, and values.
In response to these challenges, many companies today have intensified their academic interventions in order to tackle the impeding shortage of knowledge workers. A recent Cisco commissioned study with IDC revealed that there will be a shortage of 137,200 networking professionals alone by 2009. It is further estimated that this gap is growing at a compounded annual growth of 39 percent. With networking forming the backbone of a company's IT needs, this gap in skilled networking professionals could arrest the growing market and threaten India's economic growth plans.

Industry-Academia Partnerships

One of the approaches to tackle the problem of lacking job readiness in the Indian IT sector is partnerships between the industry and academia. Many IT companies are partnering with engineering colleges and universities. Infosys has launched a program called 'Campus Connect' to align the education being given at various engineering colleges, with the requirements of the industry. Wipro has also started a program called the Wipro Academy of Software Excellence, in association with BITS (Pilani) to prepare fresh graduates for careers in software programming and provide them with the necessary skills. Many multinationals have also established alliances with academic institutions on specific initiatives covering faculty upgradation, internships, curriculum revision workshops, research incubation, etc. aggregating the architects of the new global economy. Recently a news article mentioned Tech Mahindra (a joint venture of Mahindra group and British Telecom), who have found a unique way to address the manpower shortage and wage inflation problem - by getting into the education business itself. The company has decided to set up an engineering college, Mahindra College of Engineering, that will equip engineers with the skills required in a 'fast changing global scenario'.

The Cisco Networking Academy (NetAcad) is also aimed as a timely response to these challenges. The curriculum incorporates hands-on experience when teaching students about computer networks. The NetAcad Program offers various curricula, viz, CCNA, CCNP, Network Security, Fundamentals of Wireless LAN, which cover the principles and practice of designing, building, and maintaining networks capable of supporting national and global organizations. The Networking Academy is in line with the needs of Indian colleges, and features project-driven training in high-demand job skills.

Currently, there are over 160 Cisco Academies (across 26 states & union territories) with 7,600+ student currently enrolled in the program and 4900+ professionals have already graduated in CCNA. In India today there are over 67,000 Cisco Certified professionals. In addition to imparting IT knowledge and networking skills, NetAcad also aims to bridge the 'digital divide' as it takes technical education to rural India including technologically backward states like Kashmir, Orissa and Tripura. Cisco has also tied up exclusively with all women institutes to encourage girls to learn about networking which has been always considered as a male bastion. Coinciding with its 10th anniversary, NetAcad is also updating its CCNA curricula to accommodate a broader spectrum of student skill levels and help increase enrollment rates. Cisco has also launched its Entry Level Certification (CCENT - Cisco Certified Entry Network Technician) to enable students from technical schools, viz, Polytechnic's & ITI's to equip themselves for growing industry needs. NetAcad is also working on localizing the curricula and certification exams to meet the growing Indian demand for networking skills (including making IT Essentials curriculum available in Hindi in the near future).

Its high time now for us to reboot the India education system and joint initiatives by the industry and academia will play an important part in plugging the talent gap in the years to come. Training individuals for the jobs of the future and allowing them to visualise what it possible today will not only make a difference in their lives but will enrich our communities now and for the future.


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