Friday, September 16, 2011

Degrees and Aspirations

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with an unemployed young man from Punjab. He had an impressive list of worthless credentials. He is a B.Tech. in Electronics Engineering, and an MBA in HR & IT. He couldn't find a job and was seeking help.

Digging deeper into his resume, I noticed a few things: He had completed both his degrees from a local college in Phagwara, a small industrial town in Punjab. These private colleges have mushroomed in the last decade or so, and have almost no real faculty or facilities. Almost every state in India now has a "Technical University" which grants permission to these colleges to award degrees but does little else.

He had completed a few trainings at some local industries, and his English skills were sub-par. A Resume is like a dating site photo. If someone looks unattractive in that photo, or if someone's resume contains errors of formatting and punctuation, it is not a good sign.

I asked him why he had gone for an MBA. He said he couldn't find a job after his graduation, and "the college wanted me to stay on because I was a good sportsperson." After his MBA, he did land a job in a local bank branch, as a "Business Development Executive", a euphemism for an account salesman who cold calls and approaches random strangers to convince them to open an account with the bank.

He resigned from that job after a month or so, because he saw it beneath his dignity to do a job which was also being offered to people who had never been to college, and, perhaps not less importantly, because he was a failure at salesmanship.

When I asked him what kind of a job he was looking for, one of the first words that came out his mouth was: Abroad.

I reflected on his predicament and these thoughts came to my mind:

A degree from such an institute is worse than not having any degree at all. All this qualification does is raise the aspiration of the person holding it. When something is commonly available, it is not possible to flaunt it. But it does make you feel more "deserving", and therefore reject the humble job offers which come your way.

People want to go abroad and are willing to be a janitor, but won't be a salesperson in their own city. That is not hard to understand. In a foreign country, your ego is protected because of you being an anonymous outsider. One is willing to do a menial job there, but not here, where people will look down upon you and will speak in hushed tones to embarrass your family. People are even willing to go to war-torn countries like Iraq, and to distressed economies like Greece or USA. Life as an immigrant is quite harsh in these places, but at least one is free of "society" and its gaze.

This is also the reason why unemployed Sikhs from Punjab, especially from agricultural families, would rather go abroad than find a job or seek opportunities in a big city in India. They have been accustomed to feel a racial and cultural superiority over other races and religions in India, and the mutual back-slapping which occurs in their home regions is cruelly absent in the big cities. There you are only as good as what you can get done. Your name, your caste, your ancestry means zilch to a money-minded employer. You will rarely come across a Sikh beggar or a Sikh rickshaw puller, because that is an insult to their egos.

Markets are cruel, and if you insist on a "high-status" job, you have to prove yourself better than other candidates. Merely having degrees from a low-rung institute is no guarantee at all. Ads for air-hostess jobs in India don't ask for a college degree. They don't need it. If you are suave, smart and are willing to be trained, you are in! An engineering degree is, theoretically speaking, a vocational qualification, but only if the institute is known to impart real education, and not just a piece of paper.

One comes across news headlines in India which go something like: "MA working as a sweeper", "PhDs lining up for peon jobs", "long queue of government job aspirants", "long lines of visa applicants" when on the other hand, the newspapers are full of ads requiring helpers, salesmen, and so on. A few years back, we were unable to recruit a housekeeper in Punjab who would take basic care of an infirm elder lady suffering from Alzheimer's.

The security guard industry, a big one in Indian metros, is mostly populated by north-eastern Indian men. The maid industry, another big industry, is similarly populated by north-easterns and poor Bengalis. Cab drivers are mostly from eastern UP. Why are north Indians absent in these jobs?

It is because they feel destined for higher-status jobs. And this aspiration has been further fueled by them getting worthless degrees in their hands. When this aspiration is repeatedly thwarted and they get frustrated, they take to drugs. Drug-addiction in Punjab youth is probably higher than in any other state.

In India, opening a small business is seen as a climb-down from a desk job in which pension is assured. Only some castes should be selling, the culture goes, the higher castes should dress well and go to a proper office.

And the market doesn't give a damn about the caste and what you think you deserve.


Anonymous said...

insightful viewpoints...agree on many accounts though you may have generalized some of them.

Anonymous said...

May not see many sikh rickshaw pullers but one does see a lot of sikh truckers.
India is the only country in the world that has cheapened education(especially in engineering) in this manner. On one hand because it did that India benefited enormously by Globalization, it was able to provide cheap labor...Every Tom Dick and Harry in India has a technical degree, in the US and other Western nations the few that study engineering do so only if they have a serious aptitude for it. So they land up importing these cheap engineers from India anyway...maybe he is not so wrong when he says "abroad"..... The software inrush that happened in the mid nineties saw many Indians with the worst possible educational background arrive in the USA and make a nice life for themselves.....

Arun said...

Y should the skill set of a person be evaluated based on the institute from where he got his degree or his proficiency in English ?

sunil said...

I think you are very correct on many points..... like raised expectations and these mushroomed universities giving degrees and no knowledge . .....Any employer who recruits wants a certain skill set and desires basic aptitude for training on desired skills.......It is sad that people fail to realize that knowledge has nothing to do with degrees...... In Rajasthan they have 54000 seats for engineering through common entrance test ....20000 are still vacant and anyone who has even compartment in XII can get admission. .......
Why do our policy makers fail to realize that our industries hardly invest in R&D ......what they desire are skilled technicians not skilled engineers and these degree holders are far from engineers and cannot hold a soldering iron as well... ......There is drastic need for more ITIs (not iits) and polytechnics that will make skilled operators and technicians who at least will not live in state of limbo
nice write up.....

Pankaj said...

cant agree more. i know im biased, but north india feels quite barbaric to be sometimes.

Anonymous said...

If the point of this article is to say north indians(or punjabis?) are superficial, lacking intellectual depth or work ethics and standards, love putting on a false show as compared to south indians - probably you are right....

Anonymous said...

My uncle has an engineering degree from a college which has hardly any reputation. He got married to a girl in USA and then using a false resume, he got selected in a very prestigious organization. Maybe the guy who said "abroad" isn't having too high an expectations. And I know of 2 other people besides my uncle whose story is also similar.

Also a janitor earning a minimum wage in a western country will have better life style than a salesman working in India with less jot related stress. A western trucker will earn a lot more than a trucker in India. Truckers can earn about $50,000 in USA within a year of starting in that field.