Is India indeed facing a talent crunch? In an interactive session with students a few weeks back, former Infosys head and co-founder N.R. Narayana Murthy blamed the “talent crunch” in the country for the low number of youth turning entrepreneurs. He also held the country’s education system responsible for the unemployability of over 80 per cent of youth entering the job market. Among those who disagree with Murthy’s dismal prognosis is Prof Anil Gupta, founder of Honey Bee Networks and visiting faculty at IIM-Ahmedabad and IIT-Bangalore. Gupta claims there is no dearth of talent in the country, and this is borne out by the numerous innovations by youngsters who have bagged the Gandhian Young Technological Innovation Award since 2012.
“How much money have people like Narayana Murthy invested in early-stage technology before it has been proved viable in the marketplace? That’s the question to ask,” says Gupta. “Support from the industry has been lacking, so what right do they have to pass judgment on the entrepreneurial spirit of the young in the country?”
A dedicated promoter of grassroots innovations, Gupta points out that among the award-winning innovations last year was a low-cost disposable microfluid biochip for malaria diagnosis, a smartphone-based impedimetric disposable biosensor for detection of cardiac biomarkers and a low-cost infrared vein detector. The potential of these promising healthcare devices, however, can be realised only with early-stage funding.
Debashis Chatterjee, director-general of the International Management Institute in Delhi, finds talk of a talent crunch in a country of 1.3 billion people laughable. Underlining the need to harness talent and put it in the right context, this former director of IIM-Kozhikode cites the example of sport—an arena where several talents have emerged on the national and global scene over the past few years, thanks to the adulation of the public. “It takes enablers to recognise and promote talent in work spaces. This intermediary space needs to be strengthened,” says Chatterjee. “It has a lot to do with our education system and processes. The IT industry has created bonded labour for years together, making money through labour arbitrage and destroying engineering talent in India by turning them into overpaid clerks. And now they talk of talent crunch!”
Arun Maira, member of the erstwhile Planning Commission and the National Innovation Council headed by Sam Pitroda and set up by the erstwhile UPA government, defines innovation as simply a way of finding of unique and surprising solutions using the limited resources available, by putting them together in unusual ways to produce desired results. “We are barking up the wrong tree and thinking of innovation as something to do with information technology, Silicon Valley or Bangalore. It has unfortunately become associated with software solutions that help improve delivery of food and other products and services. This is mostly due to the business media looking at innovation only through a narrow prism,” says Maira.
As a result, people who could direct policy attention, research, youth and resources—both financial and leadership—are more inclined to promote IT entrepreneurs, thereby not adequately addressing the need for innovation. This has resulted in the country misdirecting its resources and missing out on our talent.
Prof Furqan Qamar, secretary-general of the Association of Indian Universities (AIU), which represents more than 80 per cent of the universities and institutions of higher education in India, argues that talent crunch is not possible in a country with the single largest system of higher education—over 40,000 institutions, whose annual enrolment exceeds 35 million students. “Perhaps the talent that exists in our country lacks appreciation,” says Qamar. “The Indian economy and all its establishments have so far been sustained by people who have by and large been educated in India. The talent coming out of our higher educational institutions has been sustaining this development, so I wouldn’t say there is a total crunch of talent being produced by these institutions.”
Admitting that we have not been able to fully tap the potential and possibilities that exist in India, he says we could do much more in terms of the number and quality of graduates being produced. So what is holding back the universities and institutions of higher education? Qamar blames it on resource constraints, the quality of faculty and the question of autonomy.
A tech-innovation workshop at an engineering college in Bangalore
The promise in the 1960s of spending six per cent of the GDP on education, with half the funding going for higher education, is yet to be realised. The result: Not only is the spending per student minuscule, but the infrastructure—both human and physical—is a casualty too. Even as best global universities are striving to reduce the teacher to student ratio to 1:10 or even 1:5, in India, it is one teacher for 23 students in most universities. Owing to lack of autonomy, the best universities in India still lack the freedom to design, experiment, reform and change from within—be it curricula, the choice of subjects being offered or the methodology of teaching.
According to a recent Korn Ferry International report, bucking global trends, India is forecast to be the only country to have a talent surplus in the next decade. This is owing to India’s big demographic opportunity and challenge, known as the demographic dividend. The stakes are high. The challenge yet again is to improve the quality of education and nurture talent among youth.
“It is necessary to strengthen the quality of our public higher education system,” says Prof Sukhdeo Thorat, former chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC). “In the private higher education sector, opportunities should be created to improve the access of the poor. If we do not do this, we will create unequal opportunities leading to a demographic disaster rather than a demographic dividend. If this happens, the education disparities will be a source of economic and social inequalities. Education won’t be able to play a positive role as a level playing field.”
According to Jeremy Wade, founding director of the Jindal Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the O.P. Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana, with the global economy in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, a global talent crunch is being created due to new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and advanced robotics developing faster than high-tech skill development. “Every country is facing this challenge of needing more people capable of leveraging advanced technological tools to spur economic growth. This is also true in India,” says Wade, who feels universities and professional colleges are not responding quickly enough to challenges ahead.
Disagreeing that lack of innovation is holding back entrepreneurship, P. Sathyanarayanan, president of the Chennai-based SRM University, says, “I perceive it rather differently. It is not lack of innovation, but lack of direction. Indian students are not being trained to tread through real-life problems. They study the theories in business management classes or engineering classes, but that is it. Applied education does not exist.”
Sathyanarayanan feels students have to be given more support to start thinking and be willing to take risks. For this, they have to be backed with the necessary encouragement to think beyond capital and seed money. Should educational institutions alone strive to promote innovation and entrepreneurship? Being critical or voicing concerns on talent crunch is not enough, as experts point out. The government and educational institutions need the backing of deep pocket individuals, and corporates need to nurture and harness talents. Given the funds and skills required to bring innovations to the market, more incubators and back-up financial support are the needed to nurture talents and not let entrepreneurship dreams bite the dust.