An edit page column I had written for Business Standard—provocatively titled Placements, Statistics and Damned Lies—exactly three years ago popped up again last week on Facebook. It was posted by none other than Prof Madhukar Shukla, one of the senior most and much loved professors at XLRI, Jamshedpur. Prof Shukla added an intriguing comment to the post: he said the column is still relevant and will be year after year!
Now, this ought to gladden the heart of any columnist, except that this isn’t about tooting my own horn. Because this column in question dealt with a serious subject: why the process of campus placements at business schools was dangerously flawed. It is around this time every year that thousands of young business school graduates try their luck at placements. For a variety of reasons that the earlier column had explored, it remains a game of hit and miss. More miss, less hit. And to have Prof Shukla openly and honestly admit that things had simply not improved was disappointing, to say the least.
It isn’t just anecdotal evidence. In that same column, I had quoted a survey done by a leading business school, which seemed to suggest that nearly 70% of students quit their first job after graduating within nine months to a year!
Next morning, I shared the column with my business school batchmates on our WhatsApp group. Many of them now had grownup kids. And the refrain was much the same: Getting a job wasn’t a challenge. But more often than not, either it was a job that they didn’t want—or they were merely doing it to mark time, save some money and pay off their educational loans, before taking the plunge into something that they really cared about.
And no one seems to be too bothered. So long as business schools maintain a 100% placement record and they continue to receive thousands of applications during admissions, they aren’t overly worried about the lack of fitment. HR folks in the country’s best run companies are rated on their ability to attract the cream of the batch. And so long as they build their profile on campus by organising yet another business plan competition and making a few targeted pre-placement offers, they aren’t unduly concerned about deeper issues of mismatch. And the media too remains more interested in publishing special B-school editions—choc-a-bloc with advertisements from business schools themselves—based on rankings that give high weightage to the school’s placement record, but conveniently ignoring the underlying issues.
So what needs to change? I spoke to a bunch of people, including Prof Shukla, to build a list of things that do need to change for the better.
One, insist that students have at least two years of work experience before applying for business school. It is hard to blame students for their naivety, if they’ve never seen the insides of a workplace, let alone understand the purpose of management, strategy and leadership. Not only will they relate better to what is being taught in class, the assumption is that their sense of clarity about career choices will be a lot better.
Two, mandating prior and relevant work experience is only half the story. The more difficult one is to tackle lack of purpose. A sizeable section of MBA applicants waltz through the MBA admissions process without any real application of mind. They tend to treat it the same way they treat the engineering admission exams, focusing more on how to crack the entrance tests, rather than build a clear sense of purpose of what they want to learn and indeed what they hope to do with their career. Business schools need to find better ways to screen out candidates who don’t have this yearning to learn.
Gone are the days of linear career progressions. Nowadays, it isn’t uncommon for a professional to go through four-five different twists in his or her career. Therefore, more than focusing on just subject matter expertise, the key is about learning how to learn, Dr Ranjan Banerjee, dean, SPJIMR, told me. (It isn’t without reason that the most popular course on Coursera is also on the same theme.)
Three, invite alumni to run career clinics and drive greater industry interactions from the get go. At XLRI, Prof Shukla said they’ve typically hosted a team of alumni who’ve run career clinics, which apart from helping students deal with job interviews, also provide insights on how to manage career transitions.
We need better conversations about how to manage a career and better ways to teach leadership. That’s something that Dr Banerjee says they have grafted into the programme after placements are over. Along with industry stalwart and Executive-in-Residence R Gopalakrishnan, Dr Banerjee runs a programme called Questions that you did not ask at SPJIMR (QYDNAS). Among other things, it deals with issues like what to do with your career when you sense learning is slowing down, how to manage your boss, and all such typical conundrums.
A few things are clear: Core faculty are often not best placed to offer career advice. Especially today, when there’s a lot more choice beyond the traditional MBA hunting grounds in investment banking, consulting and FMCG. For instance, the creative economy is exploding, with exciting opportunities emerging in sports management, media and entertainment and event management. But very few business schools are tuned into these emerging trends. As a result, young people are forced to accept dull and dreary sales jobs in FMCG and the banking industry as a compromise.
This is where senior faculty need to step up and engage more with industry, says Bengaluru-based strategy consultant and entrepreneur Harsh Vardhan. Apart from driving more relevant research agendas, it will persuade senior leaders in a corporation to bring a better profile of jobs to campus. Or else, if the engagement is with a junior HR executive in a corporation, there is a tendency to simply follow the rulebook rather than innovate for the better.
What’s the answer? Each student must get proper coaching in not just building personalised career plans, but learning to live a life of authenticity, free of masks, poses and pretence. At SPJIMR, much of the non-classroom learning is about mustering the courage to be comfortable with who you are and the heart that sees meaning in a life of contribution.
That’s one way to beat the herd mentality that’s evident at placements. Placement cells in business schools too need to be more creative in pursuing newer firms in emerging sectors, rather than fall back on the traditional favourites.
Four, dismantle the pernicious rules that reduce choice. In the last three years, things have actually become worse. As batch sizes have increased, business schools have enforced tougher rules that force students to accept the first firm offer they get. Also, the personalised advice that faculty would provide when the batch size was smaller has gone out of the window, Prof Shukla told me on the phone from Jamshedpur. Business schools must refrain from irresponsibly crowing about completing placement in less than a week—and tom-tomming the big salary jobs. Neither of these really matter in the final scheme of things, and do more harm than good. Dr Banerjee told me that as a policy SPJIMR does not advertise in a magazine edition that carried business school rankings. We need more business schools to show such spine.
Five, there’s one silver lining though: a few business schools are now offering a modicum of financial support for the first three years for students, who prefer to skip placements and start up their own new venture. This will encourage at least a few more students to follow their heart and chase their dreams. If there is one thing that has truly changed since the time I graduated 25 years ago, it is this: entrepreneurship. In my generation and the one before that, the aspiration was to join an HUL or ITC, and hope that you could retire as chairman! This current generation of young people want to start their own venture rather than look to climb the totem pole at a global corporation. In the end, our best hope is to make it more aspirational for our young MBAs to be job creators, rather than chase big dollar salaries. And I’d argue this is what India truly needs.
(A shorter version of this column was first published in Business Standard.)