Improving Employability Skills among Engineering Students

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Summary
I was given ready content from a US university and asked to conduct Employability Training to Engg. College students. As an industry professional, I found the content too theoretical and not effective. I created my own content and found an effective & fun way of improving employability. Instead of cosmetic improvements in presentation style, personality development, language skills,etc., I found ways to make them internally and technically stronger, so that they succeed not only in their first interview after college, but through their entire career.

Introduction

This article is about improving employability skills among youth, particularly among engineering students. It focusses on the skills required by industry, particularly the IT industry, and ways and means to develop those required skills among the students to make them more employable. It tries to bridge the gap between industry and academic institutions. This article will benefit students from any stream who wish to make a career in IT. With the IT boom, quite a few students from all engineering streams chose a career in IT. However, the techniques are also relevant to all technical streams of engineering.

Most Employability Trainings for college students focus on cosmetic improvements in presentation style, personality development, language skills, etc.

As a Senior IT professional who has over 30 years of industry experience, mostly as CIO, the author feels that these cosmetic attributes are less significant for candidates from technical streams like engineering, particularly for IT function. What is required and appeals the most to the interviewer is not his personality, not even his/her technical knowledge. Having worked with and trained several youngsters on the job, the author can vouch that the industry needs different skills.

This article presents a much better, interesting and effective way to make IT and other engineering students, more employable. The method described here not only makes them more employable for their first employment after college, but it also helps them to remain employable, skilled and relevant throughout their career.

This article tries to identify those skills and discuss why they are important. More significantly, the article not only presents a strategy to develop those skills in students by catching them young but also shows how the strategy was practically implemented to ensure that the students benefitted from the strategy.

What are the Required Skills and Why?

An Understanding of the IT Industry & the Skill Supply Scenario

To build the right employability skills of the students, we need to identify what are the most critical skills that the industry needs and understand why they are important. These requirements are driven by some typical characteristics of IT technology and the IT industry as follows:

  • Technology, particularly IT, is continuously evolving, improving, innovating and creating redundancy.
  • The field is so vast and changing, that you can never master everything. You need experts in focused areas, calling for a team effort.
  • What one learns in college becomes redundant soon enough. An IT professional needs to continuously update and upgrade skills.

Are the academic institutes doing enough to meet the industry demand? Firstly, there is a gap between the skills required and what colleges teach. In India, there is very little collaboration between academics and industry. Secondly, even if they were to teach the content relevant today, the technology itself changes so fast that it becomes redundant. So the students need to be equipped with skills to cope with the ever-changing industry requirement.

Do you need Extra Intelligent People?

I was once consulting for a software company where the CEO was keen to tone up his recruitment process to be able to recruit the best candidates for software development. According to him, the best candidates were those with extremely sharp brains, who could crack puzzles instantly, who believed that they are intelligent and the best. He asked me if there is a test to identify such people.

I asked him if you truly need extra intelligent guys for the IT industry. I wouldn’t even care to test such skills.

The Required Skills

If not the sharpest and most intelligent brains, what kind of people and what skills does the industry need?

More than testing the knowledge and skills of the people I interview, I seek for the right attitude – an attitude of learning, problem-solving, exploring, experimenting and an urge to learn by trial-and-error. In the field of information technology, there is so much to learn that you can never know all. You may need to dig, explore, experiment, read and re-read manuals to find a solution. So it is not the completeness of knowledge that is required, but the analytical ability, inquisitiveness, eagerness and ability to explore and learn.

When I interview a candidate, I give a pen and paper and ask him/her to describe in details any project that s/he has done and is comfortable with, starting from the objective, problem definition, the solution and the actual logic of the solution. The way s/he explains and argues out helps me check his/her involvement in and mastery over the work s/he has done, and his/her ability to communicate and argue with clarity. Command over language is less important for me than the ability to discuss alternatives, openness to suggestions and to explore alternatives. A person who is ready to research is a person who can look at alternative solutions and is not “fixed” to only one solution.

Even among those already working with me, I don’t expect people to ‘know’, but be willing to explore. During problem-solving, when I ask youngsters if there is a technology solution, there are some who give an instant response in ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and some who say that they need time to explore.

Those who give instant reply often do so thinking that they will cut a sorry figure if they say, “I don’t know”. They fear that it may give an impression of their lack of knowledge.

I feel happier if s/he says, “I don’t know, I need to go back and research before giving a reply”. And s/he may have to look up manuals, user groups, web articles, etc.

HUMILITY to say “I don’t know, I need to look up and explore” is another important quality required in software professionals. In IT, being able to dig, research and find a solution is more important than knowing the solution. The knowledge out there is so vast that you need to be a “seeker” and not a “know-all’. That is why the sharp people who think that they are the best can be serious failures. They may not have the humility to think that they may not know, and the vast field of IT can completely floor their ego.

S/he who gives the right solutions may not always be the one who knows the best solution, but the one who has the attitude to find the right solution.

It is possible to develop these skills in extremely ordinary people. I have been able to get extraordinary results from ordinary people [Ref4:Extraordinary Results…].

Strategy to Cultivate the Required Skills?

Now the most important question – how to develop these skills which will not only make them employable first time, but will help them to remain employable and ensure their place in their organization.

 

I myself got complete clarity on this recently when I was asked by a US-based firm to conduct employability training in colleges in India. I was asked to deliver training to students at a very short notice. When I said I needed time to understand requirements and prepare, as I had mainly trained corporate managers and not many college students. I was told that there is no need to prepare as they had ready content with PowerPoint slides prepared by a reputed US university. All I had to do was pick the content and deliver lectures.

I was not so happy with the US university’s content. I found it too theoretical and not so relevant to the engineering students. Something told me that IT folks needed something different. I was forced to brainstorm and create my own content for the training.

I sat for two nights to brood over the topic. It was during this period of contemplation and examination that I had my ‘eureka’ moment. I had found a different method far from the usual window dressing, and it was a fun method too! The method focused on making them internally and technically strong so that they impress the interviewer by their brilliance rather than by their personality.

This article is based on content and processes that I created then, and later improved upon as I delivered the lectures. Although it is best suited for IT stream, the same can apply to other engineering streams too [Ref5:Employability Training].

My General Content

I prepared some content for my training which is discussed in this section. But the real crux was not in this content, but my training strategy which is discussed in the next section. It is easier to build skills, but changing attitudes requires a strategy.

In my content, I explained the different specializations and avenues available to both IT and non-IT students. I covered the top technologies in demand in the market. I also explained the real skills and character traits required by the industry as discussed above.

There are always some students who feel they made a mistake in their choice – they realize that they chose the Engineering/IT field out of pressure from their parents or peers against their choice. It is important to address the dilemma of such students too. They are at a point of no return – they are not in a position to change their stream and waste 2-3 years of their life.

My content had ways to help them find alternative paths, avenues and opportunities available for such students within the IT industry. For instance, if they did not find technology interesting, they could choose customer-facing jobs like customer support. I had a project manager who was not so good at technology. The company was thinking of retrenching him before he got into my team. I shifted him to customer support and he turned out to be excellent in customer relations.

“Just-Do-IT” – A Strategy of “Bootstrap Learning”

The key differentiator about my training was not the content described above, but the learning strategy, which is described in this section. I call it “Just-Do-IT” strategy using a technique which I call “Bootstrap Learning”. This strategy makes them excel throughout their career, not through cosmetic changes but by developing internal strengths.

So what is the Just-Do-IT Strategy?

The strategy is based on my following lessons learnt over 30 years in IT profession:

  1. In the field of IT, you learn more by doing than by reading.
  2. Anybody can learn by just doing it. All you need is interest and dedication.
  3. When you have learnt it yourself the hard way and actually completed projects, your confidence and skill will be evident in interviews, irrespective of whether you have command over language or not.

Just-Do-IT strategy is to take up simple and small projects to start with and simply start building solutions on your own as a hobby. You could start as early in your student life, but not later than, say, the second year of engineering. The technology itself is so interesting that once you start, there is no stopping, you will be drawn to it like a magnet.

It is best if you can take up real-life problems and try solutions. Now it is so common to develop mobile apps for real-life problems. If you cannot think of a real-life problem, then take up imaginary or test cases and develop applications to solve problems. Simply reading about technology does not help.

There are two reasons to just do it.

Firstly, almost all tools to start experimenting are available free of cost on the net. All you need is a laptop, or a tab or smartphone, (which is not uncommon with students these days). Moreover, there is so much content freely available on the web to help you learn – manuals, references, tutorials, examples of code, ready downloadable code which you can use to build solutions. These days you can start building mobile applications for real-life problems.

Secondly, a nice thing about IT technology is that the equipment does not break down or get damaged if you do trial-and-error, because you would be experimenting with the software and not the hardware. At worst, you may get wrong results, or the computer may go into a loop and hang, but it never gets damaged by your experiments with software. Hence I encouraged students to experiment to heart’s content without fear.

The key to “Just-Do-IT” is to do as much hands-on and self-learning as possible. You may take the help of friends and online support-groups, but just do it. It becomes a fun way of learning.

I have trained several fresh graduate trainees very effectively by on-the-job-training, by straightaway getting them started on simple do-it-yourself projects [Ref1:From Trainee to..]

Whenever I had to train people on new technologies, more than just reading or classroom training, I asked them to work on a project, which could be a real-life problem or a test case. [Ref2:From Bench to…] has a real story of how employees who were “sitting on the bench” (a term used for techies who were unassigned and idling) were turned into an expert group on a new forthcoming technology.

We saw what “Just-Do-IT” strategy is. But what is Bootstrap learning strategy?

“Bootstrap Learning” is a term I have coined for a learning methodology where you start with an extremely simple project to solve a very simple problem and slowly add complexities to your projects (like computer operating system bootstraps to load the bare minimum code first and then starts loading more complex code into memory). I made an expert out of a trainee in a very complex technology called Computer Telephony Interface (CTI) by asking him to start with a very simple application for a call-centre. Call centres use advanced phones with login facility and plenty of buttons with advanced features. I asked for a simple software to login into a phone, make a call and close a call – that’s all – no other advanced features. (The success story is available at [Ref1:From Trainee to..]. There is another success story of self-learning using real-life projects at [Ref 2: From Bench to…2]).

Bootstrap Learning is an effective method to learn in a phased manner, which will eventually turn out to be much faster than other methods.

This has another advantage. It helps students get familiarity with different areas of IT. They can try different technologies and decide which one truly interests them. They can overcome the dilemma of choosing between such vast options of available technologies/skills by identifying their passion, strengths/weaknesses, likes and dislikes.

Implementing the Strategy

I knew that giving them a pep-talk about the advantages of self-learning and ‘Just-Do-IT’ strategy wouldn’t help to get them to actually do it. So the question was how do I push them to really doing it and implementing the strategy?

To initiate them into doing it, I employed two techniques. One, I gave them group projects related to different to each group and asked them to search the net to find out what are the free resources available, references, tutorials, tools, development tools, etc. They had to identify a project title and present their findings to the class. This provided an opportunity to plunge into the web and start exploring available tools.

Secondly, and most importantly, I asked some students to come forward to present and demonstrate any technology project they had done outside the academic curriculum out of interest as a hobby.

I asked them to take the stage and make a full presentation stating the objectives of their project (very important), the problem description, the solution and detailed demo with explanation of their solution. Some students had done wonderful work out of interest and as a hobby, all by themselves without any help form college.

These presentations had triple benefits.

Firstly, the students could build confidence, conversation skill, presentation skills and public speaking skills through their presentations. They learnt how to explain their projects in simple language and to answer queries.

Secondly, they got new ideas during discussions.

Third, it encouraged the rest of the students to overcome their self-doubts and to just do it. Seeing their friends, who were not extra brilliant, doing projects, they got the confidence to say “I CAN do it too”. They also got ideas for their own projects.

I asked students to take their college projects too very seriously and never miss an opportunity to “do-it-yourself”. In group projects, there can be a tendency to let your partners do it while you relax. They must get involved. I discouraged them from buying ready projects available in the market.

I feel sure that students who have done such ‘hands-on’ projects by self-learning would shine out in their interviews and would impress the interviewers.

The Benefits

A person who has started on practical problem-solving with self-learning will have high clarity. Such clarity will automatically help him/her to answer questions very confidently in interviews. And the confidence will impress any interviewer. A company would be too willing to hire a person who can be an instant starter, as the company would not need to wait to train him/her. The interviewer also gets the confidence that the person will learn new technologies in future easily.

As already mentioned, the biggest benefit for the candidates is that it will not only help them get the first job, it will help them throughout their career to adapt to new technologies and remain relevant.

Related Readings:

From Trainee to Expert
From Bench to Centre of Excellence
Success Story of Hobbyist Programmer
Extraordinary Results from Ordinary People
Employability Training for IT/Engineering Students
We Have no Control on our Actions
All Articles by Prem Kamble

 

  Copyright 2020 Prem Kamble

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