Changing the conversation from college degrees to real skills

- By Rishin Chakraborty, with inputs from Surabhi Yadav
18 October 2019

Annu is a 20 year old from Kishanganj, Bihar. Kishanganj, a small town in the so called Chicken's Neck of India, may be a forgettable name, but one would take only a few minutes to discover how unforgettable a personality young Annu is. Kajal is an 18 year old innocent looking girl whose father is a rickshaw puller and mother a domestic cook. They are among those new hires in Mindtree, an Indian IT company, who joined as Software Engineers without any Engineering degree but with required programming skills. Earlier this year when these youngsters from Navgurukul, a non-profit working to provide meaningful alternate to college education, joined Mindtree, together they took a bold step towards breaking many age-old stereotypes.

Not that such unconventional recruitment didn't happen in the past, but what makes this different in the Indian context is the fact that the new recruits joined in the same position, same salary, same career progression matrix as did those with Engineering degrees. Basically, no discrimination whatsoever! To tell you the full story, I will have to give a bit of background.

Back then, I was working as the Dean at Mindtree's Global Learning Centre in Bhubaneswar. For me it was a dream job where, together with like minded colleagues, I got maximum freedom to experiment with radical ideas in learning. I drew a lot of insights and inspiration from how children learn, especially my two daughters, who have never been to school.

At the personal front, as a family, we have been trying to make sense of this less traveled path of unschooling for a while. It is a relatively new idea and there aren't many stories to refer. Long time ago with a couple of friends, we tried to list out the name of successful people who either didn't go to school or were dropouts. We were happy to find a good many number of people who did well without formal education. Still, there are unknowns in the path that give jitters at times, more so to the onlookers than to the travelers. Among the questions that sceptics ask, one that is most common is "who will give them jobs without degrees?"

In my quest to find a credible answer to the job-without-degree question, I started following avant-garde organizations, reading articles and meeting people who have worked on this. One such meeting was with Manish Jain in 2017 that gave me a lot of purpose and motivation. Manish is a leading global voice for the unschooling movement. After getting to know about the progressive learning model in Mindtree Kalinga that has self-learning and skill demonstrations as the basis, he challenged me to recruit people with required skills but without degrees. Manish cited examples of top global companies such as Google, Apple, Ernst & Young, IBM, Microsoft, Deloitte among others who have been hiring from this typically untapped pool of skilled resources.

That same year I met Abhishek and Rishabh, the co-founders of Navgurukul. These two bright young gentlemen were getting started with their novel initiative of offering a year long intensive program at par with Bachelor of Technology, Computer Science or Information Technology to young adults from underserved communities. That too without charging them, completely free and with a promise of better placements. However, the best part was that Navgurukul didn't care about academic credentials of the candidates as long as they had the passion, competence and attitude to learn software engineering.

When I had put across all these points to Mindtree's management for the case of recruiting non-degree holders, they slowly but surely warmed up to the proposition. It was Pramod Panda, Senior Vice President and Head of Mindtree Kalinga in Bhubaneswar, who showed keen interest in the matter and took upon him to socialize the idea with respective stakeholders. After considerable lobbying, we onboarded 5 fellows from Navgurukul, of which just one was a college graduate and rest were standard 10 or 12 pass students with an interest in programming.

Like other new hires, these 5 youngsters went through Mindtree's 3 month long onboarding program called Orchard at the Kalinga campus. From the very beginning what stood out was their determination to prove themselves and a sense of obligation towards fellow Navgurukul students; they knew that if they performed well in the program not only will they secure their jobs but would lay the foundation for future hiring from their tribe. At the end of 3 months, they proved a point - they were definitely at par with the engineering graduates; in many aspects thoroughly outshining them. Mindtree was impressed with their confidence, resolve and maturity.

In the last few months, working on real projects, this new and promising category of workforce has duly earned trust and respect of their managers and team members through sheer focus and hard work. As Mindtree tasted success in this mostly unexplored hiring method, India Inc. is quickly realizing the potential of this win-win-win strategy. The corporate world has long found itself unfairly bound to the highly unemployable talent that comes from from the University system. So, this new skills-based hiring concept definitely is a gush of fresh air as it also allows them to increase diversity within the organization. For the huge number of sufficiently competent young adults without an Engineering degree, they can finally see light at the end of the tunnel. The Engineering colleges, taking a cue from these next generation outfits such as Navgurukul, can identify and bridge their deficit areas in terms of course coverage and pedagogy.

With this welcome disruption in the labour market, conversation in the corporate corridors is silently changing from college degrees to real skills