If newspaper headlines are anything to go by, the silly season is already upon us. Every year, come January, smartly togged-out business-school students prepare for the most important period in their campus life: placements. Students compete with each other to land plum jobs. Business schools trumpet their achievement, either by way of a 100 per cent placement record and/or the fact that they did so in a record time of two-three days. The media has a field day, too, going to town about how soaring dollar salaries on campuses are now the new normal.
This annual tamasha masks a dirty little secret that no one is willing to address. I recently heard about the results of a survey done by a premier management school in the country. The school's director of placements studied the alumni job data on LinkedIn for nearly two decades and followed it up with a survey of the more recent batches of students to understand their career path after graduation. And that recent survey data threw up a worrisome spectre: most students who landed a job during campus placements had a shockingly low tenure. Among these recent batches, nearly 70 per cent of students were apparently disillusioned with their jobs and exited their organisations in less than nine months to a year.
So what lies at the root of this phenomenon? These days, a large majority of students who choose to study management end up taking on large student loans to fund their education. A few of them would much rather skip placements and start new enterprises on their own. But more often than not, they realise that they need to pay back the loan. And taking on a job is the only recourse, if they are to escape a debt trap. But within months of joining, they realise that this job wasn't what they had bargained for. And then they end up looking for a new one, in the hope that it would provide them release from the drudgery of their current job.
Then there is a lack of proper career counselling. A large majority of students come into business school without any prior work experience whatsoever. Business schools are in a tearing hurry to fill seats and don't seem to care about the profile. At placement time, herd mentality takes over. The same survey found that most students depended a lot on their seniors for advice. And they would often be asked to pick a marquee company, because it was a "prestigious job" to have. They would often land the job because they were exceedingly bright. But no one bothered to look at whether that job was the best fit for them. The soul searching would begin, as the data show, invariably within a year of joining this "dream" job.
If that wasn't bad enough, business schools make it even worse by reducing choice, in a bid to shore up a 100 per cent placement record. So they design pernicious rules that punish students keen to explore options and look for the best fit, and reward those inclined to take the first job on hand. And that's a direct fallout of the infantile system of business-school rankings. Most business-school rankings conducted by various media organisations don't ask for data on the "fit", or even "tenure". If they did, the current system of ranking would perhaps turn upside down.
Our business schools aren't inclined to change the system. Instead, they'd rather go along and game the system. This is compounded by the fact that recruiters, too, are inclined to look largely for academic excellence, even if that has sometimes very little to do with performance on the job or the basic issue of fitment. After all, human resources departments get measured by whether they were able to attract the cream of the batch across the premier business schools.
The media, too, must share a large part of the blame. The screaming headlines that focus on top drawer salaries accentuate the herd mentality on campuses. And by focusing on the dubious 100 per cent placement record at various B-schools, they merely perpetuate a system that's clearly broken, and with no one willing to fix it.
Last week, I got an intriguing email from a young girl graduating from one of the Indian Institutes of Management. She was looking for a possible career in the media and entertainment industry. But none of the media companies had come to her campus. She either didn't push the placement cell for greater choice or was never asked. In the thick of placement, she suddenly realised that while her high grades would get her a coveted job in a consumer-goods company, her heart lay in a more creative role in the media and entertainment industry. She came across my LinkedIn profile and reached out for help. After speaking to her on the phone, I connected her to various heads of media organisations and nearly all of them responded saying they would set up interviews with her.
I don't know if she eventually landed her dream job in the media, but here's the moot point: isn't it time we end this charade, dare to be different and allow our young people to follow their hearts? And there's a sensible way to start this clean-up: let's begin by measuring the "right" set of metrics. For one, recruiters would do well to plan competency-based interviews and on their part, placement committees need to focus on competency-matching, instead of an age-old "mine the experience and hope for the best". Or else, this systemic failure will only worsen.