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Corporate May 24, 2012

India Inc to Youngistan: You're spoilt, semi-literate and unprofessional

By Lakshmi Chaudhry

Dear Youngistan: You are spoilt un-professionals with minimal English language skills and not an ounce of creativity. That's the message penned by Mohit Chandra, a partner at the consulting firm KPMG. And he wouldn't hire you if he had a choice.

In an acerbic open letter published on India Ink, Chandra indicts a new generation of Indian graduates, "spoiled by the 'India growth story'"; low supply of "real talent"; decline of Western economies; and "the law of large numbers in India, which creates pockets of highly skilled people who are justly feted but ultimately make up less than 10 percent of all of you." [The letter is a must-read and you can read it in its entirety here]

Translation: you kids have it good - and not because you're any good but because you're lucky.

Chandra's letter is purportedly "a guide" for the new and coming generations to help them "understand what your employers really want and how your ability to match these wants can enrich you professionally." But, more accurately, it's a scathing checklist of their failings. These kids are certainly not alright.

The op-ed identifies five pet peeves, but just as interesting are the counter-arguments offered in the comments section. The result is a discussion that is richer, and less one-sided than the original piece.

Chandra's first issue is that most prospective employees - even from A-list institutions - do not speak or write fluent English. For example, this "objective statement" in a resume: "To be a part of an organisation wherein I could cherish my erudite dexterity to learn the nitigrities of consulting." Chandra insists that over half the resumes his firm receives fail to demonstrate a modicum of English language skills.

Students at St Xavier's College, Mumbai. Reuters

Counter argument: If English isn't a problem for China, why should it matter in India? Isn't this just another example of our colonial hangover?

Yes, well, given that our knowledge of English has been a major asset in attracting foreign companies - especially vis-a-vis the more efficient Chinese - we can't now pretend it doesn't matter. Chandra isn't asking for Shakespearean flair, but the ability to clearly communicate in a business environment - which is also critical in a country where it remains the sole shared language of the educated classes (Sorry, Hindi). Just imagine the kind of memos and presentations that kid will spew in the future!

The reality is that our English skills are indeed declining with each passing generation. A senior colleague of mine once predicted that we will be the last Indian generation to produce high literature in the English language. And I'm inclined to agree with him.

Then again, declining language skills are a problem even in English-language nations like the United States, Britain et al. What is an issue today may be moot tomorrow. In the future, we may all be writing/speaking in semi-literate SMS-driven haiku.

The next three points that Chandra raises are different iterations of the same theme: this new generation has not embraced a modern global work culture or mindset. He claims young hires are terrible "at problem solving, thinking outside the box, seeking new ways of doing things" - blaming this on our rote-intensive educational system. They also don't "ask questions, engage deeply and question hierarchy." And young people do not "take responsibility for your career and for your learning and invest in new skills." Chandra points to a training course created in response to demands from new employees. Yet, less than 15 percent enrolled in the course.

Counter argument: Almost no one denies that the Indian education system squelches creativity and independent thinking. But as many point out, so do the employers, especially in big corporate environments. Junior hires end up doing all the grunt work, and following orders from bosses who are every bit as determined to stay safely within the box.

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Similarly, bosses today continue to reward yes-men and women who do what they are told. The hierarchical mindset of Indians remains a societal problem, and cannot be blamed on any one generation.

So the bigger picture is this: our work culture has not sufficiently evolved despite two decades of liberalisation. Corporate environments - with exceptions that prove the rule - tend to resemble somewhat improved versions of their socialist era predecessors. The emphasis is still on playing safe, and doing what has worked before - from the very top to the bottom.

I am sceptical about the prospect of radical transformation - and trading inter-generational accusations doesn't help. My guess is that the work culture is evolving but in start-ups, small firms and more nimble outposts of big corporate empires that have more freedom to define their environment.

But for the most part, I don't see any prospect for change in bigger workplaces until the price of stifling independent thinking and creativity starts to hurt the bottomline. If darker days are indeed around the corner, they may have one silver lining: they will force companies and their employees to find more creative paths to success. It will have to come to this: Change or die.

The woes of India Inc are a reflection of India herself.AFP

The mantra holds true for the employees, as well, young or old. It seems absurd that anyone today will turn their back on learning new skills. My profession, for example, is on the cusp of a radical transformation driven by the internet. It's already happened in the West, and it's only a matter of time before the tidal wave hits the Indian media.

As for other professions, I can only say this: anyone who thinks learning is not an ongoing lifelong process in the globalised workplace is going to fail, sooner or later, irrespective of age. Keep up or lose out.

Chandra's last point is that new employees are not "professional and ethical." Chandra's pet peeves mainly centre on: incessant job hopping, demanding unreasonable raises, shopping around offer letters, simply not showing up on the first day, dodging long hours, and fudging travel and expense receipts.

Counter argument: Many argue that to complain about job hopping or shopping is absurd in a free market economy.

And so it is. But if the economy continues to slow down, all this hopping and shopping will be soon be a distant memory.

In the end, there is no doubt that a lack of professionalism continues to be a problem across the board, be it in a sales clerk, a maid, or a corporate executive. The woes of India Inc are a reflection of India herself. True professionalism will take root only when we: a) become a true meritocracy; and b) learn respect for the rule of law.

And on that day, we won't just have a different workplace, we will be a different nation.

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by Lakshmi Chaudhry

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