For the past two decades, cost of college education has skyrocketed, going up much faster than inflation or incomes. Common consensus is that the higher education system must fix itself. There is a workable alternative: employers should stop requiring formal credentials wherever the law doesn’t mandate credentials for a job.
At Zoho, a profitable privately held cloud software provider, about 15% of our 2500 employees do not have a college degree. They did not just drop out of college; they never attended it in the first place. We started a modest program nearly a decade ago, where we recruited 6 students from nearby high schools in our Chennai, India office and started training them in software development. This year, our incoming class has grown to over 90 students, across two locations.

They spend about 18 months in a rigorous hands-on program of education and apprenticeship. About 90% of the incoming class graduate to become full time employees and get placed in our various software product teams. The success of this program has enabled us to gain a high quality workforce that is passionate and dedicated. Today, that is a major competitive advantage to Zoho, in a hyper-competitive industry.

What are the broader lessons we can learn from this initiative? For the majority of students, college education is not adding any meaningful value. The reasons are varied, but inflicting context free education on hormonally afflicted young men and women may not be the most productive way to equip them with skills.
Most of us who have been through college can identify with this: how many of us can honestly say we paid attention to our classes or have any recall of what we learned in college 5-10 years out?

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Yes, education has a broader objective than merely equipping a person with job skills. Cultivating critical thinking is the true hallmark of an educated mind. Having said that, it is also undeniable that the most important reason students pay the steep price of college is to gain productive employment. Our experience teaches us that the skill imparting part of education can be separated from the objective of developing a more thoughtful and civilized citizenry. Mixing the two objectives has led to the dilution of the college experience itself. Once this separation is achieved, college can resume its traditional role as the custodians of our civilization.

In order for this to happen, employers have to take more direct responsibility for skill development of their workforce. This is not as radical as it sounds. In countries like Germany, employers, through their extensive apprenticeship programs, have always played a vital role in skill development. As a direct result, Germany has one of the most productive and highest-paid workforces in the world.

How does an employer begin? Our suggestion is to start with a small pilot program, about 5-10 students and 1-2 experienced faculty , who would ideally drawn from the employer’s existing workforce. The faculty should be chosen based on their extensive experience and their motivation and passion to coach and mentor young people. The curriculum should be very hands-on and relevant to the employer’s core business. Contextually relevant examples should be used throughout the program. This keeps the motivation level of the students high, and they stay focused on the objective.

This is a good thing to do in and of itself. It is also a good thing for employers. Learning is a life-long process, particularly for today’s knowledge intensive workforce; employers that invest in skill development gain a competitive edge, something that our experience at Zoho amply demonstrates.

 

The author is Sridhar Vembu (BT/EE/89), Co-Founder and CEO of Zoho Corporation. Zoho Corporation are the makers of the online Zoho Office Suite as well as several business applications. Vembu holds a PhD. in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University. Meet him at his Leadership Lecture “Serving the Under-served: Lessons from A Real-world Journey” on September 4th in IC&SR Auditorium at 3:30 pm.