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Student voices: Learning How to Navigate Big City Labor Markets in Small-Town India

kunal2This is part of a series of reports from Harvard students who have traveled to South Asia with support from a SAI grant.

By Kunal Mangal, PhD Public Policy, 2021, HKS

I had two main goals for this visit. The first was to develop and pilot a survey on career awareness, in collaboration with my partner organization, LEAP Skills Academy. The second was to develop relationships that would be helpful in allowing me to continue to this work in the future. In this report I’ll describe the progress I made on each of these goals.

Based on my observations the past summer, I felt that students in small-town Haryana generally lacked awareness about careers outside of their local labor market, and hypothesized that this lack of awareness may lead students to under invest in their skills (relative to what they would have preferred to do if they had full information). The primary purpose of the survey was to test the underlying assumptions of this hypothesis.

Since writing my grant proposal, I decided to refine my research question in several ways. I focused my survey on the specific knowledge students had of what employers expected from them. The fact that English and computer skills are generally valued in the private sector seems to be well known; the uncertainty seems to lie in what firms are specifically looking for in candidates when they interview them. However, a challenge in taking this approach is that different sectors of the economy can have very diverse requirements of job seekers. After talking to LEAP trainers and local professors, I decided it would be best to focus on IT-related degrees. The advantage of doing this is that students in IT-related degrees are typically positioning themselves for a single sector of the economy, where companies tend to have similar requirements and expectations. This lends itself to measuring knowledge with an objective test.  

I had originally thought of following up on the information sessions that Leap had conducted last summer, as a way of understanding how variation in the availability of information would translate into differences in awareness. Ultimately, this approach was not viable, given the refinement of the research question. The information sessions provided general information that would be useful for a diverse audience of college students, but did not provide specific guidance related to skill investments in specific industries. Therefore, I decided to focus instead on variation in students’ pre-existing ties to IT companies, as a proxy for individual variation in the availability of information. These ties were inferred from questions that I collected in the survey instrument itself.

I conducted the career awareness survey with six cohorts, spread across three colleges. The survey was administered in person and online, depending on the resources and time the college was willing to provide (see Figure 1 below for images of survey sessions). Given the short window of time I had, and the early stage of the project, I prioritized response rate over having a representative sample, and thus focused on working with colleges that would be cooperative. These colleges are more interested in placements and career awareness than the typical college in the region, and thus I expect my results to be biased upwards relative to the population average. But, it turns out, career awareness even in this student population is relatively low, suggesting that it’s likely to be low in the overall population as well.

Kunal1I am currently analyzing and compiling the results into a report, and I plan to share a report based on the findings with the partner colleges. I hope this will spark a discussion that will lead to further insights. Although the results are not yet final, some statistics do stand out in the data that I have been able to compile so far (which comes from three cohorts in a single college):

  • About 40% of students think that there is some chance that they will need to pay a bribe to obtain a private sector job in the IT sector. About 60% of students think there is a chance they may need to have some contact at the company in order to obtain a job.
  • The correlation between how much students know about employer demands and how much they think they know is relatively low (about 0.16).

The data in this sample also show some other interesting patterns. For example, we see that career awareness clearly increases as students progress through college, suggesting that the survey is picking up on a meaningful dimension of knowledge. Secondly, even in a college where professors are proactive about informing students about employer expectations, many students still do not do much better than random guessing, even in their final year. As I develop the report, I will explore the implications of these and other findings.

During this trip I had the opportunity to meet with principals and professors who were interested in the work I was doing and who would be willing to support me in the future. I enjoyed working with them to further refine and improve the questionnaire (which improved substantially with their help). Before I left we discussed ways in which we could continue to collaborate in future opportunities.

I also had the opportunity to deepen my relationship with LEAP Skills Academy. In addition to collaborating on the present survey, we discussed options for engaging in some of their other work. It was very helpful for me to visit them in person, as a way of building mutual trust and familiarity.

Local professors and principals suggested that I build contacts with the state government or the Ministry of Human Resources Development in order to encourage colleges to grant access and give priority to this research as I go forward with this project. In the coming semester, I’ll look into opportunities for building those relationships, perhaps with the help of SAI.

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