This is the time of the year when millions of young Indians make their next big academic or career move, having finished their college-leaving exams. But then this is 2020 and there is nothing normal about it.
The coronavirus, which has infected at least 3 lakh people and killed more than 8,000 people in India, is showing no signs of letting up, wrecking exam schedules, future plans and biggest of all--the job market.
Kunal, a final year student of engineering at Mumbai University, had his career perfectly aligned. The 21-year-old would have sat his final exams to complete the four-year course in May and graduate as a computer science engineer. He even had a job, offered to him during a campus placement in the pre-coronavirus world.
The final mark sheet and his engineering degree were all that Kunal, who uses only one name, needed to start as a software developer, a dream job for the youngster who comes from a middle-class family, in August. But that was not to be.
For Kunal and millions of youngsters graduating this year, the viral outbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time.
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Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
The economy was already slowing when the outbreak sent India into lockdown in the last week of March, bringing business activity to a standstill. Restrictions have since been eased and businesses are gingerly opening up but the road ahead is long and bumpy.
Locked in and shut out
Anxious is how several students that Moneycontrol spoke to described their state of mind.
After investing time, energy and money for years, 2020 should have been the beginning of a new phase in their lives. But a tiny microbe that made its first appearance in China last year has upended the script. Job offers have been rescinded, master’s courses are looking uncertain and there are loans to repay.
Even at best of times, different sets of rules guide colleges and universities across states barring central universities. For instance, Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray announced on March 31 that all final years exams were cancelled and students would be passed on aggregate marks. The decision means little for students looking to study abroad or move to other states.
In April, WhatsApp groups were flooded with PDF notifications from universities and governing bodies, unleashing confusion among students.
"In the beginning, we thought it'll be something like the swine flu and will soon pass. In the next few days, we realised the gravity of the situation. Since the lockdown, we're just home, waiting for a word from our college about our final semester exams and graduation,” said a Mumbai-based BTech student.
The students who spoke to Moneycontrol didn’t want their identity to be revealed. Some shared only their first names and others chose to remain anonymous.
Some clarity emerged in the first week of May. The country’s higher education regulator University Grants Commission came said final-year examinations for undergraduates and post-graduates could be conducted in July. Badly hit states like Maharashtra could even give exams a miss.
"The UGC has issued its guidelines. We're working with Mumbai University to ensure a smooth transition. The lack of clarity for two months was a testing time for all of us," a senior teacher with a well-known Mumbai college said.
The communication gap was stressful for students, many of whom had jobs aligned, post-graduation plans and financial stress as well, the teacher said.
“Psychologically, it's a lot to handle when you're just sitting home and can't do anything to change the outcome,” the teacher said.
A business student at a so-called deemed-to-be-university said the institute had abandoned them and only wanted money.
"They don't care what's happening around. They don't care about our lives and they have a free hand over everything since they're ranked among the top in India," the third year BBA student said.
Most companies had rescinded job offers, or in their words “delayed the joining date indefinitely”, a 21-year-old in the final year of engineering said.
Moneycontrol saw an internal email sent by the deemed university, asking the students of the 2020-21 batch to deposit a fee of Rs 2.7 lakh within a couple of weeks.
Unemployment and shrinking job market
In a stressed economy, jobs are the first casualty, more so in private and unorganised sectors.
In May, India’s unemployment rate was 23.48 percent, data released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy said, underscoring the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown on the larger economy and the job market in particular.
Exams seem like a small problem for students who are seeing their campus placements sour.
Most MNCs are honouring their job offers but with a reduced salary and are also asking interns to work from home.
Work from home, or WFH as it has come to be known, maybe the future of work but for a fresher, it means starting work but without going to a workplace.
Within weeks of stepping out of a classroom, a student is expected to learn all the ropes and that too from home. It only adds to pressure. Then there is the question of equipment. Most youngsters don’t have computers good enough for work.
And then some just can’t work from home.
Being a doctor is all about being hands-on, hardly a possibility when you are sitting at home. The same goes for civil, mechanical, metallurgical and production engineers. The list is endless.
"Thankfully, my company didn't kick me out of my internship midway and shifted to the WFH model. However, most students haven't been as lucky. Being a pharma student, I need to be on-site to understand the industry," a student, who spends a lot of time on excel sheets, said.
For some who did start work, pink slips followed soon. It is hard to find a new job in this environment. Hiring freeze is the buzz word, second only to layoffs.
As opportunities shrink, freshers face twin challenges--of their peers joining the job market and laid-off employees looking for new opportunities.
To cut costs, smaller companies are turning to freelancers or short-duration contracts. But this isn't necessarily good for fresh graduates as it doesn’t do much for their resume in terms of experience.
Many students have education loans to pay. With jobs hard to come by, the debt pile grows. Coronavirus or not, undergraduates in India rarely land paying jobs.
Even the so-called professional courses don’t help. Industry experts have said on several occasions that 95 percent of engineers aren't fit for software development jobs.
India’s assembly line of engineering colleges churns out 1.5 million engineers a year, a 2019 ministry of human resource development report says.
To get a competitive edge and better their skills, students usually head to universities abroad. But again that was in the pre-coronavirus world.
Engineering student Manvi’s plans were going swimmingly as she had been accepted at a reputed university in New York. The outbreak forced her to abandon the plan, as the course starts in the fall, which is September, and she is yet to graduate.
The US, which has the highest coronavirus infections and deaths in the world, is a COVID-19 hotspot. It is too much of a risk for a middle-class family, which has to stretch its resources, first to sit a string of entrance tests and then to foot the tuition bills.
Recent announcements by President Trump have made her even more unsure. Trump, who faces re-election in November, has been talking about tighter visa norms and protecting American jobs.
According to a report by Quacquarelli Symonds, which tracks higher education institutes, more than 50 percent of non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students in India have dropped their plans to study abroad.
While India emerged relatively unscathed from the 2008 financial crisis, the coronavirus will be a test of resilience and endurance. The economy is opening up but there are storm clouds ahead. No one knows when the virus will abate if at all it will.
Some say the pandemic will mark the end of the rat race of traditional jobs and ignite another startup boom in the absence of jobs.
There is a lot of talk about “living with the virus” and the “new normal”. The graduating class of 2020, will have to find its own normal; there is no playbook to fall back on.
As Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in his address to the graduates of 2020, “Be open, be impatient, be hopeful….You will prevail.”(The author writes on technology, aviation, and mobility.)