The Rainbow of Unemployability

Ashutosh Tosaria is a Senior Programme Manager at Quest Alliance, overseeing the growth of the seminal blended-learning employability program, MyQuest. Here, Ashutosh reflects on his own career journey, and his close encounter with unemployability.


Let’s start with my story. In 2004 I was in Delhi desperately looking to work and earn, while I completed the final year of my engineering degree, a B.Tech in Electronics & Communication, to be precise.

In my search for work, though, the B.Tech was proving to be more of an impediment than an advantage. I applied for many jobs: in a school, in a multi-brand retail store, as well as with several NGOs, but the B.Tech somehow always managed to enter the party and ruin it. Some of the interviewers were very supportive of my efforts, but counseled me to pursue a job in the electronics and communication sector.

Then one fine day, I was introduced to a very different world, the world of Business Process Outsourcing. By this point I’d completed my graduation, and this new world of BPO proved to be kinder. In no time I had a job, with painful working hours (the ‘American shift’), but with a salary nonetheless, and potential for career development.

The time spent I spent exploring work opportunities in various sectors and feeling that I was unemployable felt like a never ending story. Equally swift was the introduction and entry into the fertile grounds of the BPO industry. So it was ‘unemployable’ to ‘totally employable’ in a matter of three to four days. The most interesting part about the jobs (I worked with two call centers eventually) was not what I was doing during work hours, but what I could afford to do beyond that. Without discounting my (and my lecturers’) assiduous work during my engineering days, it almost seemed that a call center did something a B.Tech degree could not. It led to the realization that I was employable.

Ever since I’ve joined Quest Alliance and started working with young people, I keep asking myself — what made me employable? In 2004, I was one of the many engineers who are tagged unemployable as soon as they graduate. Reality, as always, is hidden between such scary pronouncements. Thinking of the factors that helped me to avoid this unemployability quicksand, I identified the following arcs, each one being a part of the circle of career development.

Arc of Industry: The BPO industry welcomed me when many others felt I didn’t fit. In a way, the definition of unemployability changed from sector to sector.

Arc of Family: They supported my decisions and never blocked them.

Arc of Exploration: I never shied away from applying for jobs that were typically ‘not meant for engineers’. This ensured subsistence and helped me to focus on the sort of work I wanted to do in the long run.

Arc of Location: A lot of this was possible because I was in a city with a vibrant economy and plenty of work opportunities.

Arc of College: My graduation helped me understand what I didn’t want to do in life, and hence pushed me towards exploring what I wanted to do. Post graduation made this exploration engaging and surefooted.


In the absence of even one of these arcs, maybe my journey towards being happily employable might have ended abruptly. Gradually I’ve been working on the sixth arc — that of continuous learning and experience, which started with my time at the Institute of Rural Management Anand,  and continued during subsequent years while doing some interesting work.

In my mind I was never an unemployable engineer, but a non-technical engineer who was better employed elsewhere. Had I gone down the unemployability path I have no idea where I’d be. That’s part of the problem: to call someone unemployable and then think of ways to make him or her employable. Instead, if we start thinking of ways to help young people draw their employability rainbows, we might have a better chance of addressing the challenges that are commonly associated with getting young people close to the world of work.

Wider Resonances

Walk into any women’s institute in the country and you’ll see a lot of energy, passion and zeal to be financially independent. The big challenge these women face is hearing — ‘you’re a girl, hence…’ Unless their families and education institutes change their mindsets, we’ll continue to witness a sea of bright young people being kept away from the world of work. Once parents and young people become equal partners in the career decision-making process, we might observe a definitive increase in the employability quotient of a significant section of India’s youth.

A few kilometers from such an institute, you will meet young people who need to work on basic literacy and numeracy, and just do that well enough to move the status quo. In their present state both these groups can be deemed equally unemployable, but we know that they are at different points in constructing their employability rainbow. It’s a matter of focusing on the right arc at the right time.

Diversification is generally considered a popular risk mitigation strategy, but for India’s youth employability challenge, diversification is an imperative. Straightjacket solutions work well for single dimensional problems. Youth unemployability is inherently multi-dimensional, and expecting a ‘one size fits all’ solution to work is expecting too much. There are two questions here. First, how can we implement unique solutions for each learner in a training program? Second, why should this be done?

The latter, being a question of perspective, tends to be a major roadblock. Young people need to find their quest, and build the path to financial and social sustainability. Training plans, curricula and training center timetables can be easily restructured to make time and space for young learners to identify gaps in their growth, and to start the process of constructing their employability rainbows. Certain strategies that have proven to be useful are:

  • One-on-one interactions throughout the learning process, with at least three touch points at the beginning, middle and end of the training
  • Activities that make learners think, interact and collaborate with peers 
to construct meaning.
  • Projects that get learners to talk to industry representatives and people outside the learning space and present their learning to others.
  • Focusing on communication 
and expression, rather than just spoken English.
  • Allotting more time for career development, thereby giving it due recognition as a ‘subject’ and/or ‘skill’.

The undertone here is ‘appreciative inquiry’, which builds on the best of what is, in order to imagine what could be. This imagination is incomplete if the people who stand to gain/lose most by it are not at its centre. The rainbow will look different for different people, and some people will take more time than others to build it. The process might create dissonance for training centres at the beginning. It will redefine the power equation in a learning space. But there is no other way to get young people to take charge of their career journeys. If educators, curriculum designers, project planners and policy makers can make peace with these we can be more certain about the future.

Ashutosh Tosaria
Senior Program Manager, Quest Alliance

This article was originally published in The Learner 2017

Author: thelearnerbyquest

Quest Alliance's space for reflection on the education sector

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