Over the last decade, the term “demographic dividend” has been used repeatedly to describe India`s burgeoning youth population, that could hold key to the next wave of economic growth.

By 2020, India will be the world`s youngest country with an average age of 29 years. To put things in perspective, some other countries including Japan will be facing an ageing population problem with an average age of 48 in 2020.

Many experts and others have focused on what India can achieve with its young population. This blog and more to follow will highlight what India needs to do to ensure that this demographic dividend does not turn into its biggest liability in the coming decades.

Internships as a bridge between education and employment

Internships are not a new phenomenon in India with universities including the Indian Institutes of Technology and BITS Pilani incorporating them as part of their curriculum, allowing students to spend six to 12 months in their final years working as paid interns with organisations in India and abroad.

These internships provide an opportunity for organisations to provide practical skills to the students and gauge technical and cultural fit with their organisations in a low risk environment. At the same time, students get exposure that compliments their classroom training and can allow them to test drive a particular organisation and/or industry before committing. Not surprisingly, many of these interns get hired by and join organisations where they intern.

The “Pursuit of Happyness” for millions of students

The Hollywood hit “The Pursuit of Happyness” (based on the real story of Christopher Gardner) shows how Will Smith gets a shot as a stockbroker through a six-month internship. How can the 17 million students enrolled in tertiary education in India each year get the opportunity that Will Smith did?

Of the 32,000+ colleges in India, many require their students to do internships as part of the academic requirements. However very few of these colleges have a formal system to connect their students with employers. The real challenge is to replicate the internship model for thousands of such colleges of in India.

The internships conundrum

About 60% of the employers in India report difficulties in filling jobs, stating young workers ill-prepared for work. The students want jobs, the universities want their students placed and the organisations need skilled labour. So how can this ecosystem come together for mutual benefit? How can the universities and the private sector work together to bridge this gap? What role can the government play to facilitate this cooperation?

Role of government – Examples from other countries

Many states in the US and other countries are working on legislation to bridge the skills gap in their respective states and countries through tax breaks and benefits for employers. Kenya has announced a lower corporate tax for companies that hire at least 10 interns between 6 and 12 months. The United States announced the Workforce-Ready Educate America Act of 2012 to allow employers a credit against income tax as an incentive to partner with educational institutions to provide skills training for students. How can Indian government encourage the private sector to get involved through its Skill India initiative?

Alumni as ambassadors of universities in the short term

While many reforms are long term focused, in the short term these universities can start with developing a database of organisations where their alumni interned and where they currently work. There is a strong possibility that these alumni will be the ambassadors of their alma mater and will want to give something back. The alumni can be the champions of current students and act as a bridge between their alma mater and their organisation.

A thriving ecosystem in the long term

In the long run, universities who don’t produce relevant graduates or don’t have relevant pedagogy will lose in the market place, and those that adapt their courses based on industry needs will thrive. This creates a virtuous cycle where meritorious students pick universities based on their placement record and companies continue to hire interns from universities that produce career-oriented applied education. This is just one example on how to make the internship system work in the thousands of colleges in India. We welcome other ideas from you on how to bridge this gap between universities and industry to truly benefit from India`s demographic dividend.

At the National Strategy Day on India on November 3rd and 4th in Delhi, the World Economic Forum’s India Skills Initiative will bring together a multistakeholder group to identify ways to drive the business bottom line and support gainful employment in India. For more information the event, please see the 2015 National Strategy Day on India

Author: Sriram Gutta, Senior Manager, Global Leadership Fellow, World Economic Forum

Image: Employees work at their desks inside Tech Mahindra office building in Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi March 18, 2013. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi