Hard lesson: The dark reality of Simplilearn’s job guarantee plan


The programme, which ran between late 2021 and mid 2023, guaranteed job placements after students completed online courses the platform offered. Pattamsetti signed up for a six-month data science course, one that cost him 2,08,000 with interest. He took a loan to finance it.

Simplilearn, backed by Blackstone and valued at $600 million in 2022, promised a job with a minimum package of 5 lakh a year and within six months of him completing the course. He was assured a full refund in case he didn’t secure a job.

Two years later, Pattamsetti is working in a business process outsourcing (BPO) company, in a customer support role, earning 20,000 a month. He found the job on his own after he gave up on a career in data science.

“I had stopped paying EMI ( 5,600 a month) and my Cibil score suffered. I wanted to file a legal case but it also takes money. The lawyer will charge 20,000,” Pattamsetti said over a call. “Simplilearn is playing with the emotions of job-seekers,” he added.

Mint spoke to 19 others who had enrolled in the job guarantee programme. All of them ended up without the promised job; in many cases, they got no refund from the company. At least half a dozen of them have filed complaints with the District Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission. Mint has reviewed some of these complaints.

Overall, Simplilearn had enrolled 900 learners for the programme. Only 271 have been placed thus far, the company acknowledged.

Screenshot of a company brochure that advertised key features of the job guarantee programme.

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Screenshot of a company brochure that advertised key features of the job guarantee programme.

To be fair, the job market has dramatically changed between 2021 and now. The post pandemic period was marked by enterprises pivoting to the digital, which led to a surge in tech jobs. But the global economy has slowed and the tech sector has pulled back on hiring the truckloads of engineers it usually does.

Having said that, what emerges from the Simplilearn episode is a familiar story, particularly when it comes to edtech startups—one of aggressive business projections and mis-selling. Byju’s, for instance, has also been accused of mis-selling its products to consumers. In fact, in 2023, Byju’s changed its sales processes after it came under scrutiny. Simplilearn, meanwhile, has abandoned the programme and moved on. But it has left many students distressed and saddled with loans they are finding tough to service.

The post pandemic period was marked by enterprises pivoting to the digital, which led to a surge in tech jobs. But the global economy has slowed and the tech sector has pulled back on hiring.

The company defended the programme and its objectives while denying any wrong-doing. It also said that the programme, which it called a ‘pilot’, ended in 2022 but Mint has evidence to the contrary—an email to learners informed that the company has “made the difficult decision to conclude the Data Science Job Guarantee Program”, with the last cohort of learners starting in June 2023.

An email to learners informing about a job guarantee course starting June 2023.

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An email to learners informing about a job guarantee course starting June 2023.

Bihar to Blore

Simplilearn was one of the earliest of India’s edtech cohort. Co-founded by Krishna Kumar in 2010, the startup is today based out of San Francisco and Bengaluru.

Kumar comes from a small village in Bihar. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communications and then dropped out from a masters course in microelectronics. His career began with Infosys but he soon switched to entrepreneurship. In 2000, he founded TechUnified, a software services and products firm. Simplilearn is his second entrepreneurial venture.

In July 2021, Blackstone acquired a controlling stake in Simplilearn.

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In July 2021, Blackstone acquired a controlling stake in Simplilearn.

The edtech venture started out as a blog. Kumar taught online project management courses to executives. Its popularity made Kumar turn the blog into a full-fledged company. Simplilearn has two other co-founders—Kashyap Dalal (chief business officer) and Archana Krishna (chief human resources officer).

In July 2021, Blackstone acquired a controlling stake in Simplilearn through a $250 million fund infusion in the company. The deal paved the way for the exit of early investors such as Kalaari Capital and Mayfield.

Kumar said that cumulatively, Simplilearn has trained about eight million learners thus far. In 2022-23, it clocked 684 crore in revenue, up from 455 crore the year before. Its losses, however, widened to 244 crore from 179 crore during the same period. In an interview with the The Economic Times recently, Kumar said the company has set an internal target of hitting profitability and going public by 2026.

While the going appears to be good, at least in terms of sales, its product innovations and alleged mis-selling has caused a great deal of heartburn.

The Guarantee

Simplilearn launched its job guarantee programme in late 2021. The company told Mint that the programme was launched as a pilot in response to several enterprise customers requesting trained graduates.

The programme came with higher fees.

“I was searching for a course on data analytics and landed on their website. The fee advertised was around 40,000. But someone from the company’s team called and convinced me to join the job guarantee programme, which was for approximately 2 lakh,” said Harikrishnan K., who enrolled in the course in 2022.

The six-month program promised a job guarantee within six months of course completion. In short, it guaranteed a job within a year of enrolment.

“The company emphasized that choosing this course was risk-free. They said that they have tie-ups with Fortune 500 companies,” Ram added.

In one audio recording that Mint has accessed, a sales executive from the company is heard convincing a learner: “If you go with the job guarantee programme, there is no risk involved. In case you don’t get a job, you are eligible for 100% refund.”

The salesperson further explained the difference between the job guarantee programme and a normal course, which costs less. “Suppose, you pay 50,000 for a (normal) course. If you don’t get a job, you lose the whole money. But here (in job guarantee), you lose nothing,” he stressed.

The recording was shared by a learner who has filed a complaint with the District Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission. He didn’t want to be named.

 

Aggressive Sale

Salespeople at Simplilearn also ignored the eligibility criteria the company advertised.

The eligibility criteria for a data science job guarantee programme was quite clear, going by the company’s brochure. A candidate needed a background in computer science or B-tech. “The student should not have any gap in career, and the student should not be employed anywhere while applying,” explained a former employee who didn’t want to be identified.

But aggressive sales executives started enrolling anyone interested, he added.

The eligibility criteria for a data science course under the job guarantee programme.

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The eligibility criteria for a data science course under the job guarantee programme.

The problem: companies hiring never picked learners that didn’t have the required background. “If the candidate does not meet their criteria, no matter how many jobs they apply for, their application will not even be shortlisted,” the former employee said.

Mint spoke with one learner who had completed BSc in physical sciences—this degree doesn’t figure in the list of eligible degrees the data science course she had enrolled in required.

“The manager never pointed this out to me. I wanted to take up the course because I wished to switch my career. Everything will be taught from scratch, the company said,” the learner, who didn’t want to be identified, explained. “I struggled during the course because of my background and was finding it difficult to clear the final test,” the person added.

Founder Krishna Kumar told Mint the company wouldn’t have done this intentionally. “Maybe, it would have happened in one or two cases. The reason why the job criteria is mentioned is because we wanted to make sure that only a certain kind of candidate comes as part of the cohort that we can place. But if we onboarded 900 plus learners, it might have happened to a couple of learners. They will be refunded,” he added.

Meanwhile, different brochures advertised different average salaries around the job guarantee programme. One brochure promised an average salary of 8 lakh per annum. Another brochure Mint accessed stated a salary of 6.21 lakh per annum.

Screenshots of the company’s brochure promising different average salaries.

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Screenshots of the company’s brochure promising different average salaries.
Screenshots of the company’s brochure promising different average salaries.

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Screenshots of the company’s brochure promising different average salaries.

All this created confusion in the minds of learners.

Problem with Leads

Many enrolled learners asked for a refund when Simplilearn couldn’t place them. Some of them were told they are not eligible for a refund as they didn’t apply to all the job leads the company sent their way.

Learners pointed to the fact that many of these leads were problematic—the time to apply or respond was simply too short or had already elapsed.

Here’s one instance. On 18 June 2023, at 10 am, Simplilearn sent a job lead for the role of a junior data engineer to a learner. It asked the learner to apply for the job, by filling out a Google form, by 2 pm, 17 June 2023.

Screenshot of a mail with a job lead. The time to apply had already lapsed.

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Screenshot of a mail with a job lead. The time to apply had already lapsed.

In another instance, the company sent out a job lead for the role of a program manager on 4 May 2023 at 5:59 pm. It asked the learner to apply by 6 pm the same day.

Screenshot of an email with a job lead where the time to apply was just too short.

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Screenshot of an email with a job lead where the time to apply was just too short.

Mint has reviewed both the emails.

“There’s a protocol that whenever a job lead is sent, candidates should get at least 24 to 48 hours to apply. That is the internal protocol but I’m not sure if that’s been followed,” said the former employee cited above. This protocol isn’t explicitly mentioned in any brochure. According to conversations with 15 learners, the company did not abide by the 24-48 hour protocol in many cases.

Another problematic situation was the job lead itself. Some jobs required experience to apply while many of the learners were freshers. At times, some of the leads were for roles that required expertise not taught in the course they picked, learners said.

Simplilearn also asked learners to apply for internships, which did not match the minimum 5-6 lakh per annum package the programme promised.

Those who were not able to secure jobs, given challenging market conditions, were granted 100% refunds.
—Krishna Kumar

“The Job guarantee programme was designed to help candidates prepare for technology-related jobs. We are proud of how the programme has been executed, helping hundreds of candidates secure jobs. Those that were not able to, given challenging market conditions, were granted 100% refunds,” Kumar clarified.

The company had enrolled 900 learners for the programme. Of this, 477 learners were refunded while 271 were placed, he added. “Around 200 are still with us, whom we are working with, helping them complete the programme,” Kumar said.

IT and BFSI (banking, financial services and insurance) companies mostly hire through Simplilearn, the company stated.

More Tests

Meanwhile, the edtech firm kept changing the criteria for learners to get the course certificate even when they had finished classes. The certificate is necessary to be eligible for job guarantee.

Over time, the company, according to the learners Mint spoke to, introduced additional tests and more project work to unlock the course certificate.

“After six months, they added another test,” Amit Modak, who enrolled as a learner in December 2022, told Mint.

Modak could not complete the test, which he said had questions that were not in the syllabus. When he raised the issue with Simplilearn, he was promised the certificate but was told that the job guarantee would be void. He has now filed a case with the District Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission.

The company defended the introduction of additional projects and tests. “This pilot was always aligned with job market requirements. As the job market evolved, additional modules and tests were incorporated to better prepare our candidates for available tech jobs,” the company mentioned in a response to Mint’s queries.

“Course duration extensions, expert mentoring as needed, and one-on-one assistance were provided to maximise learner outcomes. Note that additional training time, tests, mentoring, etc., came at a substantial additional cost to Simplilearn, not to the learners, except for their time,” the company added.

“If this was a 2021 market, maybe 80% learners would get a job because everybody was hiring left, right and centre,” Kumar said, talking of the additional tests. “Now people are expecting more out of you. So, we have included a coding test. If you are not able to do (pass the test), we will help you again with additional training,” the founder said.

The Lesson

So, what recourse do learners have when they feel wronged? The District Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission, which deals in complaints involving costs and compensation less than 50 lakh, is an option but Kumar says the company is open to helping.

“There’s always a mechanism to reach out to us and raise the issue. It’s like a customer service problem,” Kumar said.

Learners Mint spoke to retorted saying the company’s customer support function doesn’t always work.

Calls aren’t picked and tickets are arbitrarily closed without the problem being resolved.

But Simplilearn may have learnt its lesson. We asked Kumar if he would re-introduce the job guarantee programme. No, he responded.

“The reason I will not do it is because we realize that in the current tough market, it is better to be very close to your core competency. My core competency is reskilling and upskilling,” he said.

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