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Skills Development: Why Mere Incrementalism Won’t Work?

Article first published in Financial Express across all editions

Chandan, in his early 20s in Kota, Rajasthan, has completed his matriculation and is desperately hunting for a job. But lack of computer and basic communication skills have deterred his chances of landing employment.

Deepa, an engineering graduate, is struggling to find a suitable employment as she lacks work-ready skills in her chosen field of specialization: networking technology.

Across the country, there are thousands of youth such as Chandan and Deepa who are unable to find a job for lack of relevant skills or, simply, because there is a huge skill-demand mismatch. Never before has India faced such a paradox, where good is bad.

Today, every third person is a youth, which means by 2020 nearly 64% of the country’s population will be in the working age group. This demographic transformation can help India achieve growth rates above 6% but the lack of employment can exacerbate the situation. Clearly, job creation should not be restricted to election rhetoric; it should be seamlessly weaved with the fabric of economic revival that the country can now hope of with dynamic leadership and a progressive government at the center.

Employment is not so much an issue as employability though. Between 2004 and 2012 about 7.5 million non-agricultural jobs were created per annum, a total increase of about 52 million over seven years. Interestingly, this period also saw millions leaving agriculture in search of new opportunities. A CRISIL report estimates that the IT industry will generate 0.62 million jobs, and public and private sector banks will add 0.25 million and 0.09 million employees, over 2011 to 2015.

And as the labour market tightens employability across all sectors – manufacturing, technology, hospitality – becomes a greater issue. According to an Ernst and Young report for the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) 75% of IT graduates are deemed ‘unemployable’, 55% in manufacturing, 55% in healthcare and 50% in banking and insurance. CRISIL warns that if current trends in labour market and unemployment rate continue about 423 million in India’s work-age population may remain unemployed or unable to participate in the job market by 2030.

Then there are the 5 million plus graduates who enter the work force each year including those from engineering colleges. Nearly half of them are unemployable as they lack industry-relevant and work ready skills. The Labour Ministry’s Youth Employment-Unemployment Scenario 2012-13 states that one in three graduates up to the age of 29 were unemployed. As of today, a mere 2% of the nation’s workforce is formally skilled. India now faces a problem of both capacity and quality.

Recognizing this fact, the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) has done a commendable job in addressing it on a war footing. In line with the India’s target to skill 500 million youth by 2022, the NSDC, in its first three years of operations, has skilled 1.3 million people and created a capacity to skill 7.5 crores people in the next 10 years. Similarly, both at the centre and state level, various skilling initiatives and programs have been undertaken including setting up State Skill Development Missions and year-wise target for skills development. Such efforts seem to be a mere drop in the ocean given the enormity of the task ahead. Faced with such an immense challenge mere incrementalism in skills development initiatives will, therefore, not work. The time has come to take a more radical and innovative approach to skills development and quality in capacity building.

FUTURISTIC PUSH

There has to be a sense of urgency in driving skilling initiative across the country and not just to make India the ‘Skilling Capital’ of the world. Political rhetoric, populist measures and vote bank marginalization cannot be the sole principle behind policy level changes, which need to be adrenalin charged.

Developing Market Linkages and Support Framework: While devising a new skill development scheme the government(s) should undertake meticulous planning and futuristic market research in accordance with the needs of the labour market to identify the skills gap and potential job opportunities. Only then should skill development programmes be initiated to bridge this chasm. In the absence of such a scientific approach what we will have are skilled people who eventually remain unemployed and this is much more counterproductive. Likewise, skill development programmes focused on creating self-employment need to have adequate market linkages such as access to marketing know-how, sellers & buyers, low-cost financing etc. that will help the newly skilled entrepreneurs to stay afloat and grow.

Ruralisation: There needs to be a push towards ruralisation where youth in rural areas are empowered with skillsets that earns them a good livelihood or creates entrepreneurial hotspots in their local environments without migration to urban centres that are already crumbling under intense pressure. About 37 million persons left agriculture during the periods 2004-05 and 2011-12 to find work in non-agricultural activities, both rural and urban. And unskilled workers from the agricultural sector flocked to construction employment. This is how a typical scenario plays out: A daily wage worker (farm labourer) undergoes a month-long skill training programme to learn masonry techniques including construction practices. He then migrates to a city to find a job with better wages which makes it a total of two months where he goes without wages. How can a skilled worker survive for two months without a salary and eventually land a job but one with a minimum wages? Shouldn’t there be a framework that takes care of workers from skilling them to relocation; even better a structure where the newly skilled worker does not have to leave an existing job for want of an adequate support mechanism?

Develop Communities of Practice (COP) – While getting skilled and being employed is the starting point… what after that? What is the job security that the industry offers? What is the career path for the vocationally skilled workforce and how do they constantly upgrade skills? Issues like these need to be looked into and more importantly, what it requires is a deeper engagement with the industry.All the stake holders in the skilling ecosystem need to come together and develop COP to reduce the learning curve. Given the mind boggling numbers and paucity of time, we do not have the luxury of trial and error learning. We would be better served and benefited by learning from experiences of ongoing initiatives across the country.

Leverage Technology – Technology can be the harbinger of such a change and inclusive skills development. Of course, poor internet connectivity has been a bug bear. But it is just a matter of when and not if before broadband penetration is on par or better than in other developed and developing countries. The INR 20,000 crore National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN), an ambitious Central Government initiative,aimsto provide high-speed broadband connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats across the country in order to deliver services such as healthcare, education and commerce. Why can’t this be utilized to deliver skills training in government school premises that lie unused after school hours?

Improving government participation: Why can’t the governments, both at the Centre and State, increase budgetary allocations towards Skills Development just as they have for SarvaShikshaAbhiyaan and RashtriyaUchhaShikshaaAbhiyaan? Why can’t schools be a part of skilling programs where industry participation will help to shape curriculum that is more practical instead of rote-based? Why can’t industries be incentivized when they adopt local communities to provide relevant job skills to local youth and provide employment? Why can’t we have more programs like the skills-based reality show Hunnarbaaz, which is a game changer? Aired on Doordarshan every Sunday this programme strives to change society’s mindset towards skills development and vocational training.

Skills development should not be an end goal by itself, finding gainful employment or being self-employed and creating employment, only this can be the true measure of success.

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