Time to end India’s skill famine

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Time to end India’s skill famine

Monday, 08 February 2021 | Moin Qazi

Time to end India’s skill famine

The sad part is that only 10 per cent of the total workforce in the country receives some kind of skill training

The amount of change the world economy has witnessed in the last two decades and the rate at which it has occurred is staggering. It is inevitable that everyone will have to deal with a significant degree of professional change. This shift could be seismic, to the extent that the very nature of a trade or profession is transformed forever. Skill development holds the key to India’s ability to tap the vast potential of its youth for achieving inclusive growth and for evolving as the hub of the global financial system. However, much thought needs to be invested for designing the right training methodologies. It should focus on learning by doing rather than rote classroom learning.

A range of entrepreneurs in the fields of construction, textiles, leather, gems and jewellery and so on will have to be engaged and candidates will have to work as apprentices. Our skill programme is churning out unemployable skills and not employable skills, for which there is a huge shortage. The private sector has no incentive to impart skills to its workers. On the other hand, in countries like Germany, the system of apprenticeship makes it mandatory for the private sector to impart skills to the workers.

India’s education system leans heavily on theoretical learning while practical training aspects involving “working with hands” and “learning by doing” take a backseat. Bookish knowledge is rarely supplemented with industrial training in the country.  We have inadequate infrastructure for imparting industrial skills to the students who are dropouts of the educational system, particularly in rural India or those who cannot continue their studies due to financial constraints. This is one of the main reasons for India’s demand-supply mismatch where the industry lacks a skilled talent pool and youngsters cannot find jobs.

The skill gap analysis reveals that by 2022, the 24 key sectors of the economy will generate a demand for 109 million skilled workers. In sales and in unorganised sectors such as the leather industry, textiles, fabrication, servicing of automobiles and so on, automation can never completely replace the human workforce. Clearly, what is needed is a skill-based ecosystem that includes the right blend of infrastructure, faculty and industry participation so as to ensure sustainability and long-term income generation.

Numerous challenges are required to be addressed for skill development in India. The huge number of informally trained workers, who form a part of the workforce, have still no formal training opportunities. Their skill training is generally through individual learning and observations, or by transfer of skills from a master craftsperson to an apprentice. These craftsmen can set up small cottage units but cannot be absorbed in factories where basic technical skills are an essential prerequisite.

With the influx of cheap, machine-made products, traditional handicrafts are being driven out from market competition even though the handcrafted products are aesthetically superior. Traditional craftsmanship is losing value and the market offers poor compensation to the artisans for their skills and artistry. The gap between skill training and employment has widened, leading to a situation where youth are unable to find the employment that they are aspiring for and employers are unable to find workers who are appropriately trained for the job.

New rules, new openness, and new connectivity require different sets of skills just to keep up, let alone thrive. Technical skills such as coding can be taught and assessed more easily while soft skills take time to develop and are more complex in nature, the latter are more beneficial in the long-term. When taught well, soft skills enable students to understand people and the world around them better, adapt to changes more easily, have a thorough understanding of social dynamics and ultimately progress further in their chosen careers.

Technical skills are arguably more practical and easily quantifiable and are considered important for securing a job. The importance of imparting skill training to the youth is well-recognised and has been flagged as a national priority for almost a decade, with significant initiatives being launched by the Government.

The sad part is that only 10 per cent of the total workforce in the country receives some kind of skill training. The feedback from corporate India and research institutes shows a grim reality that about 65-75 per cent of the 15 million Indian youth who enter the workforce each year are not job-ready or suitably employable. There is a huge gap between what is being taught to students and what they need to pursue as a successful career. To narrow this gap, we need to create a curriculum that focuses on imparting the skills that are relevant to the times. Thus, teaching and curriculum design needs to be given a greater priority.

Technology is advancing faster than we can adapt, upending the job market and delivering unimaginable shocks to both our values and pattern of thinking. Most children entering school today will do jobs that don’t exist yet. Many of these children who are still being educated in the old system will find the new norms, institutions and patterns of working alien to their ways. 

 Technology empowers but will render millions of jobs obsolete, as smart machines take over repetitive tasks. Many of the schools and universities are structured on the old, hierarchical elitism of colonial times and consider students as empty vessels that simply need to be filled with bookish knowledge. As a consequence, such educational institutions are disempowering students through their outdated teaching methods.

The need of the hour is not only giving adequate skills but also developing it in such a manner that it fosters inclusive growth. We should focus on the “one lifecycle” approach which encompasses all aspects related to skill training, including employability. Adopting this approach will ensure that the kind of skills imparted to trainees are marketable and linked with jobs.

It is also important to ensure that specific skills are not scaled across multiple areas in the same region as this saturates the market with limited opportunities for those who are trained. If everyone is trained in becoming a blacksmith, there will be too many blacksmiths and not enough jobs. Imparting locally-relevant skill sets like repairing bicycles, two-wheelers, solar lamps or mobiles, running a poultry unit, and the like, make families self-sustaining.

To this end, Governments should boost investment in lifelong learning to retrain, re-tool and re-skill. For example, Governments could provide training grants throughout the life of a worker. Governments should also reinforce the supply of skills by strengthening incentives for educational institutions to harness the power of digital technology and new business models.

While we continue our efforts to provide training in more advanced skills, it is also necessary to strengthen the ecosystems for basic subsistence skills in smaller communities. We can design new-generation skills for para-veterinarians, health workers, solar engineers, water drillers and testers, hand pump mechanics, artisans, designers, masons, accountants, technicians and computer programmers who support their fellow villagers in building and sustaining collective livelihood projects and increasing their economic and social resilience.

There is an important role for organisations supporting small producers to hone their skills, understand the marketplace dynamic and to adapt their products for urban markets. They can encourage and promote environment-friendly products and processes, help in branding, packaging solution and also support primary producers in transitioning their subsistence livelihoods to reach sustainable levels.

We require a more coordinated approach from various stakeholders if we want to enlarge the network of training programmes and ensure that training is closely aligned with specific demands of the industry. It requires intervention at four levels: Quality trainers, market-aligned curriculum, assessment of learning outcomes and effective matchmaking between the youth and jobs.

The writer is a well-known development professional of international repute. The views expressed are personal.

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