Teaser: Vocational training has been centre-stage in policy discussions in India over the past decade. This column discusses the perspectives of and dissatisfaction among the four groups of stakeholders in skill training—government, industry, trainers and potential trainees. It highlights the need for a strong “pull” or demand for training and suggests innovative ways to achieve this.
The issue of vocational training has gained importance over the last eight or so years after the UPA government took charge in 2004. There are four corners of vocational training—government, industry-business, trainers or institutions of training, and the prospective trainees. You could divide this further with government and the trainers on the supply side and industry-business and the trainees on the demand side. Just a decade ago, this was a triangle with the supply side making up one corner. All vocational training was funded and delivered by government institutions. While the government institutions are still running, private trainers have entered the scene.
The supply side
Although much has been said about how to make this quadrilateral work, it appears that there is a lot of dissatisfaction in all four corners. A simple web search is enough to know who is saying what. The fact is that while there is talk about a need to train 500 million or some such number of young people and to place them in jobs by 2022, the governmental plan is lagging behind. The loudest noise is probably coming from the trainers’ corner which is finding out that while skilling is considered desirable, neither the industry nor the potential employee is really willing to spend money or time on serious skills. Government financing seems to have its usual problems; some obvious and others rumoured. The government corner is not yet saying that things are not working. At such times, people usually say that things may take time and there is optimism.
The demand side
Strangely, there seems to be no noise from either the business corner, or the potential trainee—the jobseeker corner. Industries whose business depends upon highly skilled people are setting up their own training programmes and institutions for selected employees who have already spent 16 odd years in schooling. But the unorganised and informal sector and the industries that rely on contract labour for relatively low-skill jobs are hiring people informally or through contract systems and training them on the job. Although they murmur that they don’t get skilled people, there does not seem to be a real worry that their businesses will hurt for lack of skilled workers. On the contrary, it appears that their businesses will stall if they wait for the youth to be trained and skilled. There is no existing model of skilling that inspires confidence that skilled workers will be available on a very large scale in a short time span except if a sophisticated labour contractor with a pipeline of contracts takes in unskilled people, trains them and provides jobs. It is not enough to be a trainer—you need to have the ability to place people in jobs, which is not easy to do.
The fourth corner—unskilled youth—whether more schooled or less, has its own issues, aspirations, and conditions, as more and more trainers are finding out. Urban youth it seems may have poor skills but they also have high aspirations after having spent more than 10 years in the schooling process. They are not willing to go to some skilling course unless a job with the salary and working conditions they aspire for is guaranteed. Those whose lives depend upon finding a job are going out and getting one, unless they have problems with migration. Young women are the worst losers. Typically, a labour contractor gathers young men, perhaps even readies them for work, and employs them. Others who have connections in the city through an uncle or a group of their biradari (community) migrate to the city, find work, and enter the unorganised labour market. They learn on the job, acquire skills as apprentices either at their village or at an urban workplace, and struggle to survive. These folk have no time to go for skilling courses.
Informal skilling on the job works, at least for now, until we figure out what kind of institutions and processes will work in our country.
Creating a strong “pull”
How are these different corners going to work together? The government and the eager trainers represent the push factor which is trying to create processes and institutions for training, without a strong pull factor.
It is my considered opinion that the game-plan has to change completely based on creating a strong pull. I would put in place three strategic objectives. First, create an environment that places all skills high up there with knowledge or even higher, not in a patronising manner but in a real way. Media campaigns and programmes highlighting skilled work is one way of doing it. The other day, I met a fashion designer who spoke extremely warmly and highly of her seventh standard passed “cutter” as an integral and crucial part of her creative team. He is not just an employee. We must find such genuine people and promote them.
Second, start a registry of skilled people that is available online and make certification of existing skills free, simple, and easy to start with. Let us call it sadhaar (a 12-digit individual identification number issued by UIDAI on behalf of the government of India which serves as a proof of identity and residence through India)—the skills identity in the labour market. The standards can be raised in a stepwise manner over a period of time. The process can go from self-declaration to references to assessment of skills. Schools can become skills registration centres over weekends. Simultaneously, employers should be persuaded, or even arm-twisted to put online the ratios of certified skilled people they have in their workforce versus the uncertified.
Third, promote skill upgradation programmes for all working people—permanently employed, contract workers, or self-employed regardless of whether they are in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, and provide them part subsidies and simple no-interest loans that they can repay over a period of time. No free training. Again, have employers of all sizes declare numbers of their employees who have gone through skill up-gradation courses.
I believe these, and such other initiatives, will form the pull for a larger skilling programme not only for those already working, but also those who will enter the workforce.
Simultaneously, and perhaps most importantly, it is essential to include in the school syllabus elements that familiarise children with work life and ready them for it without giving a full vocational course. For example, we need to stress communication, of which language is a part. While mastery over English may be needed for higher academic studies, it is more important to be able to handle ‘technical’ workplace vocabulary in “Hinglish” for most workers. They could, of course, join higher-level English learning programmes in due course. I believe teaching chemistry is important but so is teaching safety with chemicals. Teaching electricity is important but so is the understanding of electrical equipment around the house and in the community. Learning math is important, but so is financial literacy. It is important to know parts of the body, but learning how to check pulse and tie bandages can be both useful and fun exercises. In practically every subject, it is possible to create introduction to vocational and workplace skills. And the good part is that there are enough “resource persons” in every community who can help children learn these aspects. In fact, it should be possible for children to take low-stake tests to get certified in each individual skill or knowledge domain. Professional bodies will willingly do this if they are funded.
Building new sustainable institutions and processes
It is now well understood that a product of even 10 years of schooling on an average is not only unemployable but also untrainable. Those businesses that are serious about a skilled labour force say that they do not need a person specifically trained in their trade. All they need is a person who is ‘trainable’. They can train the person on the job if he or she is willing. Lack of soft skills, poor reading and comprehension skills, no understanding of measurement and basic quantitative work are major weaknesses of most children reaching standard eight or 10, as well as of dropouts—a major proportion of the Indian population. These skills are not difficult to teach if the students are eager and trainers accountable. We need a massive ‘bridging’ programme for the push-outs of school systems to make them “trainable”.
If we raise the standards of outcomes of our schooling process while also creating a larger environment favouring skilling, certification of skilling, and job incentives for skills, we will have created a wide base for skilling our population with a strong pull. It is on this base that we can build new sustainable institutions and processes for technical and vocational training.
Madhav Chavan is a co-founder and CEO-president of Pratham.
This column has been reprinted with permission from Ideas for India, www.ideasforindia.in- -