Home / Opinion / Online-views /  A silent skills revolution in Jammu and Kashmir

Twenty four-year-old Rubeena Bano had not left her home in Sopore in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) until something unexpected happened. She heard about the government sponsored Himayat programme that promised to give skills-training and jobs to unemployed youth in the state. She signed up for the three-month course, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today Bano and five other girls from the state are working in a business process outsourcing (BPO) unit of a mobile phone company in Chandigarh and loving every minute of it.

Bano is one of 2,400 youth trained under Himayat, a programme started this year. Himayat (“sheltering" in Urdu) imparts skills relevant to entry-level jobs in the services sector such as retail, BPO, hospitality, healthcare, and accounting. It has an ambitious agenda of training and placing 100,000 unemployed youth of J&K in five years. In a state where 600,000 youth are registered in employment exchanges, this is a badly needed tonic for development. If it works, it could transform the state’s “demographic drag" into a “demographic dividend", unleashing the potential of youth in a dramatic way.

This is not the first time that a government has initiated a skilling programme, nor is it the last time. What sets Himayat apart from traditional government training programmes are several innovations. First, there is a clear link to the needs of the job-market—training is provided for high-growth service sector occupations, and the list of occupations is kept dynamic, based on market demand. Second, training is delivered by certified private sector and non-profit firms (not by government employees) that have credible experience in training. Third, the built-in incentives ensure the right type of training takes place—training firms are paid per student and only paid if the youth is “placed" and once placed, stays on the job for at least three months. Fourth, in addition to the job-specific training, students get trained in a set of transferable skills—basic computer literacy, spoken English and soft-skills, which will help them throughout their professional life.

So far, the going has been good. There is a palpable sense of achievement and hope among the youth who have gone through the training. Much more needs to be done ahead. A key problem is a high “drop-out rate". Of the 1,245 youth who were trained and offered jobs in the first phase, 950 joined work, and only 569 are still working after four-six months on the job, suggesting that 50% of the batch dropped out. There are many reasons for this—mismatched expectations on salary, parental concerns about leaving home, and genuine adjustment issues, especially for youth migrating outside the state, (such as difficulties in getting rental accommodation outside J&K, where Kashmiri youth are seen with suspicion by many potential landlords).

Many changes are being made to address these issues. Experience has shown that if a youth stays on the job for the crucial first six months, then he or she is unlikely to drop out. So the focus is being shifted from “giving training and jobs" to ensuring retention in jobs (this is again a major innovation for a government programme). This is being done in various ways.

In the pre-training phase, a panchayat-saturation model for identifying youth is being used to enable more cohesive cohorts from the same region. Counselling of youth and their parents is being institutionalized to manage expectations at the outset.

In the training phase, a work-readiness module is being added to ensure that youth settle in more comfortably in their new jobs in new surroundings. This includes showing the youth a career trajectory, as they may not get “high" salaries initially, but can expect substantial raises once they complete 12-18 months on the job; something that is typical in the services sector.

In the post-training phase, a significant increase in the post-placement allowance (a “start-up bonus", so to speak) is being made—up to 2,000 per month for six months—to ensure retention in the critical first few months, when salaries are low and there are significant set-up costs in unfamiliar surroundings. Rental accommodation is also being facilitated, through, for example, provision of comfort letters to landlords vouching for the youths’ bona fides. Formal mentoring and support is being institutionalized for 12-18 months, through a dedicated helpline and facilitation centres.

Government training programmes have traditionally been notoriously bad in giving job-relevant training, and linking students to what the job market wants. But Himayat has the potential to change this. It uses an innovative public-private partnership model that is sensitive to local realities and the needs of the job market, providing the right incentives at various stages, and remaining flexible enough to adapt and scale.

Varad Pande is officer on special duty to the Union rural development minister. Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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