Home / Opinion / The need to rethink skilling India

Young and aspirational, the millennial generation that makes up about 40% of India’s population has long been regarded as the saviour and driver of future economic growth. Yet, the gap between the productive labour force and the employment and entrepreneurial opportunities available to them continues to widen. The fourth Industrial Revolution has already made its mark on certain sectors. The economic turmoil that could be brought on by further large-scale disruption should be a cause of concern.

India’s status as an information technology (IT) powerhouse has fostered the false hope that the nation could be saved from future disruption. It should be noted, however, that the global appeal of the Indian IT industry has been the labour cost arbitrage available to multinational corporations looking to capitalize on a young, educated, English-speaking population. Low wages cannot drive economic growth or foster innovation, and the sector’s professionals are easily replaceable if they ask for higher pay or wish to move up the ladder.

With prestigious and highly regarded Indian sectors such as IT amounting to little more than cyber “coolies", the manufacturing and agricultural sectors are in an even more precarious situation. Much of India’s workforce is already hampered with outdated and irrelevant skills. As technology continues to surge forward in leaps and bounds, both blue- and white-collar jobs will become increasingly sparse.

To be fair, policymakers recognize the problem and have taken steps to combat it. The “Skilling India" programme aimed at accelerating the pace of skill development, creating new employment opportunities and reforming India’s archaic labour ecosystem is a positive step. Yet the challenges faced by the ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship (MSDE) are complex and varied.

Encumbered with the Herculean challenge of skilling 400 million young Indians by 2022, the MSDE is forced to coordinate with 22 departments and ministries at the national level, and many more at the sub-national levels. The MSDE also must account for the possibility of intra-state migration, rapid urbanization and possible changes in social fabric as populations react to new job opportunities.

Fulfilling the great expectations set for the MSDE seems unlikely unless certain changes are made. A prime example of the worst-case scenario can be seen with the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), an autonomous entity functioning under the MSDE. Tasked specifically with the responsibility of skilling 10 million people by 2020, the NSDC has struggled to achieve its goal. If India wishes to avoid economic stagnation and societal upheaval, additional policy measures must be undertaken to cut through bureaucratic red tape and bring clarity to the policy framework. Creating a coherent organizational structure is the first step—the NSDC, for example, has been tasked with managing the financing processes while also implementing the skilling programmes. Separating the two tasks and allowing the ministry of finance to manage the financial aspects would allow the NSDC to focus on its core competencies, allowing it to be more effective and efficient.

It is also imperative that the MSDE focus on implementing a multi-skilling aspect to its training programme moving forward. As job markets evolve at unprecedented rates, it is incumbent upon the MSDE to provide its trainees with more than one way to earn a living. Additionally, the ministry should also explore the possibility of programmes aimed at skilling and reskilling older “educated" populations that might be left behind owing to disruption and technological advances.

Furthermore, the curriculum and education system offered also needs to be overhauled. Industry sources claim that close to 90% of trainees have limited understanding of the business sectors they are entering. For many skill programme graduates, the training does very little to prepare them for their day-to-day jobs.

Targeted initiatives focused on updating skills can help ensure that the training benefits its intended audience. A solutions-based approach, where instructors employ case studies and present relevant problems, would provide students with a holistic education, allowing them to compete at both the national and international levels.

Implementation of licensing and regulation procedures can also help boost the Indian labour force’s chances globally. Most developed nations have systems in place to ensure that electricians, plumbers, agricultural machine operators and other skilled trade workers update their skills regularly through the licensing and regulatory mechanisms. Implementing such a system without creating additional layers of burdensome bureaucracy might be challenging, but could also be a key difference marker for the Indian labour force moving forward.

Cutting away excessive bureaucratic fat, implementing structural changes to the pedagogy of the skill training system, and installing licensing and regulatory mechanisms are all important steps to help reskill India. The most important change, however, needs to happen on a cultural level. Skill training should be viewed as a complementary part of mainstream education, rather than being regarded as an inferior alternative. Gainful employment through skilled trades needs to be embraced by the wider Indian public and given the respectability and opportunity it deserves, for true change to be brought about. Otherwise, India’s youth will be relegated to the same conditions that their grandparents were subject to.

Srinath Sridharan and Aparajit Pandey are associated with the Observer Research Foundation.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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