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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | Why lifelong learning is a necessity, not a choice

Today almost every casual work-related discussion is on the subject of the lack of right set of talent in the employee pool

A writer friend recently narrated an interesting encounter at a job interview. The candidate claimed and quite proudly too that he does not read books, lest his “style" will get influenced. Needless to say, the interview ended soon enough with a young man back on the streets looking for a job and a well-paying writing job waiting to be taken.

I am sure every recruiter has their own favourite interview stories and perhaps even more unsettling ones than my friend’s. The recruiters’ sense of despondency is quite palpable in situations like this, particularly when often casual work-related discussions land on the subject of lack of skilled workforce even to do routine stuff.

The young man’s animosity to books (i.e. to learn something from published writers) may sound like an exception and not indicative of the general trend in the skill market. My response to that would be: may be in lesser degrees, but the problem is there and it is serious.

In her recent budget speech, the Union finance minister too spoke about the huge demand for teachers, nurses, paramedical staff and caregivers abroad. “However, their skill sets, many a time, do not match the employer’s standards and, therefore, need to be improved," she said.

Two words stand out in the minister’s remark: employer’s standard.

Today almost every casual work-related discussion is on the subject of the lack of right set of talent in the employee pool. On one hand, the employers are grappling to solve their business problems with an under-skilled workforce. On the other hand, the fresh recruits are finding themselves non-employable or less productive, as their oven-baked degrees are staling faster than expected.

Such fundamental shifts in both businesses and job market were long coming. The $180 billion Indian software industry, which grew almost without any government oversight for decades, is now seeking budgetary support to resolve what seems like an existential crisis, with the lobby body Nasscom’s clarion call that the IT workforce may become obsolete unless the government supports reskilling programmes.

In its current form and for most parts, our education system is built to fail.

I am not saying this casually. If we can agree that the measure of success of education is being productive and efficient in the real world, then clearly the numbers suggest large-scale failure.

The writing on the wall is this: the needs of the industry and the larger economic system are constantly changing because of technology and our workforce factories have to keep up.

First, we as Indians need to buy into the idea of lifelong learning as a necessity. The dominant mindset of our country is that formal learning stops when one reaches around 25 years and the focus of rest of the life is on experiential learning, typically at workplace.

This has also been bolstered by the structure of the current education system. Those who believe they are upskilling through experiential learning, are living in a denial that experiential learning alone cannot prepare them for the transition to a new job, let alone a new career.

Individuals will face deep and rapid changes, and many will have to change not only their job but even their occupation, and most will have to modernize their skills and working practices.

Then, comes the employers who must focus on driving large-scale reskilling of the existing workforce. Not only would they save a massive talent pool to quit jobs, but a more productive workforce will lead to an upside growth in their revenue.

Third, comes the government authorities, who can encourage the masses by providing tax benefits on executive education, in similar lines of life insurance, and asset creation through mutual funds.

This is not a linear step by step process, and rather commands for non-linear thinking to make this happen.

What is scary is that the skill gap challenge is becoming increasingly perennial. If we dive into the statistics a little deeper, India has over 40 million in the higher education market and there are over 58 million taxpayers in the country.

We are host to the largest population under the age of 25 and the second-largest graduate talent pipeline. We’re at a tipping point, where things done right can make India the teaching capital of the world.

Ronnie Screwvala is the co-founder and executive chairperson, upGrad.

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