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Migrant workers in Mumbai during the lockdown. (ANI)
Migrant workers in Mumbai during the lockdown. (ANI)

A government-private partnership to help Indians find work

  • The government should tie up with the private sector to benefit from its technical capabilities in setting up job portals and help people rendered jobless due to the covid crisis return to work. This may be our best chance of ensuring the green shoots in the economy gain strength.

Damage to the employment landscape in India is chief in the havoc wreaked by covid. Soon after the lockdown was enforced, an estimated 120 million people lost their jobs. Unemployment peaked at an unprecedented 30% and is now down to just over 7%. An example of those affected: migrants who are unable to find work in urban establishments must return to agricultural jobs in their villages—a sector that barely supported workers even before covid.

Besides containing the virus, helping people get back to work is a big priority. Several state governments, including of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Karnataka, have launched job portals that try to match the skilled-labour demand of micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) to the enormous supply of blue- and grey-collar workers rendered jobless. This is a welcome move. However, state governments face multiple challenges in making it successful.

Matching skill demand to labour supply through technology: The job market has been unrecognizably disrupted and is unlikely to return to the pre-covid normal, at least in the foreseeable future. Vanishing jobs are only a part of the problem. Data from private sector blue-collar job portals points to a breakdown in the hiring supply chain. Companies are reluctant to hire full-time employees, and job seekers have been forced to become “livelihood gig" workers.

According to Workex, a blue-collar employment matchmaker, nearly 50% of job postings are in the functions of sales and marketing, operations, office administration and human resources. But nearly 25% of applicants seek jobs in call centers, business process outsourcing, and telecalling, reflecting the persistent fear about physical mobility. That fear, coupled with issues of public transport, is making people look for multiple “livelihood gigs" near their homes. It is important to remember that with a labour force that is 85% informal, people in India look for work and not jobs. Job-matching is a complex task that requires continuous operational investments for end-to-end hiring fulfillment. The need for hyper-local matchmaking increases the technological complexity. Location-based matchmaking involves complex mapping of households and industry clusters, and bus and train routes.

Unlike large companies, MSMEs do not have the luxury of human resources departments to process an abundance of applications. That’s why it is of immense value to engage a service that posts a handful of best-matched resumes and takes ownership of the hiring process. Over the past decade, the start-up ecosystem has mastered the science of filtering using artificial intelligence and machine-learning tools. This, along with constantly improving user interface, results in a better strike rate for both skill seekers and job seekers. The government should leverage this expertise to increase the impact of its own employment portals.

The user interface for the “next billion" internet users (who are still to come online) cannot be a mere filter-based listing of jobs. Rather, the portals need to be conversational, with rich content for engagement.

The importance of up-to-date job opening information: While private-sector job portals for white-collar jobs have succeeded, online blue- and grey-collar job listings have proved harder to crack. Because a bulk of the hiring in this category takes place in the informal sector, it is not easy to get MSMEs to post their requirements online. As with any job portal, job postings also become stale. Job seekers then apply for closed jobs and receive no response, inevitably losing interest in the platform.

It is expensive to regularly reach out to both candidates and employers to keep the database fresh. The key to a successful platform is to create and sustain the pull factor where those using it are motivated to keep their information up to date. By using intelligent sorting and search algorithms, some Indian startups such as WorkEx, WorkIndia and Awign ensure only relevant work opportunities are shown. The active use of chatbots also makes it easy for these platforms to ensure they have timely and relevant information from job seekers.

Government collaboration with private sector can fast-forward the process: State governments face operational and technological challenges that are difficult to overcome given their stretched resources and lack of expertise in setting up technology-based hiring platforms.

The government’s strength is unparalleled when it comes to data access. It could aggregate job seeker databases from various sources such as employment exchanges, industrial training institutes, colleges and skilling programmes. Private platforms understand the requirements of employers and have the technical capability to efficiently match the government database with job opportunities. Such a partnership would allow each player to focus on their respective specializations. The government can then turn its attention to marketing the portals to create traction.

Such a partnership could open the door to further innovations that accelerate the rehiring process. The government spends large sums of money on skilling programmes and vocational certificate courses for blue-collar workers, ranging from 10,000 to 50,000 per person. With a vast number of skilled people losing jobs, it could prioritise spending money on getting them rehired instead.

Helping as many people as possible quickly get back to work may represent the best chance for the green shoots of economic recovery to survive and grow.

The author is director, India Programs, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation

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