“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”
– John Gardner, late American politician

By Simanta Mohanty, Bhubaneswar, May 7, 2018: At a recent televised panel discussion, noted senior journalist Nageswar Pattnaik asked the panellists whether the skill development agenda that India is pursuing has the ‘sanskar’ that the formal education system apparently displays. Loosely translated, the question was about the ‘weight’, ‘heft’, ‘culture’ and ‘redeemable value’ of skill development programs.

And, since we are a nation that is obsessed with people’s perception, it was also asking if India’s youth now undergoing skill development programs will ever command the ‘respect’ that those emerging from the formal system usually do, whether they are employed or otherwise. It is a perceptive question and one that is almost wholly answered by the quote from a respected politician at the start of this piece. Let us try to buttress it further.

India has set a target of skilling 400 million youth for employment and business by 2022. The target is steep, but we have no option. A discussion paper titled “The Challenges Facing Skill Development in India: An Issues Paper” authored by the Institute of Applied Manpower Research of the erstwhile Planning Commission of the Government of India in 2010 put the skill development agenda in perspective. The paper noted that “India has the lowest proportion of trained youth in the world.

The quantitative dimension of India’s skill development challenge is that 80 per cent of new entrants to the work force have no opportunity for skill training. Against 12.8 million per annum new entrants to the workforce, the existing training capacity is only 3.1 million per annum.

The Prime Minister’s National Council on Skill Development has endorsed a Vision to create 500 million skilled people by 2022, whereas, at present only about 2 percent of the workforce has formal training (plus another 8 percent with informal training) as against 96 percent in Korea, 75 percent in Germany, 80 per cent in Japan and 68 percent in the United Kingdom. This clearly highlights the gaps in the skill development system and the need for adequate resources and resource funds to fill these gaps.” Aren’t these statistics scary?

If it is not, consider this. In a report called National Employability Report by private organization Aspiring Minds, published in February 2016 and reported by ‘Business Today’ journal, the finding are stark about the employability skills even of those who have undergone an engineering qualification.

The report stated that about 80 per cent of engineering students in India are unemployable and that figure has stayed steady over the past five years. Basic numerical, logical and communication skills are found wanting in engineering graduates, vastly impacting their employability. Also, as Aspiring Minds has found, is that 40% of engineers cannot comprehend basic English text, which is all the more alarming as their course is mostly in that language.

The skills-lack scenario is, therefore, more abysmal than one can comprehend at a cursory glance at quantitative data. And, products of the formal education system face no less a challenge. In India, skill acquisition takes place through two basic structural streams – a small formal stream on the one hand and a large informal stream on the other.

The formal structure includes: a) Vocational education in schools at post secondary stage (i.e. grades 11 and 12); b) Technical and professional education imparted through professional colleges; c) Technical training in specialized institutions such as Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) and Polytechnics; and d) Apprenticeship training in factories.

The informal structure of skill development includes the transfer of skills from one generation to another in traditional crafts or acquiring skills on the job. NGOs, Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) and other institutions are also taking initiatives in imparting skills at various levels.

The bottom-of-the-pyramid skill development ecosystem was primarily oriented to the ITIs till the start of this millennium. The trades taught in ITIs, however, were suitable to the manufacturing industry context that dominated India’s economic landscape till the economy liberalized in 1992.

As sectors such as services and information technology took centre stage in India’s economic story so did the realization that skill shortages could easily derail that story. This realization, though, sank in very slowly. After all, the first Skill Development policy was rolled out in 2009, seventeen years after the sudden liberalization of the economy.

The 2009 Policy document listed the areas in which skill development would be required, setting a target of training 530 million by 2022, now revised downwards. The largest skill development targets were set for the newly created National Skill Development Corporation (150 million) and the Ministry of Labour and Employment (100 million).

The statistics can go on and on. But, the heart of the matter is that in making skill development of its youth a large focus area, India is responding to the macro-environment in business in a thoroughly proactive manner. It has created a robust infrastructure for skilling that includes the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, Skill Centres, the National Skill Development Corporation and some 40 Sector Skill Councils, the last two as Public-Private Partnership measures. It has initiated major thoroughfares of two-way communication with employers in all sectors and especially the private sector to ensure employability and employment of its youth.

The fact is that the nature of employment and organizations has changed radically in the past decade on account of the rapid evolution of technology. No longer is it enough to have a BA, MA, MBA, B.Tech, MBBS degree. An individual seeking employment needs to have skills: technical, communication and attitudinal. Employees in the most renowned organizations are undergoing skilling and reskilling to adapt to changes.

This applies in equal measure to students in ITIs, Polytechnics or the Modular Employable Skills programs. Even the ‘humble’ disciplines of plumbing, tailoring, lathe-work, beautician, brick-laying, automotive repairs, driving and house-keeping are changing and evolving under the impact of new technologies and organizational requirements. The world of skills, therefore, has drawn into its web those from formal, established system of education as well as those from bottom-of-the-pyramid skill centres like the ITIs and Polytechnics. It has spared none.

So, how do we give the latter the ‘sanskar’ that the former already possesses? An answer may come from the playbook of the ‘Skilled In Odisha’ brand that the Odisha Skill Development Authority is growing now. The OSDA is taking ‘Skilled In Odisha’ international, with the vision that states that by 2020-21, international employers must make a bee-line for ‘Skilled In Odisha’ talent.

The Skill Development and Technical Education Department of the state government has made every ITI and polytechnic a hotbed of ambitious, achieving students through international training, riveting skill competitions and precise communication. It has stressed quality in skill education and alumni contact by visiting employment areas where Odia products are making a mark for themselves. It has given such students a sense of identity and pride with smart uniforms for the students, an eye-catching brand and a terrific purpose baseline: ‘Odisha’s Best; World’s Next’. This is ‘sanskar’ building, the endowment of gravitas and respect to the students from the bottom of the pyramid.

This is a playbook that the nation can emulate as its youth look to taking on the world with confidence, speed and, yes, skills. This is what will give our plumbing and our thinking the integrity to hold water.

(Simanta Mohanty is an independent consultant in human resources, skill development and communication. He follows the skill development scenario closely. Connect with him on Twitter @WorkSutra)

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