The Skills Challenge

2 Feb



The numbers are huge. The gaps frightening. The words misused. And the need understood. Plans afoot. That summarizes the state of skills and vocational training in India. The need for better skills training became apparent as employers found it difficult to fill vacant positions despite a very large number of applicants. Global attention to skills with white papers across most countries too found resonance in India as millions were left behind with no will or aptitude in purely academic fields.


Demographics of course determine the scale of the challenge. ‘India adds the population of Australia to itself every year’ was the popular soundbyte from when we were at school. In the next five years, it must train 70 million entrants to the workforce according to plan targets. This is a massive ask in a system that barely has enough people to train the new workforce. It is a challenge where infrastructure constraints are joined by resource constraints. Governance issues plague the system from the macro to the micro, where attitudes to work range from callous to a desperate hunger to succeed.


There are many solutions that have evolved in recent years. Business models supported by the National Skills Development Corporation. Reform of the technical institutes. Re-introduction of vocational courses at schools. Skills are celebrated by institutions via competitions and achievement. Even academic interest has been roused :)


Some efforts look small but have huge impact, such as the mobile phone based employment exchange that allows daily wage workers to find jobs and wages according to their skills across a wider geography. Others such as free dial in mobile services allow voice lessons in health or other skills to be reach those who need it at their convenience. Solutions that identify talent, train it and help them be placed in industry are providing valuable models and seek greater scale now. Sector skill councils have been set up for most industries and have started excellent work in mapping industry requirements to inform curriculum. Accreditation agencies and Vocational Qualification Frameworks are being put in place. The inertia of many years has been broken, but to become a movement it must gather pace.


Skills development in India suffers not only because vocational skills are lower down the heirarchy from academic skills, as evidenced by the price they command in the market; but also because the term skills is used very broadly. Unravelling the skeins of the term in ways that were meaningful to employers was a challenge that is not yet met. Skills are often categorised as ‘hard skills’ and ‘soft skills’ though most people would find themselves debating these terms. However, what is clear is that three areas need work: Communication, Core technical skills and professionalism.


The hurdles that remain are the stuff of the Wild West, or it may feel so to the pioneers who venture here. The roads have been laid, but the cities must be built, and there is gold to be spun.


To win this battle for employability these and more need to be in place:



  1. Regulatory: Skills for employment is seen as an area that falls between various ministries complicating the regulatory minefield. Due to historical labour issues some strong tools such as apprenticeships remain out of reach for most providers. However other in work training models do exist. Easing the restrictions on training models for industry, possibly legislating to make certain safety training necessary and enabling in service training would go a long way to bringing about a culture that seeks to raise skill levels accross the board.


  1. Communication: At the heart of all the troubles, both in content and in process, much will be resolved with good communication all around. With employers reaching out to education institutions via the sector skills councils, only a part of the problem is addressed. There is little that includes and informs the candidates who often invest blind or not at all. Investors in the industry find themselves less than adequately informed, sitting as they are between the complexities of policy and practice. Educators themselves could do with better communication, both inward and outward.
  2. Financing: The elephant at the table is financing this piece. If the candidates who have supposedly acquired qualifications and degrees is still unemployable then the question that arises is – Who is responsible for making them employable? The education system is done with them, the employment system not willing to take them on. Siting in this no man’s land, they have to find a way out, and a way to pay for this system. The level of financing available for this is not adequate. Having said that, credible service providers have found that their success often depends on including this in their business design.
  3. Resources: The provision of vocational and professional skills is an under-resourced sector even now. Despite the investments and the plans, there are a few constraints that slow down progress. The lack of good trainers is a pervasive malaise, as is the lack of good facilities. Much work needs to be done to codify knowledge and map it to learning outcomes and this is a serious investment requirement. The nascent accreditation bodies are beginning to find their feet as the need for volumes gives them little time to do so. Awarding bodies are now working on adapting and building their scale models, thus find themselves constrained. Building rigour in their qualifications while serving to scale is a challenge that has rarely been met in the world, and must be designed well or be doomed.
  4. Governance is going to determine the success or failure of the efforts in the skills development sector. Unless ethical practices and their checks and balances are designed into the system at every level, the credibility of the system will be at stake. This applies from at all levels and includes honest assessments, clear reporting systems, inclusive policies and sound oversight. This is probably the most crucial piece of the puzzle and much of the sustainable success will come from investment in good governance.


Investing in these and more are clearly necessary to the progress and safety within the nation. As India grows, so must its people – this is the path to a happy nation. As its people grow and add value, so will the nation – this is the path to a prosperous nation.


Times of India, January 23, 2013


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