Unemployment surges to 10.72% amid COVID-19 pandemic; digital upskilling may help revive job market

One effect of Covid has been accelerated digital adoption- over 500 million people in India, from lower rungs of the socio-economic pyramid, will have acquired new digital skill sets by 2022

Unemployment surges to 10.72% amid COVID-19 pandemic; digital upskilling may help revive job market
While bearing the brunt of more job losses, there is a sliver of hope, which society needs to pay attention to and leverage

By Saurabh Adeeb

Lives and livelihoods have been upturned during the pandemic. Urban India has been bearing the strain of rapidly increasing covid-induced unemployment, which has surged to 10.72% as of April 2021 (CMIE), with numbers abysmally swelling week-on-week with the second wave of the pandemic.

While bearing the brunt of more job losses, there is a sliver of hope, which society needs to pay attention to and leverage. One effect of Covid has been accelerated digital adoption- over 500 million people in India, from lower rungs of the socio-economic pyramid, will have acquired new digital skill sets by 2022 (ONI). That’s half a billion new opportunities for digital skilling and entry into the skill-based economy.

A sizable chunk of this population will be in the 18 to 34 age bracket – India’s young, emerging workforce who will be pivotal players in reshaping the country’s social and economic welfare. While the digital divide has widened on one hand, exacerbated by financial crisis, younger populations have demonstrated an adaptive response, with an uptake of digital skills.

During these critical times, with the forced rise in digital adoption, we’re starting to witness an increasing potential for disadvantaged youth to acquire skills that can enable them to enter the aspirational service sector, including jobs in customer service, retail, BPO, F&B, and sales. As more and more services come online, students who are about to enter the workforce as well as workers from retail stores, learning institutions, clerical jobs — are learning new skills to cope up with the virus and fit into the digital economy propelled by Covid.

This comfort with the digital medium, coupled with accessibility of low-cost smartphones and cheap data rates in India, creates a unique opportunity for youth to access high quality online training programs that can not only increase employability and provide an opportunity for previously unemployed or underemployed youth (a whopping 47% of the workforce) to secure their livelihoods, but also help to break economic inertia in the world’s largest youth demographic, converting it to a serious dividend. This will be a central aspect of our economic reset post covid for a more inclusive, skills-based labour market.

Industries seek new skill sets

The lack of 21st century skills makes it especially difficult for job seekers to land high paying and desirable jobs. Candidates from underprivileged backgrounds, especially from tier 2 & 3 cities, find it difficult to navigate suitable jobs, despite having basic educational qualifications and college records. 1 million Indian youth join the workforce every single month, but less than half of them are suitably employed, often due to a gap in their employability skills – communication skills, spoken English, life skills, financial literacy, career planning resources and networks etc. – which make them ‘job ready’. There is a gap between what the industry needs beyond the technical skills, and the layer of polished skill-sets that need to be donned by India’s talent pool. To bridge this gap, the emphasis on 21st century skills and employability of candidates in vocational training needs a deliberate uptick. The focus on aptitude and soft-skills development are important for securing jobs but are often overlooked in the conventional tutoring system. This seemingly simple problem has kept India’s young workforce tethered to insecure livelihoods, and decisively addressing it can not only improve their prospects significantly but can also promptly add 2% to India’s GDP (BCG).

According to a NASSCOM report, from April 2020 to April 2021, 74% of skill development organizations shifted successfully to online models.

NSDC, Smile Foundation, ‘Future Perfect’ by The/Nudge Centre for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship etc. are all running programs that stand testimony to the new opportunities provided in the labour market through digital upskilling, which has also been touted as a key area for employment growth by UNESCO and UNDP. Such programs can also help beat geographical and gender barriers in the country when it comes to learning opportunities and employment, by increasing access to vocational training as well as placements and job retention support.

Apart from increasing their confidence in English speaking, the candidates need to be trained and mentored in assertive communication, problem solving aptitude, etiquette building, adaptability, critical thinking, digital skills and leadership qualities. Such training not only helps the candidate to get through interview processes and secure jobs, but also retain employment and build a career trajectory for themselves, creating horizontal and vertical career mobility, enabling further growth and upward socio-economic movement. Placement assistance and on-job support are also essential at this point of time.

Various reports by FICCI, Nasscom and EY suggest that by 2022, 9% of Indians would take up jobs that do not exist yet, and over 37% of the workforce would be moved to opportunities that demand radical change in skill sets. As several new opportunities appear, many old jobs would be also lost in the mechanisation and digitalization of today’s work. It is predicted that by 2022, 133 million jobs in new roles can emerge which can absorb 54% of employees (WEF). Conditioned reskilling for these roles need to be done aptly. Hence, it is imperative to increase the accessibility of employability skill training to the larger sections of society.

Embracing the change

Demand for ’job-ready’ skills in India is predicted to grow upto twenty times by 2024 (Nasscom). This opens immense scope for the young, underprivileged demographics of India to encash the opportunity. Such statistics are indicative of a bright future and the fissures of skill can be easily covered up by a mixture of vocational knowledge, life skills and 21st century soft skills. As young graduates enter the job market in difficult times, mere conventional degrees are not enough, as companies increasingly look to more skill-based hiring than degree-based hiring.
Skilled staff with self-management calibre are often proven to demonstrate higher efficiency, resilience and tolerance, holding higher demand. As more companies automate systems, necessitating increased service orientation from the emerging workforce, the working culture, personality traits and soft skills make it to the essential list of requirements. Hence, what we need at the moment is building resilience for the workforce with the right skills, and more collaborations with organisations to support skill-based hires.

While millions of jobs are being lost, it is important for combined efforts of the government, skilling institutes and hiring organisations to re-channel the workforce and provide them with these additional future-proof skill sets that are needed by industries, offering better opportunities and jobs. While a few private organizations have stepped forward to help improve the skill sets of the young population by offering free or low-priced soft skills programs, it is imperative for the government to drive a narrative calling out the need for an increased focus on employability skills that can easily be delivered to the masses through digital mediums, so that all stakeholders may join hands more firmly in supporting the underprivileged, displaced and disadvantaged and making them more ready for the future. Only then can we make sure that they are not left behind in India’s journey of recovery, rebuilding and development.

(Saurabh Adeeb is a Senior Director, The/Nudge Centre for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. Views expressed are the author’s own.)

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