Giving skilled India an early start

Published: November 9, 2015 12:04:29 AM

Early exposure to real crafts and vocations will provide effective skill building and application opportunities from a young age

We have heard a lot about the famed demographic dividend of India and also about how it can become a demographic disaster if the young population cannot enter the workforce productively. We have seen the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) take shape as an umbrella body for country-wide skilling exercises along with sector and state skill councils and various public-private partnerships.

The recent government initiative, establishing a full-fledged ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship, is one of the most welcome initiatives. The process of offering vocational subjects in schools has also become stable now. Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ School of Vocational Education, conceptualised in 2011, has become operational in collaboration with the ministry of human resource development. It may seem that all is well and all such initiatives are sufficient conditions for skilling India well enough.

However, as some recent studies show, we have a skill-job paradox on our plate: We have jobs, but we do not get enough skilled people to fill these jobs.

The Aspiring Minds surveys among plumbers and engineers and the Wheebox-CII study, The India Skills Report 2014, all point out towards the skill deficiency level among trained individuals emerging from skill development programmes. The gap areas include the ability to provide solutions to real-life situations and soft skills for employability. Given that the window for reaping the benefits of demographic dividend is quite small, we need urgent intervention.

However, such urgent interventions cannot be delivered through the existing modalities, which are yet to be upgraded on a large scale.

A fundamental transformation in how students think and apply their mind cannot happen at a post-secondary level through short-term trainings. The school education system has to prepare our children to think and apply. Given the fact that the bulk of our school education system still relies on syllabus-textbook-lecture method of teaching and that there are major issues in quality of literacy and numeracy in schools at large, we need something simple and easily implementable to bring in the change.

We must also consider some questions. Why are we doing this? Are we thinking about skilling India only from a labour demand-supply perspective? Is it for channelling the energies of a teeming population to avoid social unrest? Or is it for providing our citizens a sustainable livelihood to maintain a prosperous and peaceful polity? While we may say ‘yes’ to all these questions, a focus on the third one will bring us closer to a sustainable solution.

Large nation-building exercises in India have often been reduced to tick marks on government checklists. While the government and private sector approaches are crucial for a nationwide skilling initiative, a focus on the individual or a human-centric design approach is needed. I will illustrate with an example. A survey done by educational NGO Pratham shows that a significant proportion of trained individuals quit their jobs after getting placed, or do not join in the first place. Among the surveyed cohort, only 23% trainees continued working after a year of their placement.

Among the trainees who left their jobs, the top three reasons for quitting were unhappiness with the location (38%), unhappiness with creature comforts available (23%), and the issue of language (19%). Constraining the entire focus on the act of training and placement and not considering the life stories of the individuals trained leads to such faux employment numbers. Although Pratham’s solutions are directed towards creating better networks and providing counselling/training to enable smooth mobility of the labour force, local solutions can be explored so that the labour force can be employed at the area of their domicile.

Reading The Story of Nai Talim by Marjorie Sykes shows an almost 80-year-old diagnosis to a very current malady. Sykes quotes Mahatma Gandhi’s article in the Harijan to explain his vision of basic education, or Nai Talim.

“Literacy in itself is no education. I would therefore begin the child’s education by teaching it a useful handicraft and enabling it to produce from the moment it begins its training. Thus every school can be made self-supporting.” Gandhi had more to say. “Primary education, extending over seven years or longer, and covering all subjects up to the matriculation standard except English, plus a vocation used as a vehicle for drawing out the minds of the boys and girls in till departments of knowledge, should take the place of what passes today under the name of primary, middle and high school education.”

Lessons from the work-focused, self-reliant and community-centric approach in Nai Talim can be transformational. Early exposure to real crafts and vocations will provide effective skill building and application opportunities from an early age. Self-reliance for such an initiative will need to come through entrepreneurship or by providing services. Moreover, community focus will enable such entrepreneurial activities create a network of opportunities within the community itself. Of course, this model may not be successful in many places because a school cannot transform into an employment-generation centre easily. However, such thought experiments show the potential of bringing more work-based, entrepreneurial and community-centric focus in our teaching-learning processes in schools.

This, however, is not a recommendation for a two-school system in which potential blue-collar workers are sent to a ‘factory school’. This is a model all schools can explore, as recommended by the National Curriculum Framework 2005 as well, to bring greater work focus and de-emphasise textbooks. This will not supplant traditional vocational courses, of course. This model seeks to bring the vocational approach out of traditional vocational programmes and synthesise it with regular curriculum. The ‘how’ of that needs to be worked out, but the ‘why’ is staring right at us in the face.

By KVS Seshasai

The author is CEO, Zee Learn Ltd, which operates Kidzee, Mount Litera Zee School, Mount Litera School International

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