Skill development in India – Do we need to revamp our education?

India is in the process of changing gears on development and the next 10 years is going to see a lot of activity on several fronts like manufacturing, construction, retail and services. The country did begin to show signs of momentum but began to lose steam mid-way into the UPA II regime. With the new government in place, the hope of India reviving its growth story north of 8% seems attainable, post FY’16.

But the India success story pretty much depends upon the number and quality of its workforce. The demographics are exciting. With 54% of its 1.2 billion population under the age of 24, India is the youngest country in the world. Compare this with 30 years in China, 38 years in Europe and 41 years in Japan.

By 2020, it is estimated that the global shortage of skilled manpower is likely to touch 56.5 million, while India is likely to have a surplus exceeding 47 million. Those are significant numbers that should be getting us all excited. But is it?

If India is to realize its dream of becoming an emerging superpower over the next two decades, then it is time to do a reality check on our education system and see how prepared our system is to meet the demand for skill development of our potential workforce.

Revamp in education system needed

India has to seriously re-look at the education system and re-align the same to meet the challenges of the coming time. Gone are the days of rote learning and studying to attain marks in an examination. The contemporary demand from a student is to have good language, comprehension, analytical, and mathematical skills.

While the nation would like us to believe that our education system more than adequately matches up to global standards and look at the IITs to further boost our confidence, the reality is that Indian students stood second last out of 73 countries that participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is a global evaluation process for students organized by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The Indian students fared badly on reading, math and science abilities. On most of the points we were in the bottom three. In contrast, Chinese students were in the top three in most of the sections. India prides itself as an English-speaking nation but even on this, the Indian students fared badly. This was in 2010.

So how did India react? We trashed the test and decided not to send Indian students for the next round of PISA! No evaluation, no introspection and no correction. The system carries on.

Ground reality

We need to understand that there is a major challenge in achieving standardization in education. The problem is that it is a State subject and each State is still stuck trying to meet its vote bank expectations and insisting on retaining the mother-tongue as the medium of instruction. We need to accept that English is here to stay and English is going to continue to be the international language of choice. India can’t afford to have people either not speaking or speaking with a heavy accented English.

In another decade China will be far superior in English communication skills, while they are already ahead on comprehension, analytical and mathematical skills, at the school level. India has to urgently introduce spoken English in all schools and this has to be national priority. The corporate sector won’t wait and nor will the nation. Ultimately, those who speak and comprehend good English will always be preferred over those those don’t. Would the States like to deny their future generation this opportunity?

We also need to understand that education cannot follow a one-size-fits-all policy. Students have differing aptitude and comprehension levels and we need to have a system that recognizes these varying levels and offer options that can match his interest and aptitude. There is no point in forcing a 15-year-old to learn maths or science if his interest is in art. Therefore, there is an urgent need to have several streams of learning options in the post-middle school level. Those that have an interest and aptitude for higher learning can pursue the regular programme.

However, there is a large section of students who do not have the interest nor aptitude for higher learning and would prefer to follow a vocational stream. It is this section that will form the future base of the skilled worker pyramid. India has to tap this segment at the school level and then nurture them through a progressive skills acquisition programme.

Have the ITIs really met expectations?

The Industrial Training Institutes (ITI) was set up to meet the need for skilled labour in the manufacturing and services sector. With this mind, the Central Government went about setting up ITIs in various States across the country. However, the ITIs have not been able to fully match the expectations of the industry. While the infrastructure is fairly widespread, little attempt has been made to really understand what level of skill the industry really wants. Each industry today has a different requirement and unfortunately, the ITIs have also followed a one size-fits-all approach.

There has been little work on understanding trainee expectation and trying to match the employer demand. Also, there has been very little study to find out how many have actually been employed, how many have actually continued to remain employed and how many have left as a result of an expectation mismatch.

In addition, the ITIs have paid very little attention to English speaking and soft skills development, as a result a trainee finds it difficult to adjust in the work environment from day one, as the factory cannot afford to train him on these. There is also very little by way of mentoring to assist him to address issues pre and post-employment.

The ITI is an excellent platform to build the base that India needs. We need to improve the infrastructure, the teaching faculty and align the teaching process and content with the industry. This can best be achieved if the interface with industry is increased and brought in to suggest the curriculum, as per their requirement. Additionally, the teaching programme at the ITI must include a frequent on-site training at the industry level, as per the trainee’s skill and interest.

For example, a trainee may want to work in an electronics factory. There is no point in sending him to a machine tool factory. The industry must be encouraged to pre-recruit the trainee and offer stipend through his learning period at the ITI. This will incentivize the trainee, as also familiarize him with real time environment at the work level. This will help in his acclimatization process and ensure that he is able to contribute from day one of regular employment.

The government of India has ambitious plans to upgrade its existing ITIs and add another 1500. In addition, the plan is to set up 50,000 Skill Development Centres (SDC), under the PPP mode.

National Skills Development Programme

The Government of India has set up the National Skills Development Council (NSDC), in collaboration with the private sector, and is supported with funding from international agencies like the World Bank. The NSDC has joined hands with Accenture for design and development of a customized skills development programme that will meet the needs of the industry in coming times.

The programme is ambitious and plans to skill 500 million youth by 2020. The NSDC has taken the right approach of understanding the prevailing challenges and then preparing a roadmap that is aligned with industry needs and trainee expectations. Hopefully, the youth will be able to match up to the opportunity and contribute in realizing India’s potential as a developed nation.

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