Converging on skills

But will a nodal ministry at the Centre solve all issues in a federal structure such as ours?

India stands at the cusp of a demographic dividend, and several people have expressed the urgent need to leverage this dividend to enable jumps in GDP growth. The formation of the National Skill Development Mission (NSDM) signalled the high priority attached to skill development. The NSDM created three distinct structures, namely, the Prime Minister’s National Council on Skill Development, the Skill Development Coordination Board at the Planning Commission and the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC). The first two were subsequently shelved and replaced by the National Skill Development Agency (NSDA). The NSDC, however, was retained as an entity under the NSDM. Now, the NDA government has brought all skill development initiatives under one umbrella ministry, probably motivated by various governance and management issues.

Rapid change in the policy focus on skill development, with attendant modifications in governance structures, reflected that initially the preferred approach was for the implementation to be done in mission mode rather than as a regular Centrally sponsored scheme. But the mission mode approach failed to achieve the desired momentum and monitor and regulate the activities of various stakeholders, thereby undermining the delivery of sufficient numbers of skilled manpower to potential employers. It also showed that skill development initiatives, both in government and the private sector, were far too stretched, and hence needed to be coordinated and monitored by a nodal agency.

There were about 17 ministries and departments directly or indirectly contributing to skill development. Apart from the NSDC, the ministries of labour and employment, and human resource development, were deeply involved. During the last few years, however, the focus seems to have shifted from developing suitable implementation strategies for these ministries and departments.

The government has been funding private skills/ training providers to impart market-driven skills to the target group. The support to the private sector to enable skill development has been devoid of terse quality protocols. The governance, management, quality assurance and monitoring frameworks are at variance across various skill development schemes.

Even for similar types of skills or trades, provisions differ in terms of target groups, per-trainee cost, duration, curriculum, pedagogy, competency testing and certification systems. Skills gap analysis is yet to be institutionalised as a process that informs the design and implementation of skill development programmes. Skills required by the manufacturing sector, which needs a relatively high dose of capital investment, do not find many service providers (apart from the establishedIndustrial Training Institutes).

Assuming that budgetary resources have not been a constraint, the supply-demand mismatch continues to be a critical gap. Further, in terms of growth in the rural non-farm sector, skill development in rural areas was seen to provide in situ opportunities of employment for youth. However, skills training at present is largely confined to urban locations (at best district headquarters) and industrially advanced regions within states.

With no emphasis on imparting “marketable skills” and poor linkages between training and post-training employment, there have been few improvements in the labour market outcome of training in terms of improved earnings. Largescale outsourcing by big players in the skill development space to smaller players at the local level (apparently against the programme guidelines of various schemes) further affected the quality of the workforce being trained. In practice, even if employment were assured under certain schemes, the tenure of employment provided was not sustainable. The follow-up by private providers was limited to ensuring continued employment. The aggregate picture was of a number of scattered initiatives, working towards a national agenda.

The urgency to put skill development at the core of the development agenda is reflected in what Prime Minister Narendra Modi refers to as the trio of “skill, speed and scale”. The formation of the new ministry of skill development needs to be viewed in this perspective. But even as the government gives physical shape to the skill development ministry, there are a few aspects that warrant deliberation to build a more cohesive implementation design for skill development.

For instance, will the NSDA emerge as a regulatory, standardisation and oversight body (such as the AICTE), much needed in the lower-rung skills space? Further, with the NSDC to be merged with the new ministry, any change in the autonomy of similar agencies will have to be jointly agreed on by government and industry, as a number of private companies contribute to the NSDC’s skill development targets. The HRD ministry’s target of skilling 50 million persons and the ministry of labour’s target of skilling 100 million people is largely sought to be achieved through the expansion of polytechnics and the Skill Development Initiative Scheme (SDIS), respectively. Designing relevant course curriculum, evaluation and certification will require detailed discussion.

Large programmes, such as the Craftsmen Training Scheme managed by the labour ministry, that have elaborate institutional structures for delivery will be difficult to merge and need to be considered if the ministry is not to become yet another coordinating and review platform. With a number of departments providing similar skills, particularly those at the base of the skill pyramid, de-duplication of effort is needed for improved efficiency in resource utilisation.

And what about a closer look at the programmes and agencies engaged in the skill development of people at the upper rungs of the skill pyramid? What about the University Grants Commission, the AICTE and the Medical Council of India? Would these be left out or be brought under the skill development ministry? Do we take that the skill development ministry is mandated only for skill development of persons at the lower rungs of the skill pyramid?

Will convergence at the Central level solve all pertinent issues relating to skill development in a federal structure such as ours, and when vocational training and skill development is listed as a subject matter under the Concurrent List? Almost all skill development programmes are implemented by respective departments at the state level and, inter alia, through their nodal agencies at the district level. Viewed from this perspective, it is safe to conclude that unless convergence is concurrently taking place at the state level, its full benefits at the aggregate level may not reach target groups. In the short run, however, the state skill development missions that have been set up under the leadership of respective chief ministers could serve as umbrella entities to liaise with the new ministry.

Better matching of supply with demand, imparting quality skills and improved labour market outcomes for trainees should ideally form the nucleus of the agenda for the new ministry, with adequate focus on standardisation of content, skill-testing and certification systems. Finally, there is a need to improve governance, management and monitoring at all levels, leading to greater accountability.