Why gaining a vocational skill is no guarantee of a job in India
Skill shortage is a squeaking wheel that won’t get greased as long as we continue to link vocational training with school dropouts. No doubt a gifted scholar has other avenues, but someone coming out of a vocational institute should be no pushover either. Unfortunately, our thoughts on this subject suffer from a foundational flaw. We have assumed all along that skill development is only for the academically challenged; better still, they should also be dirt poor, with nowhere to go.
This is probably why they don’t get anywhere, even after they are vocationally trained. According to the National Sample Survey’s most recent estimate, only 18% of those who have passed out of these vocational schools have regular jobs. This minuscule number is bad enough, but there is more. About 60% of this 18% are employed as informal workers because their caps don’t fit the organised sector. What about the remaining 82% who do not have ‘regular jobs’, either formal or informal? You will find them sitting on their haunches in some marketplace, ready for hire for whatever work a passing contractor may offer.
Also, think of the fact that 30% of the unemployed are actually graduates and above. With nothing more than small change in their pockets, a spot of vocational training might help them too. They, however, find it difficult to make this move for fear of sliding down the status pole. Trading a briefcase for a hammer and drill is like a confession of failure. As long as vocational training is associated with scruffy school dropouts, can we really blame them? This also explains why as many as 48% of wage earners are self-employed, the bulk of them in knock-down occupations like welding pipes or repairing cycles.
Vocational schools truly deliver when the training they impart is quality enriched and flexibility enabled. Only then can graduates from these places take on the changing and dynamic nature of the global market. Unfortunately, that is not the way things happen in India.
Most of those who come out of our vocational programmes pack a single, terminal skill that resists upgradation. Not surprising then that 44% of those with computer training and 60% of those with textile related expertise are all dressed up, but sitting at home. Obviously, there is no tie-in with industry, else why should there be such a glut of vocationally trained workers? Worse, have the skills they learnt now become obsolete?
It is important then that industry should chip in to make vocational education both challenging and attractive. In Germany, the chamber of commerce not only tracks emerging skills in the marketplace but also participates in designing and executing vocational curricula. This chamber’s activism is commendable and far beyond what CII or Ficci have ever done, or shown the stomach for. If Indian industrialists want skilled manpower, they should pull their weight instead of throwing it about. Today, there is such a paucity of vocational institutes that, even at full capacity, they can serve no more than 3% of the 14 million who annually leave school (not dropouts).
There is nothing unpatriotic in learning from successful experiments elsewhere. After all, there is no country anywhere that gets it right all the time, especially the first time. After years of trial and error, the growing consensus in Europe is that vocational education and training must provide high quality, generic and transferable skills. Low garage level know-how will not help a person adapt to a fast-changing world.
From vocational training workers should be able to move on to tertiary education, should they so aspire. It is by keeping these options open that countries like Germany have managed to control unemployment and generate innovations at the same time.
Nor is this something only Europeans can do. South Korea, round the corner from us, has in many ways perfected its vocational institutions to much acclaim. Some even believe it has superseded Germany in this department. In fact, South Korea is a good place to take a short break as we search the world for best practices in vocational training.
Till 1950, South Korea’s growth rate was no better than ours but that was long ago. Since then it has invested in high quality skill development which is why, by the 1980s, it became a heavy-industry major. Today, 95% of its workers are vocationally qualified, compared to just 3% in India.
The tendency among the better off to advocate poor quality vocational education for the working classes is not limited to India alone. In late 19th century Britain, for example, the labour movement had to challenge this bias by demanding the ‘luxury’ of education. In time, this view won adherents even among the elite in that country.
Eventually established centres, like Cambridge and Oxford, began regular courses for poorer people but at the same level of difficulty – no dumbing down! Out of such interventions came institutions like the University of Reading, which are first rate by any standards.
On balance, if vocational ins-titutes are designed for school dropouts they will, inevitably, produce industrial dropouts. Peanuts for peanuts, like for like.