Sunday, March 9, 2008

Develop skills and minds

"Please, ba, find me a job,” begins my cousin’s whine.
“How on earth can I do that?” I ask. “Where?”
“GAIL, SAIL, Oil India—any of those would be my dream,” he says.
“You know nothing about gas…or steel…or oil,” I say, exasperated. “Besides, what was all that schooling for?”
My cousin has a bachelor’s degree in economics, a master’s degree in the same, a law degree and is pursuing a master’s in law. He is the most educated among the dozens of 20-something relatives I have—yet has struggled to find steady employment. So, we have this dialogue at least weekly.
Every time I read about India’s talent shortage—or even as I myself frame it using words such as “crunch” and “crisis”—I ponder if the countless youth scattered across the country in my cousin’s predicament would agree with the characterization. According to a report by TeamLease Services, 57% of India’s youth suffer from some degree of unemployability, while 75% of those who finish school make less than Rs75,000 annually.
This week, policymakers and labour ministry officials met in New Delhi to formulate a training policy for India. The government has announced that an area fuzzily known as “skills development” is expected to get a whopping Rs31,000 crore in the 11th Plan, the five-year blueprint that lays out its objectives. Compare that with the mere Rs350 crore spent on skills development in the 10th Plan. Inevitably, finance minister P. Chidambaram’s Budget next week will begin the big boost in spending.
For the ground reality, I headed to the small, shabby South Delhi Polytechnic for Women, which sits behind the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College. It is polytechnics such as this one that the government seeks to replicate nationwide to lift to those who need it most. Ironically, in the mid-1990s, as founder Ashima Chaudhuri discovered that being approved by the government meant limiting seats and offerings, she decided to shirk affiliation and moved to a system of vocational courses that don’t offer degrees, but the promise of jobs. Courses in jewellery design and catering, childhood development and office administration, media and fashion last anywhere from one year to four years.
What strikes Chaudhuri most is that more Indians are coming to her with actual college degrees, unable to find employment because they have no technical skill. For example, I came upon sisters Sunita and Sangeeta Yadav, 23 and 22, respectively, who already had a bachelor’s in education but were studying art so they could blend the two and become teachers.
This astounded me: Shouldn’t a liberal arts background at least instil the ability to input, analyse and produce— the very basics of a job? Especially given the alleged teacher “crunch”.
But another crisis looms—in confidence and comprehension. When I asked Sunita what she was studying, she looked at me blankly.
“Didn’t you say you were taking an art course?” I reminded.
“I don’t consider that studying,” she said. “That’s training.”
Perhaps some of the breakdown was due to my sorry Hindi and her weak English, but the disconnect foreshadows a part of what will be the government’s challenge: to ensure that skills and knowledge go hand in hand, that citizens understand one is nothing without the other.
If that does not happen, sheltered students will continue to look to the same place for employment coveted by their parents and grandparents— the government. Young women, particularly, will seek escape in another institution—marriage.
As we spoke, Chaudhuri was cutting articles out of the newspaper. She posts them on bulletin boards around the simple campus in the hope that students will stop and realize there is a world beyond them and their skill. Even as she does, she concedes that is hardly the role of vocational schools.
“It sounds strange, but we need to not think globally, but locally,” agreed vice-principal A.M. Banerji.
Isn’t it possible to do both? With its massive funding of education and vocational training, the government’s heart and purse appear to be in the right place. But massive poverty and underemployment—against the backdrop of a private sector begging for qualified applicants—force us to first revise the calculus of how we learn, what we learn and why we learn it.
After my day at the polytechnic, I headed for the labour conference, listening to a panel on how other countries have built and repaired their workforces. Envy filled me as slide after slide showed alliances among schools, the private sector and the government. The success stories offered training early, often and repeatedly. In Korea, a sound vocational policy helped per capita income double decade to decade.
Here, the 11th Plan’s spending must inspire Indians to embrace more than degrees or skills—but true lifelong learning.
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