When I took on the assignment of heading Odisha’s Skill Development Authority, I had one ask from Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik. That, I wouldn’t be available to him for the first 30 days. New to skill development and government, I wanted to spend the first 30 days, doing my own skill development. For this, I decided to travel to the 30 districts of the State by road. It was the summer month of May, with day time temperature shooting to 48 degrees. During this time, I covered 7700 kilometres, roughly the length and the breadth of India added together. At the end of my journey, I became clear about the key issues in creating employable skills for school dropouts. Three years into my task, as we continue to push the envelope every day, as we try newer ideas and hold ourselves to higher standard, I think, these issues really matter and all of us would do well to focus our energies on these without swimming in data, reading reports, and listening to experts.
The first problem is information asymmetry. When I hit the road, I was amazed to see the knowledge gap between young people who need the skills and the jobs, the government that facilitates long and short-term skill development, the agencies that undertake the skill training and the employers themselves. They do not communicate among themselves. Each has a partial view of the task on hand. Among them all, we in the government think, we are doing a great job of communicating. But in reality, we speak to ourselves. The profusion of full-page advertisements announcing myriad government schemes is a colossal waste. At the level of the school dropout, there is only information overload and attention deficiency. District officials, school teachers, the village sarpanch are the people who can fix the information asymmetry. But first, they must together go on a conducted tour to an ITI, a PMKVY and a DDU-GKY centre to know what happens there because these are the people who can motivate and guide a skill-aspirant. Most government skill training is free but mobilising trainees is a herculean task.
The second problem is social stigma that discourages young people to take up skill training. There is deeply ingrained bias against people who work with their hands. A peon in the government gets upwards of 20000 rupees a month, a public -sector driver makes twice as much, but an ITI trained welder starts life for a pittance of 6000 to 8000 rupees. There are other aspects beyond the depressed wages that make skill non-aspirational. As a society, we treat skilled individuals shabbily. It is apartheid of a different kind. When an electrician or a plumber comes to fix something at home, we ask him to remove footwear. It is unlikely that he is offered a cup of tea and in case he is, it is not served in the cup the household uses for itself. We don’t say thank you to a tailor, a barber, a security guard.
Despite all that, many young people do line up at a skill development centre and learn how to run a high speed industrial sewing machine, take care of patients in a hospital or drive a dumper truck. But all these jobs are far away from where they have grown up, often thousands of kilometres away, in alien cities. Many educated people seek simplistic solutions to this. They ask, why can’t jobs be where people are? Why are we crowding the cities? Creating job opportunities in the villages is largely a Utopian idea. Even as we create the needed infrastructure and the required entrepreneurial boom, it would take decades before we can create enough job opportunities outside the cities. Additionally, moving to a city often gives a young person a sense of freedom that we cannot deny. Thus, for a long time, most jobs would be in the cities and displacement is inevitable.
People can deal with displacement only if they are paid well. With the kind of wage we pay our workers, they can only rent accommodation in a slum. In contrast, government servants wouldn’t accept a transfer unless there is a comfortable quarter. Elected representatives have their accommodation reserved. Public sector undertakings build colonies even as they start their plants and the military has its cantonment. For the ITI kid, there is only the ghetto. And if it is a she, we must add personal safety to the bucket list of risks in moving to a new place.
While talking about skills, often there is talk about entrepreneurship. Could some of the skilled workforce turn to micro-enterprise? Yes, but. Truly speaking, this requires risk capital to a young skilled worker. The operative word here is risk capital, not lengthy paper work based, collateral-driven bank loans. We need a paradigm shift to comprehend this. Consider this: India has so far given the world, 14 Unicorn companies. A Unicorn is an Internet business with valuation in upwards of a billion dollars. For this, the start-up entrepreneurs don’t seek a loan, they don’t pledge parental property; they seek risk-capital. As much as we need the Unicorns, India would succeed only when we create thousands of “Nano Unicorns”. These would be people who would get a small amount of risk capital with which they can start a small entity with the idea to scale it beyond self-employment to create one or two jobs. But like the Unicorn, the Nano-Unicorn must be liberated from the fear and financial consequence of possible failure.
Now let us shift to the subject of capacity creation. We look at the process of education and skill development through the same lens because most of us are educated people who have no skills, hence, do not know how skills are transferred. There are two fundamental differences between imparting education and transferring skills. In the former, one professor can sheep-dip an entire class of economics or physics students. It is okay if the best students know the subject only 90% well. But consider skill development: here you cannot sheep-dip an entire class of welders or nurses. To each, the transference must happen on a one-to-one basis. Even as simulation can take away some of that effort, a time comes when one must yield the real welding-gun or catheter to be inserted in to a patient. Unlike 90% proficiency in economics and physics that can get you the laurels, you cannot do a 90% job in welding a gas pipeline or in inserting a catheter without killing someone. This is where trainer quality becomes supremely important. India has a huge gap because most of the skill training agencies are just shops living off government money. These are not the places that can attract and retain high quality trainers who see training as a calling and a paying career.
Before I close, I must raise the issue of employer involvement in skill development. Unlike the Information Technology industry that invests heavily and upfront in human capital development, most indian enterprises see it as a combination of avoidable cost and nuisance. In 2017-18, contribution of the IT sector to India’s GDP stood at 7.9 per cent. Today, directly it employs close to 4 million people and indirectly, another 12 million. This was pretty much zero in 1990. These 52 million, world-class jobs got created because, beyond greed, entrepreneurs saw this as a worthwhile thing to do and took upon themselves the task of building human capital. Barring a few enlightened private sector captains and the public sector, when it comes to skilling, most Indian employers believe that they are saddled with the task of doing skill development because the government has failed. What India needs is a generation of patriotic businessmen who look at the task as a never-before opportunity to participate in human transformation.
Never before in the history of humanity, have we seen such a large number of economic refugees in their own country, trying to cross a social chasm and the only power that can make it happen is skill development. Skill is an amazing thing. Beyond livelihood, it gives people their identity and, done well, the insurance against the inevitable odds of life.