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Skill India’s dangerous misadventure: Barking up the wrong tree

On one hand, a majority of Indian engineers are unemployable. (Illustration: Rohnit Phore)

By Anuraag Saxena

Let's face the elephant in the room first. Skill development programmes in India have just not worked. Period. Decades of programmes, schemes, yojanas and prayojanas to uplift the bottom-of-the-pyramid into white and blue collared jobs have just not been able to keep pace with the 12 million Indians that enter the workforce every year (versus the 5.5 million jobs created annually).

Thus, India faces a unique paradox. On one hand, a majority of Indian engineers are unemployable. On the other hand, you can't find a decent plumber to fix your sink. Somewhere in this disequilibrium lies the saddest evidence of India's failed skill development policies.

Requiem for a dream

India's skill development policies have been structured around the following questions:
1. How do we build more skill development centres? How do we fund them?
2. What course duration, curriculum, language, pedagogy and practical trainings should our programmes have?
3. Who is the 'competent authority' for teacher selection and allocation?
4. Should we leverage MOOCs, flipped-learning models for skills training?
5. At what frequency should we organise career fairs?

Despite decades of intent and capital infusion, India as a nation has failed at its skill development journey. And if the NSDC data is to be believed, miserably so (less than half of those getting certified get placed into jobs).

My hypothesis is very simple. We have been asking the wrong questions.

Demand > supply

We have been asking, how our youth would become employABLE; not employED. Let me explain.
As important as supply-side thinking is, India is missing out by ignoring the demand-side of the skills equation. Our policymakers, as well intentioned as they are, have not bothered enough about what skills the industry needs, and how an effective pipeline is built into it.

Instead of a wing-to-wing view, our policy suffers a selective definition of the problem. In some ways, it's like a restaurant kitchen churning out food that no one is ordering. And while the kitchen's dashboard looks great, we really aren't solving the hunger problem.

A personal anecdote

Back in 2015, I brought the World Toilet Summit to India. This was the first time since the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was announced that the central government, state governments, multilateral agencies, corporates and NGOs all came together for PM Narendra Modi's mission to make India open-defecation-free.

Organised in partnership with the ministry of urban development, and attended by Cabinet ministers, MPs and senior bureaucrats, it was a very visible statement to the government's intent to solve the sanitation crisis.

It was interesting to find stakeholders primarily discussing supply-side like construction materials, logistical capability, district-wise targets, etc. On the other hand, we had three, simple, demand-side suggestions:

1. Open Defecation Free (ODF) projects wouldn't work till toilets are aspirational; till people wanted to break habit; and choose to use them. Behavioural change is not just critical, but had to be the starting point. (Creating demand for toilets.)

2. Measure the success of the programme in ODF numbers (output metrics), rather than construction targets (input metrics). This avoids the reeking reality where toilets are constructed, but used as storages or chicken coops. (Creating demand for results, not action.)

3. If you can have training and certification for other vocations, why not have a 'certified sanitation technician'. It kills the cultural stigma associated with 'toilet staff', and feeds skilled janitors to maintain these toilets. (Creating demand for sanitation jobs.)

The fascinating part was this. As intuitional as our suggestions may have sounded, the 'system' took a while to get around it. Stakeholders debated endlessly, often taking a very condescending view towards the demand-side of the equation. A very senior delegate pulled me aside to mock my view through an old Hindi adage: "You can take a horse to the grass, but it's his job to eat it."

Bureaucratic machinery has started ads around increasing usage of toilets. The 'system' now understands unused toilets can be a bigger disaster-in terms of optics, and in terms of health hazard.

The system now understands 'supply' is meaningless without 'demand'.

Demand-based thinking

As the world moves towards demand-based economy, so should feeder industries, including India's biggest offering-its talent. India skills policies have been plagued historically, unable to channel our demographic dividend towards this demand. In the 1980s and 1990s, private players like NIIT and Aptech built the pipeline for emerging tech jobs. Around the turn of the century, mom-and-pop 'accent coaching centres' sprouted across B&C towns to feed the BPO/ITeS engine.
While it is absolutely desirable that the private sector fill these gaps, the government cannot shy away from its share of the responsibility. The government may not be as agile or responsive as private players, but may want to institutionalise demand-based thinking into its skill development initiatives.

The five-point framework

Policy development in the new age should start at the end of the value chain, and reverse engineer to create supply (of skills). I suggest a five-point framework.
1. Industry outreach: In most other industries, surveys, voice-of-customer studies and focus groups define product specs and output. In our policymaking, though, economists rule the roost. That our economists are primarily (a) academicians and theorists (as compared to having real-world experience), and (b) educated outside India, albeit in world-class universities-this ensures that the ear-on-the-ground is missing. Current engagement with the industry is limited to the 3Cs: committees, conclaves and conferences. Most of these are platforms for sharing views. But unless a more tactical bridge is built, there's limited chance of truly understanding demand.

2. International outreach: The construction boom in Doha, the hospitality industry in Singapore, domestic helpers in Hong Kong, all need feeding. India is missing a huge opportunity to uplift its poor, by not engaging effectively with these receptacles. The Philippines and Indonesia, on the other hand, have grown as huge exporters of talent. Purely from a humanitarian perspective as well, many impoverished Indians are lured into lives of virtual slavery by unscrupulous touts and agents. Consolidation and disintermediation of these 'agents' will not just protect vulnerable Indian citizens, but help talent exports grow as well.

Assam is exploring an ambitious project with South East Asian countries. If that works, it would provide a great template for other states to emulate.

3. PPP, without a P: Public-private partnerships have become the cornerstone for infrastructure development; the model can be extended across social-impact projects as well. However, the PPP model is premised on the congruence of objectives. In the case of skill development, though, the government is chasing social goal; the corporates a tactical goal. The answer is bound to be different when the question is. Time horizons, location strategies, curriculum are rarely at intersection. Instead, why not allow private players to create their own pipelines? It's not unimaginable to see the auto component industry in Chennai get together to set up a polytechnic for machine-tool operators, or for the textile industry in Tiruppur to set up their own tailoring schools. All that needs to happen is for the government to give them the authority, and probably a re-purposed out-of-use engineering college (ouch!).

4. Impact capital: The problem with public goods is everyone wants to use them, but no one wants to pay for them. This is where venture philanthropy and impact capital comes in. Even before the mandatory 2% CSR kicked in, Indian businesses had ingrained social responsibility in DNA. The Tatas built hospitals and townships, family-run enterprises built dharamshalas, micro-enterprises set up a piau (free water for strangers passing by) outside their shops. However, most of this intent is currently directed towards expenses, not investment. An interesting 'demand' to fulfil might be catering to the need of a donor to build something sustainable and visible. Let venture philanthropy solve what public expenditure and private capital cannot.

5. Quality, not quantity: Clearly, India needs to solve the quantity problem (of 12 million new entrants into the job market). In parallel, we need jobs that continually move people up the value chain. Efforts like Make in India, Digital India, Startup India, etc, may create a catchment area, albeit isolated clusters of jobs. India's domestic consumption and increasing prosperity definitely creates the need for more involved skill sets. India needs to think of building capacity in the talent pool to realise these higher-level dreams. More importantly, India needs to figure out what these needs are, and stop looking at skill development solely as a poverty-alleviation tool.

6. Bonus tip-use Excel, not PowerPoint: Demand is ground-up. Demand is a tactical aggregation of pockets-of-need. Most policymaking, however, is strategic-a bird's-eye-view of macro-level numbers. The scholarly pursuit of macroeconomics and public policy, as lucrative as it may be, doesn't necessarily translate to implementability. GDP numbers, unemployment rates, Forbes and World Bank ratings are great indicators, but not solution-tools. Genuine solutions to the skills challenge can emerge only from a micro, tactical approach.

In short, all that India needs is to identify emerging industries, engage with stakeholders there and let well-intentioned capital build capacity. Chase demand, and markets are smart enough for supply models to evolve themselves.

All I'm suggesting is a chapter from Hospitality Management 101. It's time policymakers reached out to stakeholders and asked, "How may I help you today?"

The author is based in Singapore and leads India Pride Project
Twitter @anuraag_saxena