Getting things done in skills needs unblocking traffic jams at the intersections of education, employability and employment.
A heated argument with a senior member of this government about inaction around fixing the regulatory cholesterol of the Apprenticeship Act ended with him telling me, “The government has many things to do. You need to learn how to be more patient.” I couldn’t resist reminding him that the 20th point in Indira Gandhi’s 20-point programme of 1975 was fixing India’s apprenticeship regime. Thirty-nine years after making it a policy priority, India has only four lakh formal apprentices. Germany has 30 lakh, Japan has one crore and China has two crore.
The transmission losses between talk and walk in fixing our apprenticeship regime are symbolic of broader policy challenges in moving from what to how to done. Getting things done in skills needs unblocking the traffic jams at the intersections of education, employability and employment. More importantly, this needs a more adventurous and decisive state.
Adventurous because tackling India’s skill challenges — 10 lakh kids joining the labour force every month for the next 20 years — needs room for innovation, change and risk. Decisive because India isn’t getting done what it has identified it needs to do. The next government must fix five troublesome intersections.
First, the intersection of employability and employment. The mismatch between what is taught and what employers need continues to bother both sides. Apprenticeships are the lowest-hanging fruit in skill reform because they bridge this gap with practical experience, have a higher expansion rate than classrooms and supercharge a fresher’s resume.
India can rapidly raise the number of apprentices to 10 million by changing the regulatory thought-world of treating an apprenticeship as a classroom rather than a job. Specific interventions to amend the Apprenticeship Act of 1961, empowering and resourcing the 29 sector skill councils of the National Skill Development Corporation and converting employment exchanges — 1,200 of which only gave four lakh jobs to the four crore registered last year — to career centres that offer counselling, assessments, apprenticeships, training and jobs are required.
Second, the intersection of college education and employability. Ending the apartheid between vocational training and college education needs moving away from infrastructure-obsessed college regulatory norms (confusing university buildings with building universities), being agnostic to delivery (same credit for classroom, distance and online), and creating a qualification corridor (mobility between certificates, diplomas, associate degrees and full degrees with multiple on and off ramps).
Specific interventions include scaling up the National Skill Qualification Framework, deregulating distance education because the social signalling of a degree matters and domestic MOOCs aren’t legal, even though overseas ones are available, giving academic credit for apprenticeships and creating a higher education regulatory regime that focuses on hard-to-measure outcomes rather than easy-to-measure inputs.
Third, the intersection of school education and employability. The last 10 years have taught us that we can’t teach kids in six months what they should have learnt in 12 years and the most important employability skills are life-skills (curious, confident, communicator, courageous, risk-taker and team player). We should not vocationalise school education because the world of work is changing fast and strong foundations are crucial. Specific interventions should be ensuring that life-skills are deeply embedded in the school curriculum and tweaking the Right to Education Act for learning outcomes rather than inputs, which would stop the shameful shutting down of low-cost private schools.
Fourth, the intersection of financing and delivery. There is a financing failure in skills. Employers are not willing to pay for training or candidates but are willing to pay for trained candidates; candidates are not willing to pay for training but for a job; and banks are not willing to lend to candidates unless a job is guaranteed. We need to create a market for vocational loans, expand apprenticeships, develop contracting skills in state and Central government for using public money for private delivery without corruption and divert money from schemes like NREGS to skill development.
Fifth, the intersection of Central and state governments. Splitting policy formulation and execution between Central and state governments mean that they are alibis for each other. It is better to provide untied funds to state governments to devise their own schemes. We also need to make labour laws a state subject because skill development will not scale unless we expand private formal non-farm wage employment to much beyond 5 per cent of total employment. And this needs changing labour laws and a benefits regime that confiscates 50 per cent of the salary.
More has been done in skills in the last 10 years than the 20 years before that. But to paraphrase Samuel Huntington, the gap between our goals and our reality is not a lie; it’s a disappointment. And it is only a disappointment because our goals — and challenges — are massive. But bold and decisive policy action will make our demographic dividend real.
The writer is chairman, Teamlease Services