Bridging the skill gap: India's urban workforce

Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, speaking during India's 66th independence day, admitted that the government has not done enough on skill building for India's youth and announced the setting up of a national skill development agency (NSDA).

Vocational programs can present a tremendous opportunity to invest in specialized skill upgrading of the urban sector workforce (informal sector workforce and entrepreneurs). Unfortunately, the track record of government schemes on skills improvement and effectiveness of vocational trainings has been poor. There are many example of constructed infrastructure to train personnel that lies defunct. One such is a 700-person facility constructed in Noida with support from the Construction Industry Development Council (CIDC) to train masons that lies unutilized.

A few months ago I shared a taxi to a conference in Bhubneshwar (Orissa) with an ex-Ministry of Labour official. He recounted that subscriptions in trainings of construction industry were the lowest because they were not thought to be 'respectful jobs' such as those in IT or hospitality. Interestingly, one of the main attractions for subscribing to a diploma or training course is that it adds to the profile for finding a suitable match for marriage! There have been some interesting observations on different trades. A much-recommended non-patronizing account is a reading of the A Free Man — a true narrative of three casual labourers in Delhi by author Aman Sethi, a journalist with The Hindu.

Clearly any agency involved in training would need to bring a creative outlook and innovation in understanding the informal sector workforce and their motivation to get trained and possibly pay for the 'education'. There are social enterprises that are investing significantly in understanding the medium and delivery as much as the content. Some great examples come from agencies finding innovative ways to train the target segments. Digital Green has enhanced the impact of training farmers through videos and incentivizing them to watch movies by paying a nominal fee. SAATH, an NGO in Ahmedabad, is working to develop training programs for the urban workforce (masons, carpenters, plumbers, etc.), targeting those interested in after-work sessions (mHS is collaborating to design short training modules). Identifying the segment in our case was key. It was targeted at skilled laborers and masons learning new technology or discussing issues with new materials introduced in the market.

Nevertheless there is so much more that can be done to make learning and discussion more engaging. Integrating technology to upgrade skills at their own pace, to learn while playing games and quizzes would be another such opportunity.

Government schemes and efforts of private-public partnership in this area are positive measures. It would be a waste on the part of the government to launch another mission on national skill building without some reflection and a creative understanding on how to bridge the skills-gap at scale.

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