India's big fat skills problem aggravated by class, caste mindset

Summary:The country needs to work furiously to ensure that its younger generations are employable in the next decade, as signs show a worsening skills shortage.

Anyone who has lived in India and tried to hire a plumber (or a carpenter, or a mason, or an electrician, or a ... the list just goes on) knows how bad the skills shortage is in this country. Yes, we may have a Vikram Pandit, an Indira Nooyi, and an Anshu Jain on the global corporate stage, along with thousands of millionaire entrepreneurs managers, bankers, and consultants, giving us Indians a healthy gloss in those departments. But it's just a veneer that hides the rot beneath in their home country.

Here's why: More than 1 million people from professional colleges join the labor force every year in a country that turns out more than 4 million graduates annually, including more than 600,000 engineering graduates.

Approximately 12.8 million people will join the job market every year in the coming decade, according to the National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC), a public-private partnership that is responsible for tackling the skills gap in India through funding and orchestrating private skilling programs. A majority of them will not have any worthwhile skills to speak of.

This is a giant headache for ambitious government initiatives such as the National Electronics Policy, which wants to create an ecosystem for electronics manufacturing in India. The need is undoubtedly great. As HCL founder Ajai Chowdhry is fond of pointing out, India's electronics consumption (all imported) will, in a decade and a half or so, equal its oil import bill. But with the appalling current skill levels of young Indians, these kinds of programs will remain an elusive dream.

A few days ago, the India Skills Report 2014 was released, which had a mix of news for both prospective employees and employers. The report, compiled by human resource company PeopleStrong and skill assessment firm Wheebox for the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), stated that the country's employment outlook in the year ahead remains bleak.

While sectors such as engineering, hospitality, and travel expect an increase in hiring, those like banking, financial services, insurance, information technology (IT) and IT-enabled services, and manufacturing are not expecting any bumps in recruitment. This isn't surprising, considering this is the weakest growth the country has shown in a decade, forcing companies to cut back on investment and expansion.

There is some good news, if you can call it that: The study found that one in three joining the labor force is employable — an improvement, considering that a previous study conducted by the IT industry lobby group Nasscom found that only one in four was employable. According to the report, the sectors that had the most job-ready people were pharmaceuticals (54 percent) and engineering (51 percent). "The condition of [employee] pools for rest of the domains [like] arts, commerce, and polytechnics was grave, as in these domains, not even one third of test takers could cross the benchmark levels," the report said.

However, the prospect of skilling two thirds of our work force every year remains a gargantuan one. It is even more complex when you consider the coordination between the private skill development organizations and 17 ministries, each offering a plethora of programs.

According to this article, these 17 ministries, which have a target of training around 350 million by 2022, are woefully behind schedule. Against a target of skilling 8.5 million people in 2012-13, only 1.4 million were trained by various ministries and NSDC by mid November.

I'm sure economists, anthropologists, and psychologists can cobble together a pretty good picture of why we as a country suck in skills. My two cents: A caste system that has exploited millions to do our dirty work for hundreds of years; a class system that frowns upon doing anything ourselves — I challenge you to find Indians repairing their own toilets or tiling their own floors; and all the cheap labor that abounds that negates any economic incentive to do any work oneself.

In other words, we are not a nation of doers, but we excel at delegating. Not a good work ethic for a country that wants to become the next China.

Topics: IT Employment, India, Tech Industry

About

Rajiv is a journalist and filmmaker based out of New Delhi who is interested in how new technologies, innovation, and disruptive business forces are shaking things up in India. He was most recently a features editor at Business Standard newspaper, and started his career as a reporter with Fortune Magazine in New York in the '90s. He a... Full Bio

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