Skills development for employment and growth is on the front burner with a million new people to be trained and employed each month in India. The rise of this trained workforce is critical to India’s growth story — else who will power the engine? Without this soft infrastructure all investments in hard infrastructure are futile. And yet the skills story remains stuck. There are gaps in the skills story that are still not bridged while others are slow in their progress. Some others are at a standstill, for nobody will own them. There is demand and supply, and yet the conversion to higher value addition is lagging. What stands in the way?
First, accreditation. Who certifies that the skills that trainers provide are adequate and transferable across the industry? Certification must (i) be mobile, and (ii) provide an income boost. The accrediting body assures the employer of the value of that certificate. The accreditation bodies hold trainers to account via inspections, improvements and programmes that ensure that the training and, therefore, the certificates are valuable in the market. India’s progress on this front has been slow. Where sector skills councils will become accreditors, there is a pathway though benefits are barely beginning to be visible. Till the accreditation network is in place, operational and credible, few skills certificates have a market.
Second, prior learning certification. Most vocational workers have learnt their skills on the job and are often very experienced. They do not need to retrain themselves for months on end to be able to perform to their standard. Across sectors, there is no universal mechanism that certifies the level of their skills within learning frameworks. Certifying learning with credible level markings creates a market for higher-order skills. Experienced workers will not hop on to the skills bandwagon if you equate them with young starters. Give them credit for what they know, help them upgrade.
Third, assessments. The lack of trust in assessments has undermined many certification processes. If employers do not believe that the assessment process was honest and the declared results are valid and reliable, they will not be willing to pay a wage premium. For example, the skills certification for driving licences in India has suffered because few believe it to be a credible test of skill. The distortion has made it a document that is not even accepted by the issuing authority as proof of identity, let alone skill. Without honesty within the process, it collapses.
Fourth, apprenticeships. This is an education programme that is trapped under the history of trade union negotiations with the labour ministry. The legal binds on hiring apprentices have made it all but unviable. No employer would want to enter this minefield though this is the right operational model to revive the skilling sector. Many industries ‘train’ their future employees and then offer them jobs. Much energy is expended working the legal hassles that have suffocated an excellent model for the revival of skills in large and small industries. The apprenticeship model has revived growth in moribund economies and is an excellent scaleable device.
Fifth, and the most important, financing. Often workers are unable or unwilling to pay for training that may not guarantee them a wage premium or even a job. Employers see no reason to invest in people who may leave straight after being trained. An underwriting agency is required along with a repayment plan that aligns with earnings of the trainee. The Australian model deducts repayments from salary in proportion to income. Those who earn more can repay faster. And honest repayments will sustain it for future generations.
While removing these speed breakers to skilling requires institutional interventions, it is critical to align the existing workforce with the training community to ensure steady growth even as they wait for regulations to settle down.
Meeta Sengupta is a writer, speaker and advisor in education and skills and designs institutional interventions
The views expressed by the author are personal