The missing link in the job debate
The world has been going through a digital revolution. Starting in the early 1970s, digital technology has invaded all aspects of human life. From communication to finance to manufacturing to social interaction, the use of digital technology is ubiquitous. The adoption of digital technology has improved labour productivity and made life easier. Despite these visible gains, the ongoing digital revolution is being perceived as a major challenge for labour and has ignited a passionate debate on the future of jobs worldwide. India too has been witnessing an intense debate on jobs over the last few years and with general elections approaching, the debate has become more heated. Yet, the jobs debate in India has been lopsided, with the focus being exclusively on the number of jobs generated, with no consideration given to the changing nature of jobs. It is now widely documented that the ongoing technological progress has been steadily redefining labour/skill demand by de-routinising jobs. Evidence shows that the uses of computer-enabled machines has reduced labour demand for routine tasks while simultaneously increasing demand for non-routine tasks. These changes have serious implications for skilling and re-skilling labour.
Combining the O-Net and the National Sample Survey Office Employment Unemployment Survey data, we examine the changing nature of jobs in India by calculating the five main task content measures – non-routine cognitive analytical (NRCA), non-routine cognitive interactive (NCRI), routine cognitive (RC), routine manual (RM), and non-routine manual (NRM).
The results show that India, by and large, has been following the global trend as non-routine cognitive task intensity of jobs have increased. In contrast, manual task content, both routine as well as non-routine, has declined sharply. Our results further show that RC task intensity of Indian jobs has not declined. In fact, the RC task intensity of Indian jobs has increased between 1983-84 and 2011-12. However, most of the observed increase in RC task intensity took place before 1998-99. Since 1998-99, the RC task intensity has mostly been constant. A sectoral analysis suggests that RC task content has been surviving because of the services and agriculture sectors, both of which have witnessed an increase in RC task intensity. However, there has been a complete de-routinisation of jobs in the manufacturing sector after 1998. It perhaps shows that the Indian manufacturing sector has gone for rapid automation since 1998 when 100% foreign direct investment was allowed in most manufacturing industries.
Figure 1. Trends in task content of jobs in India
The changing task content of jobs in India has significant implications for education and skilling. While the demand for cognitive skills has increased, the supply of these skills seems to be lagging behind. The latest Talent Shortage Survey corroborates this and shows that 56% of employers in India face difficulties in filling job vacancies due to skill and talent shortage. If not addressed urgently, skill shortage can be fatal for economic growth.
The government of India has realised the growing role of skills and therefore has started an ambitious skilling programme under the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY). With this scheme, it aims to provide soft skills and other industry-relevant skills to 10 million young people. The government has also notified the National Apprenticeship Promotion Scheme to provide apprenticeship training to 5 million young by 2019-20. Although these are steps in the right direction, they are not directed towards cognitive skills formation and hence, cannot be a substitute for good-quality formal education.
The government had to introduce the short-term skilling programme because the formal education system in India has failed at all levels. Employers in India frequently argue that young people, even with graduate degrees, are not employable. Since the demand for cognitive skills is expected to increase further in the years to come, the government should focus more on the quality of education, particularly schooling, to address the issue of growing skill shortages. Focus on school education is also required to avoid the adverse distributional consequences of technology inducing changes in the task content of jobs. India has a very inefficient and dualistic education system. It has some very good private schools where the quality of education is comparable to global standards. However, access to these schools is primarily restricted to the economically well-off section of society. In contrast, a large section of Indian society still relies on government schools for the education of their children.
It is widely documented that government-run schools are in disarray and fail miserably to impart basic reading and computational skills to their students. A recent survey by the Delhi government’s Directorate of Education shows that 74% of grade 6 students in Delhi government-run schools cannot read a paragraph in Hindi, the native language, while 67% of students cannot perform simple 3 digits by one digit division. Given this stark difference in the quality of education between government and private schools, the changing nature of jobs can further exacerbate the existing economic inequality. India faces an urgent need to fix government-run schools.
(A longer version of this article is available on ideasforindia.in)
Pankaj Vashisht is a senior fellow at ICRIER and Jay Dev Dubey is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University