Bringing skills and education closer

22 Jul 2021

Opinion: K P Krishnan

The placement of these two ministries with one minister is the first step towards improving the employability of India’s workforce in a pandemic.

Skill development is a multi-dimensional problem. One dimension relates to “employer connect” that is essential for productive employment opportunities for the skilled persons. Another dimension is “entrepreneurship” or self-employment which is becoming increasingly important with the rise of the “gig” economy. Yesterday’s vehicle hiring company’s employees are today’s self-employed Uber/Ola drivers. Platforms like these have converted erstwhile salaried employees to “self-employed entrepreneurs”. This role calls for a whole set of additional skills and competencies beyond driving. The third dimension relates to the link between skilling and education. This piece will focus on the optimal integration of skilling and basic education. 

The ultimate purpose of education is not only employment and employability but something far more lofty. However it is generally agreed that access to early holistic and life-long skilling and learning opportunities are crucial to improving employability entrepreneurship and workforce adaptability for our youth. Ideally general education should mean attainment of an integrated set of foundational and transferable skills.

Foundational skills are basic cognitive skills such as numeracy literacy and problem solving that form the base for learning other skills while transferable skills are social communication and behavioural skills that help navigate the work environment. Increasingly it is evident from various studies that these skills have a strong impact on labour market outcomes including wages productivity and adaptability to the changing work environment. These skills are also delivered more effectively in the general academic system. Hence there is a strong argument for developing a holistic skill focus that is not only limited to vocational education. Vocational education especially up to Grade 12 is as much about vocational education as about “applied learning”. It should therefore be viewed not only from an employment or livelihood perspective but as a medium to learning. 

Imparting holistic skills can help make school-to-work-transition smoother. Recognising and imparting technical skills can make education more attuned to market and employer demand. In addition integration of education and skilling pathways can ensure that learners who enter the workforce with limited school education receive training that is crucial to succeeding in the labour market. Out-of-school youth can find flexible opportunities to receive formal skilling and upskilling typically limited once they enter the workforce. Over 70 per cent of India’s workforce is concentrated in firms with less than 20 employees. Studies carried out in 2016 as part of an Asian Development Bank report suggest that micro-firms are 72 per cent less likely to train their workers. 

Similarly while 80 per cent of India’s workforce is employed in informal firms only 3 per cent workers are formally trained. With increased contractualisation of labour the incentives for formal firms to train workers is declining even more. In such a situation the primary and foremost opportunity to skill young people is when they are still a part of the educational system. As they step into a widely informal subsistence-led and disaggregated workforce it becomes much harder to reach and train them. Integrating education with skilling is therefore the easiest path forward. 

The relative disconnect between academic and vocational education today has dual consequences: High unemployability among educated youth due to the absence of “practical” skills and a lack of resilience among vocational skill trainees due to the absence of a broad range of foundational skills that are crucial for meaningful participation in work and life. 

Some efforts have been made in this direction already. However a lot more needs to be done. What is the way forward and why is now the right time to bring education and skills development closer together?

Though any time is a good time to undertake this reform the challenges (and opportunities) posed by the Covid-19 crisis make it the right time to bring formal education and vocational education and training closer together. The pandemic has had an enormous impact on the education sector (leading to learning losses increase in school dropouts). The poorest and most vulnerable children lost out as site of learning shifted from the classroom to online platforms. We are now faced with resolving the pre-existing challenges of improving learning outcomes and enhancing the quality of education and are trying to urgently address a range of new challenges pertaining to ensuring retention reducing the number of out-of-school children and trying to create new learning pathways and bridge programmes to enable those who had to drop out of formal education to “catch-up” and continue learning. Integrating vocational education and training with formal education will play a crucial role in helping students cope with these diverse challenges — and building resilient education systems for the future. 

In addition the pandemic has also rapidly altered the nature of work. As workplaces increasingly shift to a hybrid mode of functioning — new kinds of job roles have emerged and a number of jobs have become redundant. New kinds of skills have become more valuable. For example digital skills which were considered transferable skills or soft skills until recently have now become a core foundational skill — as important as literacy or numeracy. As workplaces are rapidly changing a key skill needed for the future is the ability to “learn to learn” and “adapt” to new modes of working. Strong foundational skills are necessary to ensure that workers are adaptive to change — making it vital to have strong pathways between formal and vocational education systems.

At a conceptual level this involves principally two crucial changes. First mandate holistic skills provision across ITIs schools and colleges. Second develop a common vocational skills curriculum and adopt a credit framework that helps improve mobility between skilling and general education.

The Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship was created in November 2014 with a lot of expectations. Overall skilling outcomes have not yet met these expectations. The ministry has successfully consolidated skilling initiatives of the Government of India into a common framework. However “skilling” continues to be a poor cousin of “education”. Hopefully the recent decision to place these two crucial ministries under the charge of one cabinet minister is the first step in this long overdue integration which is necessary for better outcomes. 

The writer retired as a secretary to GoI and is now a professor at the National Council of Applied Economic Research. Views are personal