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Celebrating hope in our classrooms

By Ajay Kela

Aadesh Kumar, from Mawana town in Uttar Pradesh, had to discontinue his studies after Class XII because of limited family financials. Aadesh soon realised that his high school degree ill-equipped him to find a job in the organised sector. He did not let this hurdle stop him from realising his dreams. He enrolled himself for a vocational training course that equipped students with skills to find a job in the ITeS sector. This not only helped him learn computer basics but the programme did wonders to his personality and landed him a job. Today he works at DTDC in Noida as an executive trainee (operations) and earns R5,500 per month plus incentives. His parents are proud of him and this has also made him confident and independent.

There are several million Aadeshs across India and, fortunately with a booming Indian economy, many million entry and mid-skill job opportunities. Opportunities are not just limited to IT and ITeS but are mushrooming across all industries with FMCG, healthcare, construction and hospitality, retail, education, banking, media and entertainment leading the pack. These industries not only need professionally-trained plumbers and welders but also customer service assistants, banking sales agents, paralegals, paramedics and other white-collared employees. Whats missing is a large-scale programme across industries and geographies to fill the gap that exists between skills possessed by our secondary and post-secondary graduates and those needed by the industry.

While India has thousands of universities that prepare high-skilled knowledge workers at the bachelors, masters and PhD levels, India desperately lags behind in producing expert middle-skilled workers much larger need of the industry today. On the supply side, according to a 2010 study by the ministry of human resource development (MHRD), every year over 7 million students pass out of standard XII but only 2.5 million students join degree courses, leaving behind a whopping 4.5 million students who stop their formal education after high school, with virtually zero employable skills. MHRD and Planning Commission data shows that the percentage of Indian students who pursue vocational education through ITIs and polytechnics to enhance their technical skills is a meagre 4.8% as compared to 60% of German young men pursuing trade schools after high school and 46% of American high-school graduates joining job-linked community colleges. Industry-linked, competency-based vocational education to meet the high demand of mid-skills workers that our booming economy is demanding is a critical need for this country.

Many leading companies have taken up the onus to provide vocational training to address the skill gap for their own needs and to some extend the need of the industry. Maruti Suzuki has undertaken a mission to upgrade several ITIs into centres of excellence to provide employability and creation of skilled manpower. It works closely with ITIs in providing in-house training to their students, co-creating curriculum and enabling the trained personnel to find the right jobs. Narayana Hrudayalaya, one of the largest healthcare players in India, is adopting similar programmes to get skilled paramedics and nursing assistants. ICICI Bank has similar initiatives for entry level jobs in the banks. While each of these demonstrates a workable solution, this is inefficient and not scalable and is a lose-lose proposition. These companies are not in the business of creating a parallel university and the student is not eager to go through another schooling programme after graduation.

At the industry-wide level, some nice examples are emerging. The airline industry has led the way where they now primarily employ professionally-trained 12th graders to host and serve their passengers through their own established institutes. Even the $16 billion Indian BPO industry is realising the value of training a 12th grader rather the committing the current BHUL of buying high (college graduates) and utilising low, thus bearing higher costs and even higher attrition rates and limiting the market opportunity they can address.

While there are small pockets of success, we need programmes that not only cater to the few hundred or even a few thousand but to a few million. To effectively scale at this level, it is imperative that we start skilling early and integrate skilling with the school and college education, thus leveraging the existing infrastructure rather than a separate institutional programme that students need to pursue after exiting the academic system. Our state and central governments have started to play an active role. The central government recently introduced the National Vocational Education Qualification Framework (NVEQF) which creates and recognises a parallel education stream emphasising skill-based learning and recognition at all levels including school, college and beyond. This system also offers credits and portability to university education.

The government with the help of industry is running pilot projects in Haryana with 40 schools, 5,000 students targeting employment in four key industry sectors. The initial success of this pilot has led to many other states starting to replicate the Haryana model. The central government has also announced a scheme to fund the pilot of 200 community colleges imparting jobs-oriented courses to 12th grade graduates starting from the 2013 academic year.

Large-scale success for such a programme will depend on affordability and accessibility to the masses and the ability of the industry to absorb talent at scale. With a booming Indian economy and globalisation, and careful selection of targeted training, the latter will not be as much of an issue but the former still needs work.

Wadhwani Foundation is playing a key role in this area. The premise of the foundations efforts is to connect education to employment and think in terms of programmes that cater to millions. While working closely with the industry and government it is assisting public and private institutions offer a world-class vocational education programme tightly coupled with the needs of the industry and with the ultimate goal of creating annual capacity for millions of students to be enrolled in these programmes. The foundations initiative focuses on implementation support services to jumpstart institutes and provide industry-led competency-based curriculum across a variety of industry and jobs levels. Capacity development through faculty and administrative staff training is leveraged through their years of experience in handling similar programmes with their college-based entrepreneurship initiative that works across 600 colleges in the country. To enable rapid scaling and accelerate learning, the foundation is pioneering a multimedia-based learner-centric, technology-enabled content platform that will bring skill and knowledge courses right in the hands of the beneficiary through the use of smartphones and tablets. The academia will also see their roles change from being teachers to becoming facilitators, thus reducing the need for large-scale training of teachers to support the capacity for millions of students. Research-based policies are suggested to the government to ensure that the framework is sustainable, provides appropriate incentives to all key stakeholders (employers, providers and students), thus driving an active and intense engagement among the stakeholders.

Although the government and industry are taking the right first steps, the journey has just begun and we need to demonstrate initial success and sustain the momentum to reap rewards. It is important that all stakeholders are passionately engaged towards establishing a working model through pilots, validate best practices in technology-driven self-learning systems and then support rapid scaling. This can happen through careful selection of targets and incentives.

Such a scaled programme could do wonders to our people, our companies, our economy and to our social fabric. Post-secondary dropouts would stem controlling social issues, employment-ready graduates would boost employment and productivity and availability of skilled workers at scale would propel the nation to be a global provider of mid-skill manpower in a rapidly expanding globalised economy. A small step of aligning and tightly connecting our education to jobs could lead to a giant leap for this country both at the national and international levels.

Source: Financial Express

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