The number of references to skill development in the government lexicon has soared over the years. With each budget presented by the UPA government, the number of initiatives to skill India has gone up. Starting with allocation of funds for reviving Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) and polytechnics and upgrading the Regional Engineering Colleges to IITs to setting up a National Skills Development Corporation two years ago, skill development has become a priority like never before.
The appointment of former TCS chief S. Ramdorai as the advisor to the prime minister on skill development last week is a clear indication that the government wants to leave no stone unturned to skill 500 million Indians by 2022. The objective of training two out of every five Indians is timely and commendable.
The government's ambitious target of imparting skills to 500 million Indians, as a first step, only tries to quantify the task and points to the fact that it will engage with the private sector to achieve the target. While the task of making this a public-private partnership is huge, bigger challenges will surface when the range of skills to be imparted and employability of this skilled workforce is addressed.
While skill training in general covers a range of hard core skills deployed in manufacturing and technical areas, the role of the services sector that fuels nearly 65 percent of the Indian economy is central to any plan to impart skills in India. We also need to pepper the workforce with a variety of soft skills that can bring bigger benefits to the Indian economy. The services sector will also need added dimension of customer care, on time performance and zero service default levels, to be more globally competent.
While it is a moot point that the government's main purpose is to enhance employability, it is imperative that it also prepares them to perform the job efficiently, predictably and up to international standards.
Employability must also prepare Indians to have skills for jobs that are closer to their place of residence to avoid the strains of mobility on the already stretched urban infrastructure. The government must make it abundantly clear, while offering opportunities to Indians to achieve skills, that the task of finding jobs will be their own. In fact, adding this newly skillful talent to the existing entrepreneurial system would help to create employment opportunities for their community.
Before India embarks on this big skill imparting programme through ITIs, polytechnics and the host of specialized institutes set up in partnership with a host of private institutions, it must sit back and reflect as to why did the ITIs, polytechnics and engineering schools set up in the 1950s and 60s fail to live up to their promise? Why did the ITIs and polytechnics degenerate at such a rapid pace? The rate of change of curriculum and adaption to the changing needs would bring dynamism to this programme. Use of instructional design and technology would make replication easier as well as make the entire process far more scalable.
Are skills alone the panacea for all ills? The answer lies in checking around one's home and work environment. Does the best plumber and electrician in your neighbourhood live up to his time commitment? Can the ATM from the best bank promise to deliver cash at all times? Does your radio taxi driver carry a map to guide you to your destination in the city? There are good chances that the answer to all the three questions is a No.
So, along with imparting skills to the workforce the right attitude to ensure high level of customer orientation that transcends the typical 'Chalta Hai' Indian attitude needs to be imbibed. Any certification for skills must also add the service orientation dimension. The industry body CII has done enough work to engage its members with the academia, skill developers as well as industry that needs to permeate to the smallest village.
Such a mass government engagement with the private sector needs to be handled with care on two counts. Firstly, the output of these "skilling" institutes is Indians looking to be productive and gainfully employed. The government will be dealing with the aspirations of Indians and so 'poorly-skilled' and 'ill-equipped' output could cost the nation as we are not dealing with parts that can be scrapped, machined or re-tooled.
Secondly, the government's performance in the infrastructure sector, especially in the PPP mode, has been less than satisfactory. Speaking at Davos last month, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram said that only 50 percent of the money contracted for roads is ever used for the purpose and went on to describe it as the "biggest swindle" in the country.
We hope that Mr. Ramadorai and those dealing with National Skill Development Programmes will bring in a work ethic that has a heavy bias for action, results and zero transmission loss of men, money and material. Only then will we be able to call the skill development programme as the new mantra for 'roti, kapda and makaan' (food, clothing and shelter) for 500 million Indians.