Hard pressed for soft skills

VOCATIONAL TRAINING

India’s ambitious growth forecasts and aspiration of emerging as one of the world’s top three economies by 2030 is partly based on what is commonly called the ‘demographic dividend’. We are a young country with over 700 million people under the age of 35.

The average age in India is 26 years, compared with China (34 years) and Europe, America or Japan (40-45 years). We expect this ‘dividend’ to translate into higher growth via improved output, production and consumption. While the sheer numerical base provides India a unique advantage, it belies the fact that in quantitative as well as qualitative terms, a significant portion of this youth population is not industry-ready.

What does being ‘industry-ready’ mean? The repertoire of skills that entry-level employees need to bring to the workplace fall into two categories: technical skills and soft skills. Technical skills are industry and job-specific, while soft skills are generic and wide-based. While technical skills are an absolute minimum requirement to do a job, soft skills are essential to grow in the job. Soft skills are those that are crucial to an employee’s ability to work smarter, work with people and be more ‘effective’ rather than just ‘efficient’.

The scenario on the quantitative front is not very encouraging: according to the Modular Employment Skills (MES) initiative by the Directorate General of Employment and Training, (DGET) only about 2.5 million vocational training seats are available in the country, whereas about 12.8 million people enter the labour market every year. The large gap is partly due to the lack of high-quality Vocational Education Training (VET) institutions. However, there is also another reason; the student population does not perceive VET as an option that gets them what they aspire for. 

The good news is that vocational education is making its way on to the radar of the various influential bodies that have the power to generate change. For instance, the Prime Minister’s National Council on Skill Development has been established with a target of creating 500 million skilled people by 2022. There is growing engagement by the World Bank, the Human Resource Development Ministry, industry organisations like the FICCI and CII and various consultants who recognise the importance of a skilled and employable youth population.

There is a drive to modernise government-run vocational training institutes like the Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) in collaboration with the private sector, and bodies like the National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC) set up by the government are some of the specific measures being undertaken to address the massive demand-supply gap for trained personnel.

However, vocational training in India, apart from being ill-equipped to meet the demand gap, is characterised by structurally rigid and outdated centralised syllabi that do not have much sync with the prevailing market conditions. There are close to 7000 ITIs, where training is imparted in 128 trades.

The period of training varies from six months to three years, while the entry qualifications are academic and vary from those who have passed Class 8 to 12. These institutions are widely perceived — both by students and the industry — as being ineffective and out of touch with industry needs. Of the 128 trades they teach, many such as turners, machinists and grinders have been rendered obsolete by technological advances. The curriculum for several of the others, such as several engineering trades, have not been revised in several decades.

This has led to a mass-churn of graduates who are not needed by the industry and are not equipped with the basic technical know-how of their trade and as a result are becoming a part of India’s vast unemployment pool. At the same time, the government is encouraging private sector participation in the form of Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPs). However, due to the lack of a transparent and intuitive accreditation system, a multitude of unaccredited institutions have sprung up in places, and a lack of any formal accreditation makes accountability and quality control impossible.

On the qualitative front, despite the reasonably strong foundation of higher / technical education, industry has growing concerns about the existing available talent pool being unsuitable for employment due to critical skill gaps, especially in the soft skills area. In the face of international competitiveness, industry expects the new workforce to come to the workplace equipped with a range of skills that keep them abreast with the latest developments.

A survey of employers has revealed that some of the skills essential for entry-level employees include articulation, competence in reading, writing, effective listening and oral communication, adaptability to a cross cultural environment, creative thinking and problem solving, assertiveness, initiative, interpersonal skills and the ability to work in teams.

Most higher education institutions in India focus on building technical skills, while soft skills are largely neglected. 

A section of Indian industry has woken up to the fact that industry-preparedness cannot be left to academic institutions alone and that they need to play a pro-active role in preparing new recruits to hit the ground running. The Indian IT industry serves as a good example. It recognises the need for Indian companies to evolve from low-end service providers and move up the value chain to advisors and innovators in order to compete with a growing IT work force from across the world.

While islands of excellence make a difference, the larger question is how do we bridge the gap between the ideal recruit and the graduate entering the workplace? Adopting pro-active measures in the right areas and re-defining curriculum will help narrow the gap and build the right K-S-A attributes in students. Creating a balance involves inculcating the following K-S-A’s in students:

*Experiential learning – where students are exposed to different real-life situations and workplace issues, experience and understand the nuances and apply them to solve real problems.
*Self-learning abilities with the skills to assimilate and analyse information from various sources
*Life-long learning to remain abreast of changes in technology
*Courage to move beyond their comfort zone and independently delve into the unknown
*Pro-active thinking and probing
*Work ethics and soft skills like good communication skills and team work
*The ability to assume leadership at every level
*Drive and creativity in problem solving

The writer is Regional Director (Indian sub-continent) for Edexcel International

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