Bridging the skills gap

Hands-on training

India possesses the third largest higher education system in the world through its 760 universities. While the global ranking of Indian institutions has been recently improving, industrial organisations are regularly echoing that our university degree-holders require an intensive priming of their skills before taking up a job. The skill acquisition is immediately needed in many technically advanced areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through rigorous hands-on training for job delivery.

The widening of the gap between academic training and industrial requirements might be the result of lack of sufficient basic and advanced infrastructure, limited availability of quality faculty, faculty workload, unsynchronised faculty promotion policy, self-sponsored courses and the demand-supply ratio, lack of student interest due to limited exposure.

The various schemes/programmes, except the recently launched ‘SHREYAS’ scheme of MHRD, lack the scale to produce quality manpower. Further, providing training support mostly at higher education level might be too late to inculcate desirable skills.

The consistent non-availability of skilled manpower forced several industries either to start their own endeavours for training the hired employees, such as the Infosys and Biocon academies, or hiring the already trained employees with the highest educational degrees at lower levels. The daunting question for the government is how to move forward, considering the existing financial constraints and fabric of the educational institutions. To drive the skill and knowledge-based economy, the re-orientation and realignment of the limited available resources might be helpful in bridging the skill gap.

In India, there is a clear isolation in functioning of R&D institutions and universities. Firstly, these institutions can be bridged through establishing ‘training hubs’ for imparting intensive training to students in fundamental techniques/procedures/soft skills. For immediate gain, the training hubs can be supported with adequate recurring grant for a limited duration. Just like Shiksha Mitra at school level, the hubs can employ highly qualified manpower trained abroad for several years, but still unemployed, as well as superannuated faculties/scientists/professionals.

The ‘Margdarshak’ scheme of MHRD is noteworthy in this direction. The training hubs must provide intensive hands-on training to each student rather than mere demonstration of techniques/procedures/skills. The selection criteria must be based on a student’s training interest and industrial demands. Such an initiative must have an in-built system of independent monitoring of the quality of the trainer as well as trained youth and provision for continuous change in the curriculum as per the needs of the industries.

The training quality of the hubs may be judged on long-term recruitment outcomes. Industry can conduct its own exam at its own expense to select the skilled manpower. To reduce burden on the government, these initiatives may be initiated on payment basis, with limited number of trainees to encourage the seriousness of the training programme. This approach will also fill the void existing between the unfilled vacancies and availability of highly trained unemployed personnel.

The existing skill gap indicates that the course curricula of our institutions is not up to date and also not providing enough opportunity to learn. In general, the provision for student training in the final year of their course is taken less seriously by the students as they are often looking forward to quickly landing a job. Therefore, it is relevant to insert a mandatory training component in professional courses at mid-term and towards course completion. During training period, the students must be given flexibility to try out their own ideas. The government has already made headway in this direction through the Tinkering Labs and the Atal Innovation Mission. However, in the long-term, the combination of the training centres with well-coordinated course curricula might lead to the establishment of vocational colleges.

Lack of infrastructure

Many Indian institutions have basic infrastructure issues, which are further compounded by lack of a support system for its maintenance. The huge investment required to establish basic infrastructure is a big challenge, especially when the government’s allocation is comparatively insufficient. Thirdly, it would be empirical to link the capital-intensive infrastructural resources such as technology parks, innovation centres and incubators established by the government departments to training.

The associated danger is that the raw hands can spoil them, which can be mitigated by mobilising the selected manpower after their training at institution level. All in all, these resources should not be overburdened with training component as the main objective of establishing them is to nurture the industrial ecosystem. In this way, the duplication of establishing expensive infrastructure at institution level can be avoided.

Simultaneously, corporate social responsibility may be brought in to improve institutional infrastructure. For instance, the Telecom Centres of Excellence (TCoEs) established in the IITs are a joint venture between the Government of India, major telecom operators and the premier technical and management institutes of India. The telecom operators provide 90% of the funding to TCoEs.

Fourthly, the extramural project grants provided to various institutions can be extended only for mass training of manpower, instead of providing minuscule number of annual fellowships/stipends. Such projects must be developed in consultation with the industry or by involving the industry as one of the major sponsors through corporate social responsibility.

A five-year support on term basis can significantly transform the unskilled to skilled youth and enhance their capacity and capability in the changing Indian job market. Such initiatives must be of fixed duration. Otherwise, the institutions will lose their track. This step will be useful for boosting the skills of the youth who have negligible access to basic infrastructure, especially in state-owned university/college set-up.

(The writer is a scientist with the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, New Delhi)

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