‘Skill Development is not aspirational’

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The opportunity in the skills space is huge and there is a lot that is required and at a much faster pace to keep India’s demographic dividend from turning into a demographic disaster, says Kamini Prasad, COO, Centum Learning. Excerpts from an interaction with Parimal Peeyush of ENN

Kamini PrasadHaving carried out skill development activities in several countries, how do you gauge your experience in India?
My first reaction is that it has been mixed. And it has been mix of a whole lot of things. One is that the skill industry is still in its formative stage. I am sure you have heard that it is not aspirational to be in skills and there is a lot of social stigma attached to it, which is why people are not coming forward to do skill programmes. The government needs to come up with a lot of schemes and incentives to get people on to the skilling boat. It is an environment where things are developing at the moment. Where on one hand, we need to have the parents convinced about the opportunities, credibility or the benefits of the skilling programme and on the other, we need to have candidates aspiring for such programmes. Then you have the industry that needs to recruit these people coming out of the skilling exercises taken up either by the government or the private sector. There is still a lot of work going on in terms of the government having set up sector skill councils. 31 have been set up. But all this will take time. Is it that people who passed out from the STAR scheme, the skilling programme, were absorbed by the relevant industries? No is the answer. Therefore, it is a journey where the programmes that were conducted were very much backed by the industry. Yet, the industry needs to come forward and embrace these candidates.

The push for skilling is there right from the top. Yet, the recognition for skilling programmes does not exist within the industry.Where is the gap?
It’s a good question and this is the reason I said that the experience is mixed. It is in all stages that we need to reach a level of maturity as a country. As a large organisation in this space and being more conscious of the qualitative aspects required to skill people, perhaps we are ahead. But I am talking of the country at large. So where does the gap lie? Initially, when these vocational programmes were launched, the industry was not taken into confidence. The gap was between the academia and the industry. Unless the two talk, where will the common path come from? Now there has been a beginning to rectify the issues that were there by bringing in the sector skill councils which comprises of the industry people. They sit together and decide that if these are the job roles for which we need people, what it is that they need to know. This is the reason that the National Occupation Standards are being defined and the training is built around it. But again, these are all in the initial stages and it will take some time before they reach even some level of acceptability.

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“We have been empanelled with the AICTE for the last two and a half years and with the CBSE for two years. But beyond empanelment, the last mile is just not working out”

We talk about the demographic dividend and competing with China. Do you believe we have missed the bus in terms of skill development?
I would like to answer this question slightly differently. Around this, there are definitely two very clear schools of thought. One says China has gone ahead, so on and so forth. Call me a nationalist, an optimist or whatever you want, but the systems that prevail in the two countries are very different. One is clear mandate and the other is a democracy. In democracy, you cannot have that rapid a pace of development as you can have in that kind of a system. In our system, all parties, the people, parents, industry, need to agree. There are the pros and cons of this kind of a system but this is what we have to live with. Have we missed the bus? No. having said that, the opportunity is huge and there is a lot that is required and at a much faster pace to at least make it a demographic dividend and not a demographic disaster.

skill developmentThe pace is essential because skill development is not aspirational. We don’t find people queuing up for skills programmes. You have to catch them, convince them, put them through the classes and put them through jobs. That is the kind of scenario. Here, the government support becomes critical at the moment. Perhaps, with time, we would reach a stage where skills would become aspirational. Lot of awareness needs to be spread across this. It is not that there is a dearth of jobs – they may not be exactly for the population at large – but that’s the reason we see the emphasis on building the manufacturing sector and the construction industry which are large employers. So, awareness is first, government support is second, third is having the industry and academia come together. That journey has to be expedited. Fourth, we cannot wait for people to finish their class twelfth and graduation and then say, now let’s do vocational training. Vocational has to be as important as science, arts and commerce. The government has announced it to be equivalent of that. So there is a Bachelor of Vocation that has been announced but where has it been implemented? It has been a couple of years that Delhi University announced it. At the school level, they have the NSQF (National Skills Qualification Framework) level 1 to 10 and are trying to bring parity with formal education and also bring in vertical mobility. A person who did ITI could never do masters because he was not considered a graduate. There was no migration from vocational to formal. Today, with the NSQF, that first step has been taken. If you ask us, we have been empanelled with the AICTE for the last two and a half years; we have been with the CBSE for two years. But beyond empanelment, the last mile is just not working out. This is driven by the MHRD and the state governments that take the initiative. In these state government schools, we have Himachal running the NSQF programme, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and we are part of these.

“Skilling should begin in class III itself, though the government scheme does not talk about it. If you start appreciating your competencies early in life, you don’t have this clash of what I should and what I should not”

Can you elaborate on your involvement in these training programmes?
We are in schools in these states. The funding is done by the HRD ministry and the state government and it basically says that as we move up the levels, the vocational quotient in terms of curriculum keeps growing and the academic content decreasing. We are conducting training programmes for class IX, X, XI and XII. For class IX , what we do is that the academic portion is taken care of by the school. For vocational, we have our own teachers who provide training and all the practical application that is required because vocational is all about practice and not about theory. Students in class IX need to have the exposure and experience to relate to what is being taught. The final exam is being conducted by the school and the board.

How do you ensure the follow-up?
We have our teachers who are stationed there at these schools. We are present in 69 schools in Himachal and we have a teacher everywhere. These teachers stay at the school, come to the school every day, work there along with the candidate, we also have a lab that is established. Every month, there is a guest speaker who comes and interacts with these students. The basic factor is not just technical skills. It’s about life skills as well. We know of various examples of people who did tremendously well academically but were unable to find jobs because they didn’t have the social and life skills that are required. So, programmes that we are talking of in vocational are a combination of technical, life skills, IT and language at some places. So, we continue with them and it is not left to the schools to manage.

How long have you been doing this with the state governments?
Two years.

So, the actual outcome will be visible after two years, since you have begun in class IX?
No, we have started this in class IX and XI. If you ask me, this should begin in class III itself, though the government scheme does not talk about it. If you start appreciating your abilities and competencies early in life, then you don’t have this clash of what I should and what I should not. It does not say that if I have taken a vocational programme in, say retail or automobile or heatlhcare, I need to remain in that domain for the rest of my life. That’s where vertical mobility helps. I could be a class XII in automobile and then I decide to get into commerce, I still have a path to get into a B.Com. That vertical mobility has been established by policy. Implementation has started but it needs to be accelerated to reach the numbers that we are talking of.

Institutions today have also started to talk about skill development. Do you see that push in their formal curriculum?
There are a few colleges that have adopted it. I know a few that have these skill programmes being run by various skills institutes. It s not that skills programmes have come up today. I consider NIT a pioneer in this area. People would do graduation and along with it, do IT, but graduation was a must. If you are not a graduate, you end up with no job. Now what the government is saying is that you can merge it together, where formal education and vocational education come under one roof. Coming back to your question, higher education institutions, I would say, are doing it in pockets. There is a lot to be desired. Pune University, for example, has mandated that all the candidates across all its colleges need to go through vocational programmes for being employable. They are starting with the post-graduate level. NSDC is driving the programme and we have joined hands with them. But the pace here is what is critical.

Can this push for vocational education result in candidates losing academic excellence?
If I am an excellent welder, does it make me less qualified than another graduate? In my field, I am number one and I have the capability to earn huge amounts. Look at Germany, Australia and countries that have skills in place. In UK, a plumber gets more than an engineer.

But their systems have been entirely different.
Correct. And I have been there for decades. So we get the advantage of picking up experience from all these countries and make a jumpstart. But the jumpstart has to be further pushed faster to take it forward. But your question was whether the candidate needs academic excellence or not.

Since that is what the Indian parent and society recognises.
You are right. And this needs to change. I believe that the level 1 to 10 (of NSQF) will perhaps bring that change. What it means that you can become a graduate, a post-graduate and even a Ph.D in vocational. So you have the academic excellence along with vocational skills. They are not divorced. With the NSQF, this recognition for prior learning (RPL), if I have been a mechanic for 5 or 10 years, I can give various tests and become Level 1, 2, 3 – equivalent to graduation, post-graduation and Ph.D. The stature changes as it is not the same as being an illiterate mechanic but a Ph.D.

So, will a mechanic who may be an 8th dropout, but goes through this training, get employment and the remuneration that someone with formal education would? Would an Audi hire him?
Why not? Provided he gets the requisite vocational qualification.

How long do think that will take?
I shared the example of we being empanelled with the AICTE and CBSE for the past two to two and a half years and nothing has taken off. We keep chasing them. People are interested because they see the benefit. It is a journey that the country will have to go through.

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