After a lifetime spent powering TCS to its current position as the country's top technology company, S. Ramadorai, took over as Advisor to the Prime Minister in the National Council for Skill Development in February 2011. He spoke to Chaitanya Kalbag and Shamni Pande on the gigantic skilling challenge the country faces. Edited excerpts:
Q. It is two years since you took charge. How are you tackling the skilling challenge?
A. The scale of the problem is huge. A combination of things has made it more complex. The notion that everybody should have a paper degree, whether it gets them a job or not, has sunk in so deeply that changing mindsets, making people realise that doing something with their hands is as important and can fetch a livelihood, (is difficult). This is what I call the whole advocacy issue. We are focusing a lot on advocacy, be it at the NGO level, parents' level, school level, students' level. You can't just take a person and say, now you go and learn welding, when he does not know what welding is, he does not know this can give him a nice livelihood. Second, we don't know if he has the aptitude for it. It may even be too late in the day to capture the aptitude unless he is in the seventh or eighth grade when you are trying to do it. When he has a paper degree and no job, he says I don't mind trying welding, but by then it becomes that much more difficult for him, and that much more complicated.
After the advocacy, you look at mobilization. Mobilization should be through discovering people's aptitudes rather than simply rounding up a bunch of kids and saying that from tomorrow you are doing vocational training whether you like it or not.
Q. Are you saying there is an aspiration gap? People need something, but want something else?
A. Yes. It can only be changed with advocacy. When parents are comfortable with the fact that their ward wants to be a welder, so long as that welder is able to earn well and have some standing in society, rather than a BA with no job, (advocacy would have succeeded).
Q. Who is carrying out the advocacy?
A. All of us are. All of you have to do so too.
Q. I think there is a feeling among young people that a proper job provides security such as provident fund, health insurance, etc, which jobs like welding do not.
A. Long term benefits, such as PF have to come into the vocational area as well. But to bring about a miracle where everything happens overnight (is not possible). We are trying to operate at the mindset level, we are trying to operate at a level where we introduce vocational skills in schools...all of these will take time.
Q. Who are your foot soldiers?
A. Again, it is an ecosystem (that is needed). Never say you will build an organisation of a million people. You will keep doing it forever. Use anyone who is willing to help you. If an NGO says it wants to do something in Bihar or Madhya Pradesh or, Delhi, or wherever, engage with it. Similarly, if volunteers come and say that they want to spend six months or a year in the field, could they be given an opportunity, engage with them. I think building an eco-system, where commonality of purpose is understood and we propagate that (is the answer). No single organisation or person (can do it).
For the aspiration part of it, if a good welder from here goes to the Middle East, earns foreign exchange and remits it and his quality of life, when he comes back, improves, it will change the aspirations of people (around him). There is a herd mentality. Five of us went into the IT sector, and what happened? Every girl, every boy today wants to go into IT. So once something works, there is mass hysteria and everybody wants to do that. We have to create that environment.
Q. There seems to be a turf war on over skilling. Could the effort get bogged down because of the different things different stakeholders and ministries want?
A. I think there are enough opportunities without getting into turf wars. And that is why I don't spend my time in Delhi. You have to be where the action is. Implementation is the only focus all of us must have. There are enough policies, enough opportunities, but implementation on ground is most difficult because it's like washing your own clothes. People hesitate to get into it, because it calls for rolling up your sleeves to make an impact.
Q. What skilling targets do you have?
A. See, the numbers are huge. Whether it is 300 million or 400 million or 500 million, it doesn't matter. It is of that order. The number during the 12th Plan and the 13th Plan - which is a 10-year period from 2012 to 2022 - is going to be very critical. The number is based on the demographic profile of the country.
Q. But numbers show this skilling year's targets are not being met?
A. Yes. This year we will fall short of the target. But my worry would be more to ensure that people who go for vocational education and come out with training, get a job. That is our priority No. 1. It cannot be training for the sake of training. It has to be training with employment.
Q. What steps are being taken to formalize vocational education?
A. Pilot projects are running in Haryana, Assam. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (in Mumbai) is doing English language training in association with British Council…
Q. Is there any success you can share?
A. You can go to the TCS office in Kolkata, where you can see the Udaan programme for Jammu & Kashmir. Youth from Kashmir have been trained and placed in BPO operations in the Kolkata office of TCS.
Q. J&K and Kolkata, what's the connection?
A. We decided to do it Kolkata. We brought the young people from Srinagar and some other universities there; we mobilized by actually sending recruiters there. Then training was given in Kolkata, because we have a training centre there and then we gave them jobs because there was need for people in BPO space in Kolkata itself. You can see the impact. Almost 50 to70 young people are fully employed. Some of them decided to go back and start their own initiatives. Some said they want to go for higher education, so it was a combination of things.
Q. Now that there is a proper structure in place right from the National Planning Commission, your office, the NSDC, how would you assess…?
A. We have said there is a 12th Plan target, which has been agreed upon by everybody. The split is between the various ministries, which do the skilling programmes, the National Skills Development Council, which is a public-private partnership and then the state skill missions which are driving their own initiatives in addition to the centrally sponsored programmes.
Q. How would you assess NSDC's performance?
A. NSDC has multiple responsibilities. One is to identify private sector partners. Then it takes a position by way of debt funding or equity and debt funding. We assess how the partners are doing. It is not like funding is committed for the entire duration. It is based on performance. To that extent, it has done a good job of selecting partners.
Q. But there are reports that NSDC will not be given further funding. Does this not jeopardise ongoing projects?
A. It is well funded enough for committing to the private partners it has identified. With the current credit situation squeeze in the country, there have been some cuts. It is a slight shift in the allocation probably, but it is not coming in the way of their performance.
Q. Can you review the two years of your tenure, your vision and the changes you have implemented?
A. The way I view it is, (it has given me a chance) both to understand the lay of the land and what the various ministries are doing and get a feel of what is happening on the ground. One single satisfaction I have had is the opportunity to travel across the length and breadth of the country to see what is happening.
Second, some initiatives with regard to the National Skills Framework or National Apprentice Act, etc, have been taken. These are some concrete things which will happen soon. We initiated some action at the Industrial Training Institutes in the north-eastern part of the country, in Bodoland, J&K, etc. This is a great source of satisfaction. Also, a commonality of purpose has been achieved, where everybody now talks of skilling as a critical component of nation building.
Q. You continue to be associated with TCS, you are on BSE's board and overlook NSDC and how other ministries put their act together, how do you wear these different hats and manage the different agendas, the conflicts, etc.
A. It is more important that you have a great team, most of my energy and time goes into identifying the right people and putting them on the job, which is what I tried in TCS. I keep repeating the same thing, that an empowered team that is collaborative in nature makes all the difference. An empowered team which is non-collaborative will have more problems that what you started with. So I devote a lot of time in getting the right people, blending them together and motivating them, ensuring that they approach you without any hesitation. Hierarchy has no role to play, as it brings in bureaucracy and a lot of defensiveness. As long as you are passionate you can make a difference. Conflicts can be resolved, if you are transparent and open and do not bury them under the carpet.
Q. The prime minister has announced the setting up of a National Skill Development Authority. Will it not add to the complexity, with so many bodies already involved in skilling?
A. No. Once the NDSA is formed, the co-ordination of 17 ministries will come under this single authority. NSDC will continue to work with the private sector. So these will be the only two agencies and the NSDA will also oversee the NSDC's functioning. The National Skills Development Council will be removed and the National Skills Development Authority will be the only body. Similarly the National Skills Development Board, in its current form, will not exist.
Q. What will be your role be in the NSDA?
A. I have no idea, let the Authority get formed. I am focusing on my work.