The ongoing digital transformation across the world presents India with a big economic opportunity, which it can take advantage of only if it has a skilled workforce. The Government of India is working on a plan to not just skill the workforce at the district level, but to also upskill, reskill and multiskill it. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Minister of State for Electronics & Information Technology and Skill Development & Entrepreneurship says the government is spending Rs 4,000-5,000 crore every year on skilling and has trained 30 million citizens over the past five years. Excerpts from an interview:
BT: While India is known for its engineering talent, the Indian workforce was believed to be amongst the least skilled in 2019. The situation has improved but there is a long way to go. What is the government doing about this?
RC: I completely agree with one part of the premise of your question, which is that in the post-Covid-19 world, and indeed during Covid-19, the world has discovered that the skills that are required are going to be a lot more fluid and dynamic. There was a certain stasis to the skilling ecosystem—not just in India but around the world—which was, ‘we will have some job roles, we will skill people on the job roles, and then they will find jobs’. What is evident post-Covid-19 is that first, the workforce participation and the mix have gone through a major transformation—where women were not participating, they are participating; where women’s participation was low, it is going up; where men’s participation dominated, women’s participation is increasing. So, there is a lot of fluidity and dynamic changes in the skills that the workforce requires. Second, digital skilling has become like a prerequisite or an important component of all skills and traits. Third, skilling via digital platforms, and not the traditional classrooms or traditional workshops or traditional apprenticeships, has also become an important element.
Now, there is a fourth element to it—migration for work/employment has shown a reverse trend post-Covid-19. People want to go back and seek participation in the workforce locally as a first preference. [Our] Prime Minister said in July 2021 that we need to look at a new type of model... sort of a post-Covid-19 model. And that new model has three-four basic components to it. First, it is not only going to be about ab initio skilling. It is about skilling, reskilling, upskilling, and multiple skilling. So, a student who comes into the skilling ecosystem, doesn’t come on a one-time basis. If he is a school dropout, he doesn’t come in there to skill for a one-time job. But he enters this almost like a totally new education universe system, where he enters with ab initio skilling.
Then he can move left or adjacent to reskill, and move up the ladder with upskilling; he/she can also choose multiple skills. In the second element, we are launching a very comprehensive digital skills platform that will extend the reach of skilling further away from the institution that tradition ally gives skilling. So, you could have more interesting models of hybrid skilling, where you do some amount of physical [training], some digital [training]. Third, digital skills are now put out as part of almost all of the 4,000 courses and jobs that we are skilling. Going back to the issue of migration and people wanting opportunities closer to their homes and communities, we are creating district skilling plans for each of the 700 districts. The Government of India has appointed a Mahatma Gandhi National Fellow for each district, who will work with the local district collector as the district’s public representative in shaping skills according to local requirements. This will be divided into farm economy and non-farm economy... what type of skills are required there, what type of opportunities exist there, and for skills outside the local community in the state and within the country. And the fourth element is Skill India International, which is for opportunities for people to go abroad.
And we’ve recently launched something in Dubai called Skill India International Tejas. So, this is the direction we are taking... And it is not one size fits all—each district will have its unique requirements for the youth of that district, for the aspirations of the district... We will use our network of Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY), ITIs [industrial training institutes], Jan Shikshan Sansthan and apprenticeship training schemes to deliver the skills.
BT: The government has also partnered with Nasscom for FutureSkills Prime. What is this about?
RC: There is what I call the broad-skilling universe; and then you have the upper end of the skilling spectrum, where people are already employed. Here we have platforms by sector that we set up in partnership with industry. One example is the IT industry, where we do FutureSkills Prime, where the government contributes money, the industry contributes coursework, curriculum and money, and allows retraining and lateral and upward movement of reskilling and upskilling within the technology sector. We have committed Rs 460 crore of capital to the FutureSkills Prime programme. So, you have two layers of skilling. One is broad skilling—the blue-collar community of people who are moving from schools to ITIs and schools to basic skilling and moving up that way. Then you have within the industry the skilling model... like we have for technology services, tomorrow we will start something, for example, for semiconductors; we may have it for electronics manufacturing. We may have the same model, which is industry-government partnership, to allow talent within a sector to be better deployed, to be better skilled. One of the things that everybody has noticed [is that] in the last 18 months as the world’s digitisation needs galloped, it presented to the Indian industry more and more opportunities for work—projects for servicing, foreign enterprises, foreign governments, foreign consumers, overseas consumers. We are strapped by the fact that while we have many IT engineers, we are strapped back in particular niches, where the demand is far in excess of supply, and that is where you’re getting wage inflation—companies have gone abroad or hired engineers, etc. So, those kinds of issues will be dealt with by the FutureSkills Prime platform.
This programme was launched in 2018 and the target is that in five years, 1.4 million employees would be trained. What has been the progress like?
RC: There are two things. The government’s role in FutureSkills is about providing capital and building the platform. On this, I have publicly spoken to the industry as well. I think part of the blame for the problems that the industry finds itself in today, which is the shortage of talent and skill, is that the industry itself did not anticipate this kind of massive growth and massive demand for talent. The government has no role in anticipating the talent that industry requires. We can be enablers; we can be facilitators. We can even provide money and investments for platforms to be created. But at the end of the day, it is the technology companies that have to work on their skill and talent strategic plan. That was the whole idea of a partnership with the industry. And I have publicly said this to Nasscom—this problem has been created maybe accidentally, maybe because these are circumstances that you did not anticipate... But I think a little bit of slackness on the part of the industry is one of the reasons for what we are seeing today—wage inflation, shortage of talent in certain segments... [such as] emerging technology segments like AI and other areas.
If someone lacks funds for upskilling and reskilling, how can they look at upskilling/reskilling and multiskilling?
Right now, most of the skilling programmes are free. Over the last five years, all of the basic skilling programmes are almost free. The government is spending Rs 4,000-5,000 crore a year on PMKVY and other skilling-related programmes. It is ITIs that charge a low fee, but even there, state governments provide scholarships to those who are economically weak and other communities that require support. But broadly in this Skill India ecosystem, the skilling is almost to a large extent free and the training partners in the training centres are compensated by the government for every skilling programme every student takes. Your question relates to an existing participant in the industry, who wants to be upskilled and reskilled because there’s an opportunity that they see. If you are a participant in the industry at a company, that can’t be the government’s responsibility to handhold you for your career progression. That is something that individual professionals find a way to finance and grow. Of course, there are many schemes within the broader Government of India that allow for loans and educational financing for underprivileged sections of our society... there is basic skilling, which is being given for free. Almost 30 million Indians have been skilled in the last five years. And then, in the market, there are sectoral platforms that are aimed at upskilling and/ or multiple skilling; where an engineer or graduate can become a software engineer or a coder; or a coder who’s coding in a particular language can then learn coding in multiple languages—that is not an area which the government believes should be free.
BT: According to industry reports, 95 per cent of workers surveyed in India acknowledged requiring more digital skills. Despite this, only 45 per cent of employers in India have a training plan in place. What can India do to skill its workforce?
RC: The principal stakeholder in the success of an organisation is the enterprise itself. In today’s world, an enterprise is as successful as its employees are, as its workforce is. This is the basic mathematics of the ‘New World’. If an enterprise chooses to not have a talented workforce, that enterprise will fail. This is the new normal... If it wants to remain competitive, continue to grow [and] continue to go after all these new opportunities in this rapidly changing technology world or indeed any other segment of the economy today, it has to be the one that invests resources in making sure its talent is up skilled, reskilled, multiple skilled, currently skilled, contemporarily skilled. A talented workforce is the biggest determinant of the success and growth of an enterprise, and technology companies are big knowing this. Of course, there are Indian technology companies that have become so big that they think they can get a little lazy and sleepy on this. But every time I meet them, I tell them that the next two years represent an unprecedented type of opportunity for Indian tech. And if you as a big company today go to sleep on the issue of talent, some other young small start-up company will grow, expand, invest in talent and eat your lunch and breakfast in the next two years. So [your] survival today depends on how talented your workforce is. Success depends on that and how talented your workforce is, it depends a lot on continuous skilling, reskilling, upskilling and multiple skilling.
BT: How is the government looking at skilling in artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain?
RC: The Prime Minister has said the next decade is India’s ‘Techade’, and if that is so, we have to lead the charge on Web 3.0, ML, AI, supercomputing, and quantum computing. There are a series of areas that are going to be relevant and really big opportunities, both economically and strategically for our industry, and the country. We are evangelising. Our ministry is really about creating awareness, energy and passion, and being an enabler with the tools in skilling, tools in terms of financing start-ups, or helping start-ups get bootstrapped. That is what our business is and our job is. We understand the value of India’s Techade. It’s like the Y2K moment for India’s tech space. This trillion-dollar digital economy is there for us to take. But we have to take a lot of very significant steps as corporates and with a very supportive government. We will do whatever is necessary as a ministry to enable that both in terms of skilling and continuing to boost the start-up and innovation ecosystem in the country
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