Skill building in India got a big boost last fortnight when Rajiv Pratap Rudy was appointed Minister for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. The prime minister was quick to realise that clubbing the five-month old ministry with the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs was unlikely to get the much needed focus to deliver the humongous task of skilling Indian youth.
Every time I read about initiatives in skill-building, be it an ITI being funded by industry to revamp its infrastructure, a young boy interning to be motor mechanic, an electrician, or learning to flip a burger in a food chain, I sense a resonance of 'Skill, Speed and Scale' mantra leapfrog India into the next orbit.
Still, I am least enthused when I read about the quality of infrastructure projects that deploy skilled Indian work force -ranging from plans to modernise airports, operationalising industrial corridors to creation of civic amenities. I am equally petrified about stepping onto Delhi roads. I often feel sad that a country that has a vast pool of engineers and continues to add thousands each year can't plan, build and maintain motorable roads, level sidewalks and proper drains. Many question the calibre of engineering talent, skilled manpower pool and the much touted 'demographic dividend'.
Is this the India that prides itself in launching the Mars Orbital Mission? Is this the home of the Taj Mahal -the most wonderful piece of architecture through great craftsmanship and little technology built?
Why haven't we learnt from five centuries of technological advancement and built a decent approach road to the iconic monument?
The fact is India's demographic dividend is discounted by unskilled and inexperienced labour force in millions. The fact is they need to be taught skills. The question is who will take on the task? I firmly believe that skill building cannot be done in NSDC-run schools, ITIs or polytechnics alone.
Another fact is the dismal quality of on-the-job training. Does any civil contractor give its labour force a tip on doing a better job? Does any executive engineer tell them the best way to build pavements, new methods of building roads or even the importance of curing concrete structures? Does a telecom PSU engineer step out to tell his linesmen the correct method of joining cables?
How else would you explain the huge craters that continue to surface on the expressways-whether tarred or concrete. Looking at the continuous process of re-building pavements year after year it is evident that the engineers are spending more time and effort floating tenders, scrutinizing invoices and signing cheques. India needs to build infrastructure-clean civic infrastructure within cost and time and the one that lasts.
Have you ever wondered as to why we have to provide a pencil to an electrician or a carpenter to plug in his drill or a cutting machine? A research director in an agricultural university would rather take up a speaking assignment at a UN seminar than go and talk to farmers on how to cut down on fertiliser consumption and how to use pesticides judiciously.
Isn't there a better way to skill a gun totting security guard in a nationalised bank branch where the iron grill has a chain so small that entering is a small exercise.
The leaders in businesses and industry have to pass on tips on sector skills and need to institute continuous improvement in the work force. They must drill the processes to the lowest worker on the shop floor, agricultural farm, road building projects-just as artisans have passed on their craftsmanship to young ones over generations.
At a recent Indo American Chamber of Commerce session on Education and Skill Development organised Sanjay Mehta, India head of BPO firm Teleperformance, alluded to how the IT services and BPO industry collaborated with academia to build a near $100 billion industry in just three decades.
Mehta listed continuous skill upgrade training of its employees, ranging from Masters in Software Engineering to recent school graduates, as a major contribution to skill building. The contribution extends well beyond the shared services industry as the training culture extends to a series of services that support three million IT and BPO services workers.
Deepak Bharara, Chief Human Resources Officer of Lanco Infratech, narrated how his former employer GMR, the firm that built the Delhi International Airport, maintained that skills can be built on the job as long as the leaders instil among all those joining the work stream an aspiration to imbibe a 'can do spirit' and 'a fire in the belly'.
It is imperative that in addition to core skills a set of behavioural traits--that motivate them to adhere to time lines, processes to improve continuously and serve customers better--are added. As long as we can imbibe ability to learn among people the things will work.
Sanjay Mehta goes a step further to propose that 'skilling' must enlarge its scope to create a globally mobile work force. He firmly believes mobility of a world class plumber or a lathe operator or a carpenter is today hindered by lack of knowledge of English, literally a lingua franca of the world. Without getting into the politics of medium of instruction at school or skilling level, Mehta stresses that lack of English language heavily limits opportunities for self-learning as vast majority of the content is and will continue to be in English and self-help opportunity will go under-leveraged for achieving scale and speed.
Learning English, rather than being elitist, is both empowering and inclusive as it opens up opportunities to continuously enhance his skill levels and be a part of the globally mobile workforce. If Indians have no issue with software professionals learning English why should anyone object to a maid, a cook, a tailor, driver, mason, welder, farm worker learning English if they have to find employment globally. As, knowledge of English, will get them better wages it could also serve to alleviate poverty.
Dilip Chenoy, CEO of National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) said that the NSDC funded skill centres had skilled over three million people since inception. NSDC hopes to skill 3.4 million people in the current fiscal year alone. Using industry inputs, 31 sector skills councils have built national occupational standards for 800 job roles. Chenoy sought industry support to the skill development movement by actively seeking out applicants with certified skills.
As the skill building effort gains momentum, the leaders need to move to the next level by providing tools, tackles and technology to the skilled work force that takes away the drudgery of picking load on one's head, pushing rickety wheel barrow or using twigs to sweep the roads.
With changing times the new age skilled work force will need to ready itself to build expertise, improve mobility across the globe to jobs get them higher wages. The industry and the leaders have to help make that a reality here and now.
Sanjiv Kataria, who served as a brand custodian for IT Training pioneer NIIT, is a communications counsel to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Teleperformance India, GreenField Software and Play It Interactive.