Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Vocational Training: Whose job is it, anyway?

Raj Kishore Satnami is from the Kendrapada district in coastal Orissa, from where a large number of youngsters migrate to Delhi and Gurgaon to work as plumbers. He too is one of them. He has never been formally trained as a plumber, just picked up the skill on the job, working as an apprentice with a senior plumber. Raj has rarely felt the need for any formal training in his vocation.

In early 2008, when the world was waking up to economic recession in the US, the Government of India had a wake-up call. Somewhere, someone in the corroded corridors of power realized that the Indian economy was ailing from - among other things - a serious Skills crisis. As terms such as "Unemployable" and "Skills Gap" found their way into the national HR lexicon, the expected reaction of the government was the formation of the Prime Minister's National Council of Skills Development, comprising senior cabinet ministers and industry stalwarts. The mandate of the council was "Coordinated Action for Skills Development and the setting up of the National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC)."

In quick time, the NSDC was set up and assumed the role of a facilitator in Skills Development, with active involvement of the private sector. A target was announced - a total of 500 million people (that's over 40% of the current population of India) will have to be "skilled or upskilled" by 2022, of which NSDC would "contribute significantly" to about 30 percent or 150 million people. Set up as a not-for-profit company, the NSDC is a unique PPP initiative in which the government has a 49% stake while the private sector has the remaining 51%. Interestingly, NSDC has been established by the Ministry of Finance and not by the MHRD, even though its raison d'etre is Human Resource Development. More interestingly, NSDC has chosen to provide loans as opposed to grants to its implementing partners - which means that these partners, on whose shoulders lies the onerous task of skilling (yes, SKILL is increasingly being used as a verb!) the 150 million, have to repay the money to NSDC at a future date. Which means that these partners have to not just skill the 150 mn, but do so at a profit.

Therein lies the rub. It doesn't take a genius to understand that the vast majority of the 500 million (by the way, from where did the GoI conjure this number? No one really seems to know!) whose skills have to developed would lie at the base of the pyramid, or close to it. Some would say, even under the pyramid. So how does one go about creating a profitable enterprise out of Skill Development, knowing that most of the "customers" would not have the ability to pay for the services?

In order to reach out to the large numbers, NSDC has understandably been selective in choosing its partners. So on its list are some really large corporate players such as Centum Learning (belonging to the Bharti group), NIIT Yuva Jyoti, Future Sharp Skills Ltd. (a Future Group company), and IL&FS Skills Development. Of these, NIIT and Future have committed to training 7 million people each over the next ten years, while IL&FS has a more modest target of 1.95 million. Centum seems to be the big daddy, with a target of 11.57 million. Which means, Centum will be training, on an average, close to a staggering 100,000 people every month, for the next 120 months!

Those of us who've been in the social sector for a while know how deceptive numbers can be in implementing development projects. Working on a large scale is almost always at loggerheads with providing good quality on the ground. I am yet to come across a single example of an organization having managed to deliver quality at a large scale consistently over several years. In fact, the Vocational Training sector today brings to me a huge sense of déjà vu, as I'm reminded of the time when I came into the sector exactly ten years ago. At that time, Primary Education was in the limelight, with Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan pumping in crores of rupees into the sector. And all this money was spent on ensuring enrollment of children in schools - chasing the numbers - with scant regard for quality of education. Today, ten years down, there are more children in government schools, for sure. But the fact that their learning is nowhere near acceptable standards is well chronicled (including in this blog); in fact, because of the surge in numbers, the overall quality of education in government schools has almost certainly dipped in the last decade. I can clearly see this happening in the Vocational Training sector too - by the time we reach 2022, the government would make claims to having skilled the millions, but would these skilled people really be any better than what they were earlier?

We at Edulever have spent the last three years looking at the VT sector with our eyes and ears firmly on the ground. We realize that Vocational Training is by no means a simplistic task - there is no automation here, no assembly line to manufacture finished products. The task of developing the skill of one individual requires a set of complex activities - mobilization, selection, training, counselling, placement, and follow-up. Even if any one of these activities is not done well, the Skill Development model can fall flat. And there are hardly any benchmarks around, not in India at least. The ones that exist are in other countries, with a completely different milieu. Yet, NSDC has been actively courting Germany, Australia, and others to provide examples to emulate. At a recent public function, the NSDC chief proclaimed that Australian experts should be brought in to train plumbers in India. Hallelujah!        

We eagerly await the day when the Australian expert will "skill" Raj Kishore, our plumber from Kendrapada.