Unskilled, unemployed, angry: Is India Tomorrow headed for disaster?

By 2030, Indians of working age will constitute 65 percent of the population and the world's largest labour market. A Tehelka essay explains why our youth dividend is a recipe for disaster.

Lakshmi Chaudhry April 17, 2013 15:52:21 IST
Unskilled, unemployed, angry: Is India Tomorrow headed for disaster?

"India’s key to future success — its youth — is a ticking time bomb. It is a growing mass of largely undernourished, undereducated, unemployable young people who aspire for a better life but don’t have the means to get there. Why? Because they aren’t qualified for the job market, and even if they are, jobs don’t exist."

The above is the central thesis of a must-read Tehelka essay by Avalok Langer that demolishes the easy comfort of India's so-called 'youth dividend.' Where for decades, we have worried about illiteracy, we now have to wrestle with a new crisis in education: A generation of functionally uneducated Indians being churned out of a fourth-rate education system. They are functionally uneducated in a variety of ways.

Many in government and mushrooming un-certified private schools are filled with kids who can barely read or write, schooled by indifferent or unqualified teachers. The RTE rules that make it impossible to fail a child adds to the likelihood of millions of children who will fritter away their childhood, and in the case of private schools, their parents' hard-earned money.

Unskilled unemployed angry Is India Tomorrow headed for disaster

Representative image. Reuters.

Children who do graduate with some modicum of an education are likely to fall into the next booby trap: spurious management and engineering colleges. Langer offers the example of Sharana: “I always wanted to take up engineering. I had done a diploma course after completing Class X, but there was no scope for employment at that stage so I kept studying. Six years later, after having a degree, I found that there is still no scope for employment." He ended up instead as a developer earning around 8,000 a month in Bangalore -- which is on par with the average salary of a household driver.

Sharana is one of the many canaries who foretell a gargantuan national crisis in the offing: when the aspirations of young India encounter the disillusioning reality of 'new' India.  This impending crisis is all the more poignant as it comes in the midst of a large-scale transformation of the education system, be it national experiments like the Right To Education Act or local intitatives such as Delhi University's proposed shift to a US-style 4-year Bachelor's degree. The changes are dramatic but also ad hoc, uncoordinated, under-resourced, and executed with little attention to potential consequences.

Lanker diagnoses the problem thusly:

The scary thing is, unlike physical capital or infrastructure, you cannot throw money at human capital. Human capital, skills and education levels are built generationally and if you have a bad system, you are going to lose a generation. There are four main faults with our education system — outdated and rigid syllabi; an educational structure with a ‘final exam’ fixation; failure of the vocational training set-up; and most importantly, teachers and their pedagogy.

And he goes on to offer solutions to each of the listed shortcomings (I urge you to read his essay which is excellent and required reading.) Many are worthwhile but he does not consider perhaps one American institution that may serve us better than that 4-year DU degree, ie the community college.

All aspiration, no vocation

Today in India there are supposedly three safe paths to professional success: engineering, management and medicine. This thesis is unquestioningly embraced by all aspiring parents, from shopkeepers to maids to urban professionals. These are also most expensive and fiercely competitive fields of specialisation and yet increasingly lead to an employment dead-end. As Lanker notes: "Some 200 management schools have shut down in the past few years due to poor placement. Of the 1.5 million engineering students in India, over 70 percent are unemployed. The IT sector has also suffered, with 75 percent of graduates going unemployed."

So what is to become of the lower middle class kids who are in engineering and management tracks who went to Kannada-medium schools like Sharana? Or the son a janitor who is likely to end up jobless after his parents pay through their nose for a private school, and perhaps a B.Com degree after? There are plenty of jobs out there, but they have not been trained for them.

This is partly the fault of a blinkered Indian mindset. As Surjit Bhalla, chairman of Oxus Investments, tells Lanker “People want to do computer engineering and not textile engineering. That is not going to work in India because that field is already saturated. We need to look at things that can create employment.”

This is also the reasoning for the DU 4-year degree which supposedly offers "application courses" closely tailored to the needs of India Inc. But here's the catch: Students don't specialise until the third year. On the other hand, they can drop out after two years of general education -- foundational courses in everything from Computer Science to Geography -- with a liberal arts diploma that will qualify its holder (at best) for a primary school teaching job.

In contrast, the community college model puts the cart where it belongs -- behind the horse. Students can earn a two-year specialised diploma, closely tailored to industry needs, and still retain the option of going on to a four-year degree. DU, for instance, could set up a parallel network of community colleges and offer third year seats to the highest achievers. But those who prefer to opt for a two-year diploma will be armed with a degree that ensures a decent job -- unlike the 30-40 percent who presently just drop out.

Thinking small

The national discourse of aspiration is driven entirely by the IIM/IIT fantasy. All the messages we receive insist that all of us can and should devote our lives racing up the engineering/management track. All this 'think big' mumbo-jumbo has obscured the real opportunities for mobility at hand.

Construction and manufacturing are just some of the large-scale sectors where there is an alarming shortage in skilled labour. Construction companies, for example, were forced to import labour from China to complete the planned Commonwealth Games projects. As an Economic Times op-ed notes, "Already, wages for vocationally-trained workers have risen faster in some moderately skill-intensive sectors, such as construction, than for workers without training. Increasing use of capital - through automation and IT - and shifts in employment towards knowledge-intensive jobs will drive higher skill demand than India is equipped to supply."

We will have the jobs but not the labour to perform them, according to the Financial Times:

But what worries many Indian business executives, economists and policymakers is whether the country’s economy can absorb the masses of aspiring workers, mainly from poor rural areas and with little or no training. While nearly 13m young Indians are entering the workforce every year, India’s vocational training system has the capacity to train just 3.1m a year. Many young people lack even rudimentary skills.

“We do not have people who are actually functionally literate,” says [analyst Laveesh] Bhandari. “Most of our labour force is inappropriate for the mass manufacturing practices that China has excelled at.”

Then there is the largely informal services sector which is expanding at an exponential rate. The growing pool of urban professionals with more money than time are eager to hire skilled electricians, plumbers, tailors, cleaners, and carpenters but these trades remain poorly trained and organised. As are the staff of restaurants, hotels, spas, and salons which are rapidly multiplying.  As spiraling consumerism spreads to tier two and three cities, it will continue to pump up the demand for skilled service professionals.

It would be good news except only 10 percent of Indians between the ages of 15-29 receive formal vocational training.

One way to train them is to create a nationwide network of affordable community colleges with courses and diplomas closely tailored to the skilled labour market. Better yet, we can tailor these "colleges" to local needs, creating opportunities where people live, which in turn will stem the mass and unsustainable migrations to the big cities. In rural areas, where poor children are forced to drop out at a very early age, vocational training can be incorporated into post-elementary education.

“The largescale sector will grow but not as much as we hoped," Economic development expert Amitabh Kundu tells Tehelka, "The 430 million that comprise our labour force are not very well skilled. We should absorb them in small towns by giving them skills that allow them to improve their productivity in the small-scale sector.”

In other words, our biggest plans will require us to think local, and think small.

We are a nation addicted to cheap, unskilled labour which lulls us into complacency by its sheer plenitude. By 2030, Indians of working age -- between 15-59 -- will constitute 65 percent of the population and the world's largest labour market. And the world's largest pool of angry, disillusioned unemployed workers, if we continue down this catastrophic course. There is no greater fuel to the fire of social unrest than a thwarted revolution of rising expectations.

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