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A better skilled India

Devendra Saksena |

Despite the contrary view of Niti Aayog, unemployment in India has reached alarming proportions. As of now, 4.83 crore job-seekers are registered with the employment exchanges… of whom only 3.39 lakh have been placed. These statistics do not cover masons and labourers, who seek employment only in the informal sector. These figures also do not include rural unemployment and under-employment, for which no reliable statistics are available.

Such a high level of unemployment entails a humongous cost in terms of human capital going waste. There is a still greater social cost because parents who had spent beyond their capacity to educate their children at expensive private institutions feel duped by the system; the children themselves feel inadequate and depressed. Often one sees an unedifying spectacle of thousands of highly qualified young men and women competing for some lowly job, which is much below their capabilities. There are reports of lakhs of unfilled posts of primary school teachers, constables etc. This is a major anomaly.

Such paradoxes have their genesis in the way Indians imagine the desiderata of a job. For many, a permanent Government job means the freedom to work according to their whims… seldom with a view to achieve organisational goals. Since even the lowest Government functionary wields enormous power, the effect of such a lackadaisical attitude is disastrous for good governance. On the other hand, the Government, being a model employer, provides its employees with all benefits which a prosperous company provides. No wonder the Government is not enamoured of the idea of providing further employment though the shortfall in ranks often results in sub-standard services for the poor citizen.

India contends with such a high level of unemployment primarily because our social planners have failed to take note of ever-changing job requirements. At the time of Independence, with few exceptions, education was only for the rich. Many zamindars and moneyed people went to college, not to prepare themselves for employment but only to add the letters B.A. or M.A. to their names. For those so inclined, a good arts degree was enough to land a good job. The varna vyavastha took care of the aspirations of the rest (about whom no one bothered). However, with the democratisation of education and an exponential growth in population, unemployment posed a forbidding challenge in the early 1970s. Nonetheless, the economy was expanding and there still was no real problem for well-qualified youths in landing a job ~ even if it was in the USA.

The advent of computerisation in the first decade of the current millennium exacerbated the unemployment problem to calamitous levels. Suddenly, entry-level office jobs became scarce. At the same time, liberalisation filled our markets with high-class imported goods which slowed down the growth of the indigenous manufacturing sector. These developments ensured that the growth in jobs did not keep pace with the growth in the economy. Overseas opportunities also declined because the entire globe became a single market so far as goods and services were concerned. At the same time our traditional job markets like the US and the Middle East put in place firewalls to prevent the entry of non-citizens.

The process and skill-sets required to land a good job in India are completely at odds with the processes and skill-sets required in other countries. The Civil Services Examination is the gold standard for conducting a job test. This examination, which tests around 8 lakh job aspirants, mainly in general topics, takes around 18 months and selects only 1000 persons. A similarly structured examination for bank officers has 18 lakh applicants, selecting only 3,000 persons. The cost and inefficiency of such exercises is evident but all Government examinations mimic this model. So we have similar examinations for geologists, foresters, inspectors and clerks resulting in extraordinary wastage of time and manpower with attendant frustration.

Our job position can only worsen given the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and Robotics which have led to a situation where humans would face an uncertain future in the job market. Robots are fast replacing humans in high precision factories in Europe. If we are to manufacture high quality goods, we would have to follow suit, leading to job losses. Already, online sellers are cornering the retail market ~ a development which portends a gloomy future for small businesses. Driverless cars, powered by AI, have the potential of making millions of drivers jobless… though given our chaotic traffic and potholed roads it would take some time for such cars to reach our shores.

So we have two challenges before us. After tackling the current unemployment problem, we would have to re-skill our workforce for the future. Skilling India was a commendable initiative, which never took off. Sadly, before the Skilling India programme could commence in right earnest we are faced with a situation where traditional jobs are vanishing and totally new ones are taking their place. Obviously, the time has come to re-imagine the jobs and job requirements of the future. Trying to look into the future, one can safely assume that the agriculture and infrastructure sectors will always remain relevant. With more time and money available, tourism, entertainment, leisure and sports are some of the sectors which may bloom in the future. To be competitive in the new job market, we would have to visualise the skill-sets required for these new age jobs. Then, we would have to impart the requisite skill-sets to our youth in our colleges and universities.

Finally, we will have to construct exact mathematical models to predict job requirements in the emerging sectors so that we can avoid a glut in some sectors and drought in others. Our current system is so unprepared for the real world that even the elite IITs are looking at an unprecedented crunch in placements for many branches of engineering ~ a situation that could easily have been avoided by juggling courses.

Re-skilling would be difficult, requiring a thorough revamp of education as we know it. The generalist education model would have to be discarded. We would have to direct school children to the vocational stream of their choice right from the secondary level. Courses would have to be specifically designed for all categories of occupations be it farmer, shopkeeper, office worker, mechanic etc. Re-skilling would ultimately lead to excellence in all branches of enterprise.

To avoid unemployment, it would have to be ensured that the input in each stream would be proportionate to the anticipated vacancies in that particular line at the time students complete their courses. We may keep the German model in view, which works on similar lines and yield excellent results.

Thomas Carlyle once observed, “A man willing to work, and unable to find work, is perhaps the saddest sight that fortune’s inequality exhibits under this sun.” (Chartism) Unfortunately, we have a large number of desperate jobseekers. To prevent human misery, if for no other reason, we have to ensure that all those who are willing to work get gainful employment.