Early in January 2018 in Haryana, about 14,836 candidates applied for eight vacancies for the post of a peon at the Jind Court (Anand, 2018). The vast difference between vacancies and applications is not the only worrying factor in this scenario. What is more disturbing is that among these applicants, a large number were postgraduates where the minimum educational qualification required for the job was a matric degree. A similar event happened in 2018 in Tamil Nadu where the vacancies for the positions of typists, village administrative officers and stenographers notified by the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission saw applications from 992 PhD holders, 23,000 MPhil holders, and 2.5 lakh post-graduates for 9,500 jobs (India Today, 2018). In West Bengal, more than 300 applications for a position at the morgue at Malda Medical College were from PhD students or MPhil holders (Maitra, 2017). Such instances can be traced further back to 2015 when 250 PhD holders, 25,000 postgraduates and 1.52 lakh graduates had applied for posts of 368 peons in Uttar Pradesh (Verma, 2015).
Every year, new entrants to the labour force (defined by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) as those who are actively seeking work) necessitate the creation of jobs. However, individuals in the labour force are often unable to enter the workforce (defined by the NSSO as those who have found employment) sometimes owing to unavailability of jobs and often due to lack of skills on their part (Rangarajan, 2011). Consequently, those who are unable to find employment in sectors that match their skills end up applying for jobs that do not require the educational qualifications they have acquired.
The problems of unemployment and unemployability
The instances of individuals seeking employment in areas that do not require the skill set they have acquired has been seen as a part of a phenomenon that is indicative of—i. Growing unemployment rate or ‘jobless growth’ where lack of employment opportunities result in skilled workforce seeking employment in jobs that do not match their skill-levels (Basole, 2018) and ii. Lack of skills on part of individuals possessing some sort of technical education, defined as ‘quality skill-gap’ (Unni, 2016).
While speaking with Anindita Sengupta, professor at the University of Burdwan, G’nY learnt that there is rising evidence of acute shortage of skilled manpower in education. Around 40 per cent of teaching positions are lying vacant in different educational institutions, but at the same time success rate among aspirants in eligibility tests conducted by governmental agencies such as Central Board of Secondary Education and University Grants Commission for different educational institutions is extremely low, at less than 13 and 10 per cent in schools and colleges and universities respectively. These trends are evidence of not only rising unemployment, but also of rising unemployability in India.
An employability study of about 150,000 engineering graduates conducted in 2016 found that 93 per cent were not suitable for gainful employment in the relevant sectors (Basole, 2018); a similar study conducted by The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) in the same year found 93 per cent graduates from management schools, excluding those from IIMs, did not possess the required skills for gainful employment (ASSOCHAM, 2016). Skill gaps were existent not only among graduate degree holders, but amongst blue-collared workers as well at different levels for occupations. There was a gap of 39 per cent among carpenters, 44 per cent among plumbers, 48 per cent among TV mechanics, 48 per cent among automobile mechanics and 55 per cent among masons (Sodhi, Sethi, Nair, 2015). This job-skill mismatch has been understood to be a function of over-education—where overqualified persons are hired for jobs that do not require such qualifications and quality skill gap—where employers seek specific skills from employees who are unable to deliver (Unni, 2016).
The lack of a skilled workforce
India exhibits a paradox in unemployment—every year, newer entrants to the labour force necessitate creation of new jobs, but they are often unable to enter the workforce even when jobs are available. According to the 68th round survey of NSSO (2011-12), about 68 per cent of graduates, 52 per cent postgraduate degree holders and 51 per cent of graduate or postgraduate diploma holders were unemployed (Sengupta, 2017). In terms of numbers, the same survey reports 469.9 million entries into the labour force, of which 460.2 were absorbed into the workforce, while the remaining 9.7 million remained unemployed (Rangarajan, 2011). According to a World Bank report ‘Skilling India’, more than 12 million youth between the ages of 15 and 29 are expected to enter India’s workforce every year in the next two decades (World Bank, 2017). A skill gap analysis conducted by the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship in 2015 concluded that another 109 million skilled workers will be needed in 24 key sectors of the economy by 2022 (PIB, 2015). However, India recently found itself at the 103rd position in a 2018 report undertaken by the World Economic Forum (WEF) that ranked 130 countries on the basis of preparedness of talent (WEF, 2017). The WEF Report considers human capital index to include literacy, primary, secondary and tertiary education attainment rate, quality of primary schools, labour force participation, unemployment rate, availability of skilled employees and the extent of staff training among other factors. However, owing to the varying methods adopted across countries to measure employment, literacy, quality of schools and more, the Report may not reflect ground realities. Presently, only 2.3 per cent of India’s workforce has received any formal training. The present scenario of skill mismatch that India is witnessing is unsustainable (World Bank, 2017).
Sengupta adds ‘India is today witnessing a skewed ratio in positions such as clerks, peons, office bearers and more. Despite being suitably qualified, aspirants end up grabbing jobs that need elementary skills such as gate-keeping and sweeping. Employers too are happy to hire individuals with higher, but superfluous qualifications. There is thus a serious downgrading of employment.’
Skill vs Employability – Addressing the gaps
How does one address the multiple issues skills gap presents? Let us consider the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field as an example. According to data from the jobs site Indeed, skilled talent in the STEM field has increased from 6 per cent in January 2014 to 12 per cent in January 2018 (PTI, 2018). According to industry experts and academicians, one of the chief contributors to the unavailability of talent is wide disparity between the curriculums adopted by colleges and expectations in the industry. There is an obvious need to update the curricula to cater to industry requirements, a need that academicians have serious objections to—citing the inability of the teaching staff to cope with varied and ever changing needs of the industry. Identification of skill gap can, however, ensure effective ways of recruiting the right personnel to actively engage with educational, vocational and professional academic bodies to shape teaching curriculum and content. Enhancement of skills does not only fall in the domain of on-job industry training, but calls for partnerships with renowned institutes to shape curriculum accordingly (Adhikari, 2018).
Apart from higher education degrees, there is also a need to bolster vocational education in order to fill the skill gap in these areas. The policy question that needs to be addressed here is how to shape the vocational educational system to meet the constantly growing demand of workers. Currently, vocational training is provided at four places in India—secondary/higher secondary schools and polytechnics, industrial training institutes (ITIs), private vocational training providers financed by National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) and in-firm, enterprise training (Mehrotra, 2016). Greater stress needs to be put on vocational training below the graduate level and technical education at the post-schooling and graduate levels (Unni, 2016).
“The lopsided emphasis policy makers place on higher education has fostered an environment where only college and university education are accorded some importance,” says Meenakshi Nayar, President of ETASHA society in conversation with G’nY. “There is also the issue of the constant devaluing of skill-focused training. Vocational training is often equated with blue collar work, which is deemed undignified. This is tied in with the traditional occupational hierarchy of the caste system resulting in a situation where only certain professions such as doctors and engineers are considered worthwhile”, she adds.
To face the above challenges, Nayar suggests the need to take action at multiple levels—large scale campaigns to promote vocational training; providing systematic and individual career guidance to high school students so that all opportunities and options are understood and higher education is in line with interests and aptitudes; bolstering high school and undergraduate courses by providing core employability and life skills including language and communication skills, work ethics and more. Reframing technical courses to make them skill focused—with equal weightage to theoretical and applied knowledge, making the methodology of training experiential so the knowledge gained can be practically applied would also be helpful.
India currently stands at a historic juncture owing to the unprecedented demographic transition it will witness in the coming decade. By 2026, around 64 per cent of the population is expected to be in the age bracket of 15-59 years with 13 per cent of the total aged above 60 years. The growth rate of the working population is projected to exceed that of the total population (Ernst & Young, 2013). In order to reap the benefits of this transition, India needs to ensure that its working population is well equipped with the requisite skills that cater to the needs of the economy. If the present scenario continues, India will no doubt languish from unemployment and the lack of a skilled work force. All stakeholders —the state, relevant industries, educational institutions, policymakers and students will need to actively participate to help enable an overhaul of the present educational system.
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