While India has the advantage of a huge youth population joining the workforce, it is important to provide the skills and training that match their aspirations and shape them.

Twenty-two-year-old Rishab loves “Smart Substances,” such as self-healing cement and bio glasses. He says, “I wish to be a part of something like this dreamlike state in the future — something that appears totally unbelievable but turns out to be possible. I wish to do something that will help people, not just technological but new.” He is in the final year of Mechanical Engineering in Sri Venkateswara College of Engineering, Chennai. His aspirations are fuelled by the doubled effect of a shrinking world and expanding knowledge horizons.

In the earlier generation, would it have even been possible to have dreams and goals that take you out of your circuit of everyday experiences? Probably not!

And what about the future? When Rishab is in his early thirties and perhaps settled into a field of his choice, there are expected to be 550 million youth less than 25 years of age with dreams and expectations perhaps even more radically different.

Five hundred and fifty million, which was the population of the entire Indian nation in 1970, sounds like a huge number — except that in itself, it could be a blessing not a burden. It is anticipated that this huge youth population will not only add to the workforce in India and abroad, but will bring in a wave of aspiration and innovation which would contribute to the country’s development.

Responsibility

Expectations are on that this huge youth population is going to bring in a demographic dividend which the country sorely needs. However, with the dividend comes responsibility: the responsibility of suitably educating these envoys of development, and adequately skilling the workforce and rendering the youth employable.

The twelfth Five-Year-Plan document reflects that the government is taking this factor into account. The Planning Commission has laid a hopeful emphasis on the “force of aspiration” of the youth. However, is the government completely aware of the directions of this force?

All these questions are explored in a study conducted by Megha Aggarwal and others (Aggarwal, Kapur and Tognata, The skills they want: Aspirations of students in emerging India, Center for Advanced Study in India, Working Paper Series, Number 12-03).

The study, which was undertaken with the help of Azim Premji Foundation, addresses the very pertinent issue of whether the agencies involved in skills training and planning are in tune with the aspirations of students.

Mismatch

What is most significant from the survey is the mismatch it shows between the student aspirations and the requirements of the Indian economy. While the National Skill Development Authority (NSDA) identifies the automobile sector and construction/plumbing as areas that will see the maximum growth in employment generation over the next decade, these find few takers among the students. Rather they are inclined to take up education related to banking sector, healthcare, finance and insurance, etc.

There are some other results that are interesting and important. Students show a significant reluctance to take up vocational education, a preference for higher studies, a liking for learning English, Computer Skills and, to some extent, personality development programmes and interview skills.

Says Megha Aggarwal, Founder and CEO of LEAP skills and one of the authors of the study, “The second trend (high interest among students in Banking, Finance Insurance, Computer repair, etc) is the more scary of the two, because with not enough openings coming up in these areas, it could lead to students getting disillusioned.” This can be counter-productive.

The survey was administered to 2,855 Class 12 students in three districts of India — Dhantri (Chhattisgarh); Sirohi (Rajasthan) and Surpur (Maharashtra). The authors do see a variation depending on geography in these three surveyed districts and this will reflect in a nationwide survey — if such a thing is undertaken. But the trends must not be neglected if the government plans to adequately train its youth.

Way forward

The indications are clear and the paper also gives some suggestions on how to bridge the gaps. The “build and they will come” attitude on the part of the government and skill-development agencies could turn out to be unproductive unless complemented by good marketing of ideas. The authors recommend that awareness campaigns be undertaken which target parents and guardians, as they are the primary influencers of students’ choices. Media could also be better leveraged as its penetration is high.

Class consciousness

One of the reasons why students do not prefer to take up vocational education is a feeling that it is a low-quality option. So apart from rebranding these programmes as “skill development,” incentives could be offered such as premium in wages for those skilled workers who have taken formal vocational education courses. Another major reason for not taking up these courses was a desire on the part of the student to pursue higher education and degrees — so constructing pathways between vocational education and general higher education are likely to make these courses more appealing.

Combo courses

The students may be offered a combination of job-specific skills and soft skills such as languages, computer skills, communication and personality development, interview skills, to make it better.

Unless measures are taken to “shape their (the students’) aspirations as well as allow them to realise them,” the demographic dividend could turn into a demographic nightmare.

It is true that the survey and study have been conducted only in three districts and that there is a slight variation even within these districts. However, the trend reflected in all three is an alarming one and needs acting upon. The NSDA really has its work cut out for the next decade.