India’s skilling strategy is broken

Mekin Maheshwari August 25, 2016 8 min

I am a firm believer that our education needs to be a lot more practical and locally contextual, as I argued in an earlier piece. We need to be able to identify and help groom a student’s capabilities and passions — whether they lie in programming, literature, (dis)assembling gadgets or myriad others.

One of the three important shifts that our education system needs to make is go from nearly all theory and some nonsensical projects — as is done in our engineering and other colleges currently — to a healthy mix of theory and “learning by doing” by experimenting and observing.

A million people turn 18 every month in India. This is going to continue for at least the next 18 years. This massive and energetic population being productively employed isn’t just a great opportunity, it’s also a ticking social bomb.

With the above beliefs, how can I not be a fan of Skill India? I am a big fan of the intention behind Skill India. I should confess, that my knowledge about Skill India is limited to reading content on websites, talking to people in the ecosystem — training organisations and sector skill councils.

There are structural, cultural and reality challenges, that I fear Skill India may not be able to address. There is the most obvious economic challenge — about skilling not leading to economic outcomes, which I am going to skip. A lot of what I state is actually very well documented in the policy document on the website of Ministry of Skill Development & Entrepreneurship, which I liberally quote below.

Skilling is synonymous with failure

From the policy document: “One of the major challenges in the country today is public perception on skilling, which is viewed as the last option meant for those who have not been able to progress/opted out of the formal academic system.”

Multiple cultural nuances are responsible for this. Two things I think have led us here are:

A divide between the ruling class and the working class. After the kings and the Britishers, we continue to live with a mindset that some people (mostly rich, well connected) live with a lot of privileges and a sense of entitlement, while the rest slog hard to serve them.

A caste system that revered “theorists” and was condescending towards everything done by hand.

The implication of this is huge: if there are no aspirations (read: demand) for getting skilled, primarily due to social and cultural reasons, it will be hard for economics to offset those challenges.

We abhor giving bad news + the business of degrees

Anyone who read books or watched TV/movies from the US, would recollect how “Getting into College” was a big deal. Tests like SAT and a high tuition made it hard for everybody to pursue higher education.


China assesses students after 12th grade and based on that, people move towards a Bachelor’s program or vocation. China had 19% students of age 18 head to vocation training and 18% for university programs, according to OECD data, 2014.

Germany has had the most evolved programs where a person’s interest and capabilities together play a role. Also, it is a place where skilling and higher education criss-cross in multiple ways, which, in turn, creates many opportunities for students. It is also probably the most evolved in how students get rewarded. A friend was telling me how in Germany, people who had opted for vocations, got their first cars five years ahead of those who opted for higher education. Over a longer period of time, the higher education pays a bit more.

In India, we just hate giving bad news. We are happy to delay it as much as possible. After Grade 12, the question “Should you be pursuing a theoretical Bachelor’s degree or pursuing a vocation” just doesn’t get asked. One of the big reasons for this is the sheer number of low quality degree distribution businesses (aka colleges) that have mushroomed in India — mostly owned by the rich and the well connected. A qualification exam,  which I feel is a must before you can pursue higher education, would kill a lot of these businesses . Hence, it doesn’t even get talked about. And, once people have attained a degree, their willingness to get their hands dirty is far lower. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) website doesn’t even list data about students enrolled in vocational education.

Where are the jobs?

In 2015, we added one lakh jobs in the top 8 sectors. Let me remind you that one million people every month are turning 18. Please pause. Do the math and let the enormity of the challenge sink in.

There is a comprehensive report by HDFC bank titled Naukri Kum. I don’t necessarily agree to all conjectures there, but it highlights a lot of key data points. For a long time, Industries have been talking about lack of quality skilled workforce. While that is always the case, I would argue that if and when there is business needs, companies have been able to do the skilling themselves to meet the need.

When I ran HR at Flipkart ,  possibly the fastest growing company of our times, we used to always think about: whether we do more with less (capital and labour). Nobody that I met or read in the HR circuit was touting “big is better”, in terms of employee base. It has been a while since I read about two large companies joining hands, because “bigger is better”.

The IT industry, which is seen as the biggest job creator over the last 30 years, used to hire non-engineering graduates and train them less than 10 years back. They have been talking about unemployable engineering graduates as early as then!

All this to me points towards something simple: we,  the human race, have just not been able to solve the challenge of creating mammoth, yet productive and healthy organisations. I do not see large swathes of Indians being employed by massive corporates. I believe they will be occupied by a lot more smaller enterprises, entrepreneurs and “gig workers”, whose productivity would get enhanced by platforms aggregating them.

Understanding what is a skill and its longevity

NSDC, short for the National Skill Development Corporation, has developed National Occupation Standards for thousands of job profiles with the help of industry experts. By looking at the output, I have couple of large concerns. For context, do check out this 46 page description of a software engineer role or this 55 pager for a cashier.

I am no HR expert, but how are these laborious standards ever going to be meaningfully used for training or assessment? It seems like these have been developed with a very rigid, as-of-today view, probably specific to the industry partner who was active on a skill council. Underlying these, there seems to be an assumption that the shelf-life of a skill is very long. We are living in a world, where audio and video are threatening typing, and driverless cars are threatening driving as a skill.

In my opinion (IMO), there should probably have been standards only on performance/accomplishments of the skill. Examples: how many transactions can a cashier do in five minutes? What kind of error rates are acceptable? (As an aside, I am perplexed that a software engineer, with a pre-requisite of a Bachelor’s in Technology finds a place under the Skill India mission!)


I believe it is unfair to call out the challenges without offering suggestions. Some of the below suggestions are already part of the policy. But, IMO, they should have far higher focus than they do.

  1. Massively focus on apprenticeships. It is the fastest and most efficient way of acquiring skills for a large number of non-literate but fully conversant people.
  2. Focus on grassroots entrepreneurship . There are no jobs! We need job creators — entrepreneurial people, who could possibly create more jobs, or at the minimum, be able to adapt to the changing world. It was a great step to bring skills and entrepreneurship together under one ministry. However, I see large focus on clocking numbers in skilling for low end jobs, and not so much focus on entrepreneurship.
  3. Conscription: While NSDC is running campaigns using celebrities, people get inspired by what people DO and not what they say. We need to have role models to be willing to roll up their sleeves, break class hierarchies, and do physical work. I quite like the concept of conscription — mandatory national service, hopefully not just in military. I would imagine, it could be a great equalizer. In most countries it started out as a service in the armed forces, but has since evolved to doing other things for the country. I believe a common platform like this – which everyone – regardless of lineage, wealth has to go through – can be a great equaliser. Class hierarchies would get broken with people across classes, rubbing shoulders during Conscription. The other challenge – it could solve – is get back empathy & respect for jobs that otherwise are no longer aspirational.

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