Why Skills (Vocational Education) remain un-aspirational !

Skills (Vocational education) remain un-aspirational for a basic reason; we have worked very hard for it to be so, the short sightedness of educational policymakers has ensured that it remains a secondary alternative, always inferior to conventional education. In fact, it should not surprise anyone and be taken as a fact. In this article I look at how the past and current efforts spacing skills in Indian society.

Let us start with a brief look at history. The divison of labour was set in the Indian society from early ages, further mainstreamed by the caste system, which put “working with hands” below knowledge and learning. Skills that runs our daily life, was for an intellectual Indian society, lowly and it rubbed in to categorise people involved therein. Some basic utlity skills were so despised that settlements in villages for people doing that work was literally provided at the fringes of the society. So it not just metaphorically but also both physically that utility skills was chastised.

While skilled workers did good and crafts excelled, as is still evident in the strong history and lineage of artisanal talent and skill, even today. But society always pegged them below knowledge pundits. The Manufacturing Skills never mainstreamed since the knowledge and skills were totally disconnected in a system of caste hierarchy. Thinkers and learners had little value for vocational skills. Furthermore, real workers who could provide inputs on what kind of machines are required and how manufacturing should be done were not thought to be good enough to be consulted. This chasm is still felt today. The distinction deepened further through social labeling by kings and then by modern politicians, who ensured percolation of the already divided lines.

Since times immemorial, power and money have been the key drivers of social prestige and aspiration in any society. Since one of them leads to the other, people tried to get either one of them, it did not matter which one. However, things began to change when a third element was introduced by the Britishers- the “Paper-certificate.” Everything started being defined by this paper. Such papers form the basis of education and skilling today.

The debate of uniformity and benchmarking that certificates offer is a separate one; the limited idea here is to acknowledge a change in modality. While we lived in a certificate-less society for long, focusing on identifying and nurturing talent by its expositions, everything changed and lot of people got left behind. It must be appreciated that much of the work in skill development in India today is to provide that paper to the skilled person under a Qualification Framework. However since papers need examination we have other associated problems coming up, which we have not been able to solve well.

India’s examination system is well known for its rote nature. We chased literacy without any learning, We thought we meant learning when we said “Right to Education” but sadly metrics show that education happened with little or learning. Vocational Skills came only as an after thought, when we saw that our youth with the “paper” did not know what to do with the piece of paper they had earned after repeated exercises of reproduction of crammed notes.

Today every report, every newspaper is filled with industry complaints that the young who enter workforce do not have the skills. However, rightly or wrongly they put the onus on the government, making it the supplier of the public good of skills. Industry has just been filtering and attaching a marginal premium in vacancy hunting. Its contributory role has been too limited. However, in a surplus market marginal wage premium works for a miniscule and is hard for a majority. The government, while it may be well intentioned has too many grey spots to address. Its fundamental issue is that it can only be an enabler, since it is not Govt. but the private sector which employs, the easy route is that it can pump in supply money, in the hope something turns out well. This cannot get any better for the private sector who can see the show from the audience when they should have been the actors. Fundamentally , it must be noted that it is the demand side that creates an aspiration and not the supply side. Hence it is no surprise that vocational skill would remain un-aspirational till the supply side is stronger than the demand side.

Furthermore, the working with hands will further be unattractive to screen hooked generations. Owing to a largely uneducated workforce it is hard to understand the intricacies of many work domains and its hardships, the innate value creation that a skilled worker can make etc. . This has its own effects on content creation, defining roles and associated descriptions. When the feedback mechanisms don’t allow right co-creation, we rest on consultants who dress up things well but offer limited substance and justice to work. So half baked job roles and stunted curriculum are inept seeds of training working on narrow human needs which then rightly do not offer hope and aspiration. Such is the state of affairs in skill development eco-system, that a NSDC-SSC course called “Unarmed security guard” is touted to be aspirational. One can only laugh at it. We have made a mockery here, even the basic nomenclature is inapt, compare that to the nomenclature of Doctor/Engineer or a physiotherapist. Should physiotherapist be called “Non-medicine life worker“or something like this ? Hence, it sad that our basics are not right, we fundamentally do things that are bound to be un-aspirational.

The only story that the country takes immense pride as the hallmark realization od aspiration is in Information Technology. Recent events are slowly unraveling it. However, despite all this, a close analysis can offers good lessons. Technology by its very definition is something young look up to, it offers little choice but to adapt. Hence, quick change, newness etc. ties up into the aspirational angle. However, its success in stirring the aspirational value in India had other crucial factors, its charm for the middle class, was in the office environment of desk work, foreign location, a chance to escape poor living standards and a streak to exhibit individual productivity post opening up of the economy. It was a response to a globalized world. It was not a thirst for skills but a thirst to move out from India’s middle class that propelled IT. Hence, real aspirations come with other substantive changes, then skills. Skills happen to be a by-product, if the aspirations catch the fancy our youth.

Much of our solution and debates to any problem in the country focuses on “a mindset change”, the debate to making skills aspirational has a similar answer repeated ad nauseam in conference and meetings of so called wise people. While this is partially true, it missed many core points, it reflects escapism and ensures easy passing of the onus to people, who unfortunately cannot reply as they are tied up in just making a decent existence. Let us take a small example to illustrate- If policy makers say “that they put dustbins in public places to make Swachh Bharat successful but it is the people who did not contribute and stole them” ; hence it is not them but the people who are to be blamed and reflects on the “mindset” of the people. What do you think line of thought is, I think this is a smart excuse, it is the lack of policy maker’s imagination and a limited understanding of poor people’s life and choices. The policy maker could have thought of better means using technology to ensure it cannot be stolen and in process owned the responsibility of success or failure. But, sadly this is not what we hear as the dominant narrative. This however said, we must be careful that this does not mean to absolve the common man, since it is only when “we work together” that can make anything work. Hence, making skills aspirational is not about a societal or mindset change only (although it is very important that is happens) but about the primary response that has to come from policy makers.

Let use look at a campaign run by the government in the recent past. The government launched “Hunar Hai toh Kadar Hai” through the NSDC. Such a campaign while necessary had its own issues, it provided a feel good feeling but but could have been far better. The Urdu word Hunar means “talent” it does not mean skills, as is also evident from the Hindi names of State Skill missions in the northern region of the country referred to as “Kaushal” Missions. The “Hunar Hai toh Kadar Hai”campaign was generic, in that everyone identified with it. The risk of everyone identifying with a campaign is that no one identifies with it enough, to care and act on it. Campaigns are aimed at target audiences and not meant as a feel good for all. No one can disputes if we are storehouses of talent (hunar). To say that talent (Hunar) brings respect (kadar) does not stir anyone up for action. We wanted people to value skills over education we failed to do just that. Additionally, with the hype of public private partnership there was a sense of euphoria that something was happening, and the way skills are perceived in the country will change, sadly it has not. The biggest loss has been the widely changed public perception that things have changed dramatically while reality is more dark.

Things have improved on the campaign front, we might now have understood the above argument , the recent advertisement featuring Sachin Tendulkar is a fine example of a good campaign, it connects to a person they identify with and speak with an everyday touch. My appreciation for this well thought idea.

In a collectivist society like India, respect and dignity can form key pillars for aspiration. Genuine respect in contrast to superficial talk, matched with action can change things. Our forefathers guided us in our constitution, they talked about all of us being equal, if we follow them and really “ensure everyone is equal” from a respect and dignity perspective, we would have taken the right steps towards making skill aspirational.

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