Vocational empowerment should spearhead human resources development

It was not at all surprising to have a British panelist emphasize that India desperately needed more carpenters, welders, electricians and plumbers than engineers and MBAs on a nationally televised debate last week. The other Indian panelists, carrying our country’s burdensome intellectual baggage, had their sights on the top of the pyramid and spoke unimaginatively about establishing more IITs.

China is the economic powerhouse that it is today thanks to the majority of its citizens choosing to work with their hands and feet. South Koreans are no different. You could have said that of Japan too not long ago till their currency strategy (and not any decline in their industrial productivity) did them in.

Our national obsession with higher education and the degrees that come with it has not produced the desired outcomes as anyone who evaluates fresh graduates for jobs will know.  On a rough and ready estimate basis, 95% of India’s graduates, whether technical or otherwise, don’t measure up for any job with a MNC while about 85% don’t make the cut for any job, regardless of the ownership hue of the employer.  Noises emanating from marquee companies such as Microsoft have underscored this disturbing data. Recent media disclosures of more than 30% of passing out business graduates not finding a job at all are also a painful pointer to where our education policymakers have got it all mixed up in their heads.

Last night, I was over at a neighbor’s place who manages an export oriented garment processing unit in the industrial hub of Bangalore following his retirement. A Hindustan lever alumnus, the gentleman knows a thing or two about what separates the men from the boys as you would expect. He has had more than fifty shop floor jobs open for almost a year without finding any takers. His non-technical workforce, however, continues to swell to unwieldy proportions as he has to accommodate local politicians and musclemen who have the potential of bringing the factory to a screeching halt, should their egos not be pandered to, whenever they please.


Youngsters referred by this mafia only want to head for a desk and chair and exercise the concomitant authority that comes from sitting behind a table.  Incidentally, a skilled technician is compensated far better than the office bound clerk but even that is not a carrot for the indolent job seeker as the dowry for a clerk far exceeds that of a shop floor hand.  Therein lay the rub.

Even at the higher end, brilliant engineers head for business school right after their IITs and NITs.  I tend to believe that what my anguished neighbor shared with me is really a microcosm of what ails the Indian manufacturing sector. It is not as it there are no jobs on the shop floor but the real crisis is that there are not enough aspirants. It is clearly a mindset issue that calls for a clinical overhaul.

A pioneer in infrastructure financing in India that added a vocational education arm (led by a former IAS officer who quit the service prematurely to follow his passion of “skilling the average Indian youth”) as a vertical has been struggling to fill its welding classes despite a handsome subsidy to students wishing to enroll for its workplace readiness courses.  A German equipment conglomerate that also set up a similar business unit to train and place after sales technicians with its pan India dealer workforce is also faced with near empty classrooms.

I have run into graduates manning the counters of shopping malls earning a third of what drivers do in Bangalore. Hotel management graduates from hole in the wall institutes end up in dead end jobs as waiters in many of India’s top cities and have to survive on tips as their salaries don’t even pay for the most basic creature comforts. Yet, they don’t seem to see the light. Rather, their parents don’t see it at all.

This hypocrisy is exposed when the son opts for the Gulf region and sends dirhams home on the back of a semi menial job where he has to get his hands dirty for a living. The typical Indian parent would rather have an unemployable graduate of a child feeding off the family’s shrinking capital than see him go to work in overalls.  However, he can work in dungarees or stripped down to his bare essentials as long as he is not within the sight of the extended family or their neighbors in a distant land. The inward remittance and a weak rupee are what matters then.

If India has managed all these years with only a fraction of its engineers and MBAs, chances are it will continue to. But our roads, airports, railway tracks and factories can’t possibly be built by imported labor as is the situation in Dubai or Singapore as any such move would lead to social turbulence, to put it mildly.

As the new government prepares to unleash its manifesto of bullet trains and a hundred new cities, unemployed and unemployable engineers should seriously consider getting their fingers dirty in nation building than covet the comforts of an executive chamber that will remain a pipe dream. Our freshly minted HRD minister, Ms Irani is touted to be an unconventional thinker. She has a fantastic opportunity to live up to her reputation by derecognizing all engineering colleges that have not been able to place more than half of their students over the last ten years. Such under performing institutes could be given the option of converting themselves into ITI type vocational institutes with close linkages to potential employers who would, in the main, decide on the course contents and the selection of faculty as well.

While business schools with similar uninspiring placement track records could be turned into captive feeders of non-managerial staff to selected employers if they indeed have to survive. Like an army, a company needs hundreds of foot soldiers and only a few generals.

These are tough calls but the time for soft options is clearly over for India.

Posted in Leadership

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