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India's huge education deficit

By Arvind Singhal
October 08, 2009 13:40 IST
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India has just about 5,500 ITIs and 1,745 polytechnics, compared to 500,000 similar institutes in China, writes Arvind Singhal.

Education is finally getting its due attention at leadership levels of both the government as well as private businesses.

Indeed, India's education deficit looms large at almost every level and for just about every discipline (other than, perhaps, MBA degrees where India may already have a surplus capacity even at the more premium quality levels).

A lot of reform still needs to take place in the overall policy framework in the education sector before India can see any significant non-government investment in it. Hopefully, many of these reforms will see the light of day in the next few months.

However, it is quite likely that once these reforms have taken place, investment in creating additional capacity may largely go towards the K-12. Then it'll go to higher education sub-sectors, especially the more glamorous ones, including premium schools affiliated to the IB and other international boards, and the highly lucrative MBA, engineering and dental colleges.

Vocational training, unfortunately, does not enjoy the same glamour and, therefore, it is very likely that despite having the largest young workforce in the world, India will be faced with chronic shortages in just about every category of skill-based trade jobs.

Even more tragic, from India's perspective, would be the missed opportunity in being the number one supplier of skilled trade labour to the developed and some developing countries even as many such countries, especially those in Western Europe, are faced with rapidly aging populations and fast declining birth rates, leaving them woefully short of all kinds of labour - farm workers, electricians, plumbers, masons, fitters, healthcare givers, machinery operators, cooks/chefs and the like.

It would help to look at some hard data to put this challenge and the big opportunity for India, should it choose to grasp it, in the right perspective.

Of the estimated 455 million jobs in India in 2008, almost 90 per cent (about 410 million) were skill-based. About 255 million of these are related directly to farming, but then the rest (about 155 million) include myriad vocations relating to retail trade, manufacturing, construction, travel and tourism, hospitality and food services, and healthcare.

These statistics by themselves are not remarkable at all. The first of the many shocks that follow is the fact that as many as 87 per cent of these 410 million skill-based workers received no vocational training at all, either formally or through hereditary channels. Just about 2.35 per cent have received some formal vocational training.

Worse, just about 1.30 per cent of the current workforce are enrolled in some kind of formal vocational training. About 3.75 per cent receive their training through hereditary sources, but this will also drop as the future generations may not want to pursue their family vocations.

These dismal statistics are due a totally inexcusable dereliction on the part of Central as well as state governments, decade after decade and government after government, of their responsibility to create trade-based training infrastructure across the country.

The current landscape of vocational training in India comprises just about 5,500 Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) and 1,745 Polytechnics, compared to 500,000 similar institutes in China.

Further, the US boasts about 1,500 trade training programmes compared to India's measly 171. India's current vocational training infrastructure caters to just 2.5 million annually, whereas the country is adding almost 18 million to its population every year.

Even more critically, India has to move millions from farming jobs to non-farming jobs if it has to give itself any chance of improving the plight of the 255 million desperately poor engaged in farming. It is estimated that only 5 per cent of the youth are vocationally trained in any single skill in India, compared to 96 per cent in Korea and even 22 per cent in Botswana.

In the next five years, with a projected average GDP growth of over 7 per cent, India will have the potential to create an additional 75-80 million jobs and of these, almost 75 per cent will require vocational training.

In absolute terms, the largest number of jobs (almost 20 million) will be created in the construction sector alone. Other major job-creating sectors will include hotels and restaurants, banking and insurance, retail, healthcare, transportation and warehousing, and tourism, besides IT and ITES.

In the absence of proper vocational training infrastructure (in quantity and quality), most high-growth industries are already facing shortage of skilled manpower, leading to wage inflation on the one hand and slowdown of growth on the other.

The global opportunity is also being missed by India while over 31 per cent of employers worldwide are struggling to find qualified manpower, especially those in manual trades.

It would be tragic if India is unable to respond to this challenge or benefit from this huge opportunity to be the supplier of skilled workforce not only to its own economy, but also to the rest of the world.

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Arvind Singhal
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