Preparing young Indians for an unstable labour market
Skilled occupations have long been viewed in India as socially undesirable, and this can be linked to the millennia-old caste system that deeply pervades Indian society and shapes its thinking in both perceptible and imperceptible ways. The caste system helps shape an order where ‘whitecollar’ occupations are more desirable and respectable when compared to ‘blue-collar’ jobs, or more accurately, where there is an element of using one’s hands to accomplish tasks central to the profession in question. Such an unreasonable view of skilled jobs has in no uncertain terms resulted in the unusually low number of apprentices in India.
Beyond the realm of social dialogue, practical considerations such as an apprenticeship regime that is neither relevant and responsive to industry’s requirements, nor decently remunerative during the training period, further disincentivise Indians to take up the option of apprenticeship. The Indian apprenticeship regime’s unattractiveness to industry has also meant lesser likelihood of apprenticeships securing desirable career opportunities after training.
Recent amendments to India’s Apprentices Act have tried to address these concerns by most notably bringing India’s thriving services sector into its purview, linking apprentice remuneration to state-wise minimum wages, and attempting to make the prospect of apprenticeship more viable and attractive for Indian industry while also not compromising on labour rights and decent work standards. Further, the National Apprenticeship Promotion Scheme (NAPS) was launched to further subsidise apprenticeship stipends by way of reimbursements to corporates to encourage them to offer such on-thejob training.
It is desirable to introduce apprenticeships at the university level since this would provide youth with the option of taking up industry-relevant apprenticeships even if they have opted for a mainstream higher education pathway. It should be the intention and practice of national regimes to create a policy and institutional framework wherein the two choices of university education and apprenticeships do not become mutually exclusive.
Apprenticeships in higher education are also desirable since at a university level, youth can simultaneously learn more advanced technical theory and apply these in an apprenticeship context to even higher-order skill sets on the shop floor. This combination acquires even greater significance in the context of automation, where the possession and display of higher-order skills will determine if an employee will remain relevant or be deemed redundant.
The development of a comprehensive framework to enable the youth to build their capabilities in both mainstream and vocational education, with the ability to switch streams effortlessly, was attempted in India through the creation of the National Skill Qualification Framework (NSQF). It needs to be implemented at both the school and college level since most skill training activities are targeted at this age group to ensure that the appropriate demographic sections are being addressed.
The NSQF would further help in bridging the gap between vocational schools and colleges, and purely academic institutions, and ensure the mobility of a candidate between vocational and general education, as university degrees become more aligned to this qualification framework. However, this alignment to ensure that vocational education and mainstream education is not mutually exclusive can only be achieved if universities are incentivised for compliance and penalised for noncompliance.
In the Indian context, such an alignment exercise needs to extend to apprenticeships adequately to ensure that they are weaved into a national qualification framework that pegs equivalence of skill-attainment milestones to higher education levels. University-level vocational education initiatives in India such as B.Voc. degrees also need to be integrated with a robust apprenticeship component to truly realise their objective of making young people industry-ready, and to enable them to achieve lateral and vertical mobility to ensure their employability and flexibility to pursue formal education.