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The Missing Link

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Partha Pratim Mazumder

A learning crisis in India seems imminent even as educational reforms surge ahead. Pro vision of schools does not guarantee the availability of necessary facilities in schools. The gap is still wide when compared to the enrolment of children in the school and learning outcome. The job situation in India does not reflect a crisis, but it is a matter of serious concern. A crisis is understood as an emergency that demands immediate attention, without which, there will be a calamity of sorts. There is no immediate calamity of any kind at hand but there is a deeply insidious problem at work in the form of shrinking employment opportunities, shrinking formal jobs, and shrinking labour force. A populous and demographically young country like India has a lot to gain if the expanding working-age population join the labour force and be provided with gainful employment. More hands at work can ensure greater prosperity and relatively, evenly spread growth.

One of the biggest issues India is facing is that of unemployment. In fact, most people voted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi on that account. There is this strange expectation and perception that Modi will waive the problem away by some kind of magic wand. Those hoping for a miracle, please stop day dreaming. Most people lay the blame at the door of our faulty education policy. Well, faulty no doubt it is, but to say the entire problem of unemployment is because of the education policy, seems a tad exaggerated.

Yes, several educated youths, especially professionally qualified ones, are sitting idle or involved in some entrepreneurial activities. Of the large section of people who are not able to find work are engineers. Now, are they unemployed in its truest sense? Unemployment is basically when a person willing and capable to work does not find a job at the going wage rate. And it is the last phrase, which is the root cause. “At the going wage rate” or the prevailing one, in essence means, you are this engineer strutting around with a good performance and a degree, you apply through job portals and meet recruiters and you get job offers but at what salary? Rs 30,000 per month! Sorry, you say. No way will I work for that measly amount. I would rather sit at home. And those angry words become your reality. You sit at home and let jobs pass you by because sorry, they are not worth your calibre. And you are not technically unemployed. You are voluntarily unemployed.

That is where one aspect of the issue lies. As we acquire higher education, we obviously seek what are called “white collar jobs” implying those people who work within the confines of the office. The other type is relegated to the shunned category as it is associated with those who are uneducated, which includes construction workers, factory workers and so on. Now, after all our qualifications, it is a no brainier that certain jobs shall not be touched. It is not what we studied for. Fair enough?

Now, let’s look at this third category of our populace. The plumbers, electricians, salon owners, tailors, contractors, cab (read Uber or Ola) drivers etc. They are self-employed and work as per when and where they want. The demand for their services arises from time to time in every household. In fact that an engineer son sitting idle at home chases the plumber away when suddenly the water supply stops. When the electricity goes out, who is called on? The electrician! Such people are working at their own pace, earn what they demand and lead a life which meets their requirements. They send their kids to school too. I am not saying they enjoy a plush life. But, considering they earn pretty well in a day, with no boss to answer to and no appraisals, tension of a raise, meeting deadlines, it all seems rather decent. With so many metros and residential complexes, they are never short of work either.

But would a bright engineer with a degree, capable and qualified, do such jobs? Would such a person ever become an Uber driver or an electrician? A yes, in this matter is not even expected. Such meagre works will not be touched even by a barge pole, I am sure. And here is where we as a society have gone awry. We educate our kids to vie for degrees. We want them to be a CEO by 40. We live to see them sitting in a plush office, with power, a handsome salary, paid vacations and the works. Ever thought about the demand supply ratio for such jobs? No, why should we? Our kid is a bright graduate software engineer. How can the supply of jobs run out for him? The bitter and unpalatable truth is that it does dry up. Then what?

Nowhere do we even consider that, perhaps a skill will be a better acquisition. We are educated folks. Why would we have such a preposterous thought? Honestly, I would shudder at the thought of my son becoming a carpenter. He may make lots of money but he will have no social prestige. And that, my dear folks, is the core issue. We are good at aping the West. Quite the experts at that actually. Then why can’t we see that a plumber and a banker are treated with equal respect there? No child hesitates in saying that my dad is a carpenter in the West. The entire thrust on degrees in our country is what has let us down. Our problem is the society’s perception and expectation.

Skill education was the agenda in this government’s last term too. But who and in how much time will we realize that no profession is demeaning. Acquiring a qualification, sitting jobless and becoming depressed is a natural outcome. If only we learn to treat our helpers, who come to us with their tools in our dire need, with equal respect and honour, maybe decades later we will see some changes. Yes, a change observed is there nowadays, more and more kids are turning to self owned ventures. But not many patents are supportive of that either. We are a generation moulded in a step by step acquisition of degrees and certificates. We do not pause to think about how it will help in the long run.

Waiting, rarely opening the prestigious degrees in a file, even getting them framed, the choice is simple. Both underemployment and this form of discouragement are a significant loss of productive potential. This is particularly troubling when it pertains to India’s large and growing youth population. Pathways to productive and high-quality employment are essential to deliver better living standards to citizens, but also for sustainable and inclusive economic growth.

So, how can we address the problem? Addressing the underemployment crisis entails a three-pronged strategy. First, we must improve the quality of jobs by improving productivity in agriculture and in enterprises. Second, we must align education, both technical and vocational education and training to meet the market demand. Third, we must make enduring and long-term investments in human capital through good-quality education, skills, and on-the-job training, as well as basic social protection.

Recent data do suggest that there is rising unemployment. To be sure, this is a problem. But perhaps, the larger and arguably more pressing challenge is underemployment.