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Poverty. Riches. The world's largest democracy. An ancient caste system. Bollywood. India is a land of contrasts, a booming new power that remains baffling to outsiders and insiders alike. The Shiva Rules is a year-long GlobalPost series that decodes the many mysteries of India's uneven rise in the 21st century.
To avert a disastrous impending labor shortage, India needs to train 500 million skilled workers by 2022.
The trouble is that India can't afford to rely on supply and demand in the labor market to drive young people into vocational education — that would mean the full impact of the crisis had already hit. That's why NSDC plans to blanket the country with ads designed to put the pride back in blue collar work, said Chenoy.
But it will take more than slogans. The private sector needs to overhaul vocational education, starting with knocking down the artificial wall between academic degrees and skills certifications, said Neeti Sharma, an executive at TeamLease, India's largest staffing company. Currently, there are no community colleges in India, so there's no such thing as a vocational "degree." Moreover, once a student enters the vocational track there's virtually no way for him to get back into the university stream — and vice versa.
That's why TeamLease is working in Gujarat to set up the country's first vocational university. Similarly, Global Talent Track, which has partnered with multinational computer networking firm Cisco Systems Inc. and some 900 colleges across 15 states, recently tied up with the University of Kashmir to train degree students with the job skills that employers are looking for.
"In this country, traditionally, skills and education have always followed two different paths," said Global Talent Track chief executive Uma Ganesh.
Without question, skilled workers get paid more than unskilled ones, and vocational training can mean the difference between work in the unorganized sector — without benefits or job security — and a future with a growing national firm. But even though training firms say their graduates earn 10 to 50 percent more as a result of their training, recruiting isn't easy.
Employers pay more for skills, but so far they haven't started paying extra for workers with training certifications, and students are still reluctant to pay for training outside of "glamor programs" like computer programming and flight attendant schools.
Moreover, the companies and nonprofits that offer vocational education programs say that government-funded programs that are free for students are only partly effective: It helps them get students through the door, but doesn't ensure that they graduate. According to the head of one vocational program, the dropout rate for students on complete scholarships is as high as 70 to 80 percent. It falls to 10 to 20 percent among students paying all or part of the fee themselves.
"Today, the biggest challenge is that industry is not mandating certification," said IndiaSkills' Menon. "So the prospective learners feel that I can always walk into a company and get a job, and even if I'm certified it doesn't create any differential or positioning for me in industry when it comes to pay."
Even young people who are desperate for jobs don't necessarily understand the value of skills training, said Girish Singhania, who started Edubridge Learning to bring rural Indians into the modern job market in 2009.
Recruiters have to be equal parts salesman and social worker to get prospects to enroll. After enrollment, the company has to cajole them to stay on to graduate, encourage them to migrate and take a job at the end of the program, and then coach them on the importance of working hard once they're on a company's roster.
"The most important challenge we face is the mindset of the people living in these areas," Singhania said. "The mindset is just to accept things as they are and not try to change their careers."
To make India an industrial powerhouse, the mindset of the entire country will have to change.