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The Great Indian Education 'Jugaad'

Friday, 18 October 2013 - 9:00am IST

Looking for a quick fix jugaad to plug the employability gap needs to make way for more concrete and long term solutions in education says Saurabh Chandra.
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We are all aware of this momentous opportunity in India’s history. Over the coming years we will either reap the promised demographic dividend with lakhs of youngsters entering the working population (10 lakh every month as of now) or a demographic disaster of lakhs of ill-educated, unemployed youth. Unlike other issues of such import, this one cannot plead neglect and has been discussed at length in forums public, private and all combination thereof. Of all the solutions suggested to tackle this issue, it is generally agreed that we need all of them. In this regard it is a unique issue in which all solutions that work are much needed – private, public, adult, vocational, research, combinations of all – and all in great scale. However, education done well takes an awful lot of years and since we are already at the precipice of this demographic surge, we need some quick solutions.

Jugaad is much celebrated and maligned at the same time. It is celebrated as creating a nation of innovators and tinkerers who can find frugal solutions to pressing needs. It is maligned as a subvertor of excellence, a short-term ‘make-do’ instead of aiming for the best in efficiency and productivity. But what does one do when there is no time, no money but the wheels have to keep moving? In education, the great Indian jugaad manifests itself in the skill development programme. The private sector version of the same is the finishing school. It is also called as bridging the employability gap and some call it making students industry ready. It hopes to fix 14 or 18 years of bad education in 3 to 12 well-packaged months. It is one of the largest and most ambitious programmes of the government that aims to provide skills to 50 crore people by 2022.

To give you an idea of these skills - I received this email a few days ago from the Telecom Sector Skills Council that operates under the National Skills Development Council and has all major telecom companies and handset manufacturers as partners apart from IIM-A. The email was to encourage industry participation in training people. The council has created certifications in skills such as In-Store Promoter, Mobile Repair Technician, Customer Care Executive (Call Centre/ Relationship Centre/Repair Centre), Field Sales Executive, Sales Executive (Broadband), Distributor Care Executive, Mobile Tower Technician, Optical Fibre Splicer and Technician. Every candidate who passes the certification gets an incentive of Rs 10,000.

The idea of naming each skill and creating certifications is good and much prevalent in  developed markets. It helps both the job seeker and the enterprise agree upon what it takes to do a job. In the same vein, there are finishing schools that bridge the gap between an engineering graduate coming from a college and a programmer that many of the IT companies desire. I was talking to a finishing school founder a few years ago sharing our requirements. We discussed many of the tools, languages and processes that the finishing school will acquaint the students with before they join. The founder asked me for a further wish list and I said something to the tune of ‘We would like engineers who are articulate and excellent in problem solving skills’. The founder looked at me and said that articulation is a skill that takes a very long time to learn. Long? Yes, 10 to 15 years.

Skills and qualities that really matter such as discipline, ability to delay gratification, focus, articulation, working in a team, empathy, regard for safety, ability to learn new concepts are all things we learn over 10 to 15 years. The industry jargon to distinguish these from technical skills is traits.The conventional wisdom is that skills can be taught but not traits. At the timescale at which industry operates, that is true. But we must not forget that these are still learnable qualities, albeit over a longer period of time.

Like many of the solutions on offer for the education sector in India, the focus on skills is also one amongst all others. However, it is a jugaad that may only service immediate needs and we should recognise it as such. For starters, the catalogue of skills and certifications will only be a subset of what the economy needs. Today’s fast paced economy will see most demand from areas where even the job titles (heard of customer success engineer yet?) are still evolving. Also, people entering the workforce today will need to learn and relearn new capabilities through the lifetime. What we require is the ability in our work force to imagine new jobs and not just perform them.

The real, excellence based non-jugaad solutions lie in fixing our school education where year after year, assessments are showing falling standards in basic reading and math skills. We are not even measuring the right traits that are needed and not yet asking if all our schools are equipped to provide them. And while we apply our immediate jugaad, how do we bridge the real gap in our adult workforce. As a nation we can’t afford to give up on the 50 crore citizens that as of now we aim to merely skill technically. How do we impart those important skills missed over the long years of growing up? Sure, many of them will learn in the school of hard knocks called life as they do today. This school doesn’t work very well for everyone though and has no remedial classes for folks left behind. Peter Norvig wrote a landmark essay on how to learn programming in 10 years. We need to think on those lines to see how the hard working 20-year-olds entering the workforce today become the super smart 30-year-olds.

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