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How to make jobs programmes work

November 28, 2018 10:04 IST

A breakthrough will come from what we teach and how, says Ajit Balakrishnan.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Strolling down Madison Avenue in New York at midday the other day, I was struck by the number of vacant storefronts, their shelves empty and 'For Rent' banners prominently displayed.

It was no different along the other previously booming retail corridors such as Fifth Avenue and Broadway. Some parts of New York like the erstwhile capital of hip culture, Bleecker Street, have started looking like ghost towns.

A report from Douglas Elliman, a major real estate information source, the percentage of retail stores vacant in Manhattan is now 20 per cent compared to 6 per cent a couple of years ago.

Will the jobs created by consumer e-commerce as delivery boys and in their warehouses make up for this is the ongoing debate in America.

Also, if this impact is being felt when consumer online e-commerce is a mere 6 per cent of all retail sales in America, what will happen when it gets to, say, 50 per cent?

Landing back home in Mumbai, the first newspaper I opened had this alarming headline: 'Over 28 million people apply for 90,000 railways jobs!'

I silently thanked myself that I am not a politician having to fight to retain my seat in the upcoming election season: Jobs anxiety is on the prowl and political parties have started trading barbs on this most crucial issue.

'Youth still waiting for 20 million jobs promised,' says one party; 'Over 7 million jobs created in formal sector last year,' responds the other.

 

If, once upon a time, India's main problem frame was, as Tilak, put it so eloquently, 'Swaraj mera janamsiddh adhikar hai', today it is probably this: 'The million Indians who reach employable age each month have a right to a job.'

To be fair, India is not the only country struggling with the jobs problem. Mr Trump's key actions so far -- increasing import tariffs, tightening visa requirements, threatening to build a wall along the Mexican border -- are all aimed at solving a similar problem that America faces: Not enough jobs for Americans.

Britain's almost suicidal push to exit the European Union, Brexit, is driven by concerns that being part of the EU will result in jobs, already in short supply, being taken by immigrants from other European countries.

What's with the world that suddenly jobs are on everyone's minds?

A major contributor to the jobs anxiety, no doubt, is the sudden discovery that economic growth as measured by gross domestic product growth no longer means growth in jobs.

A World Bank survey (South Asia Economic Focus Spring 2018: Jobless Growth) of South Asian (including Indian) economists where the question asked was, 'If India's GDP grows by 1 per cent, by how much will jobs grow?' 35 per cent answered that jobs growth will be negligible, 32 per cent said that jobs growth will be 0.3 per cent, 25 per cent said jobs will grow 0.3 to 1.0 per cent and a mere 4 per cent said that jobs growth will be more than 1 per cent.

And, worse, they expect practically all the job growth to come from 'Regular' employment -- most jobs are expected to be in the informal and casual sector.

The sobering reality is that what jobs get created and of what types will affect the social structure of society as Peter Blau and Otis Duncan point out in their path breaking book: 'The occupation structure is the foundation of stratification system of contemporary society' and as feudal estates and hereditary castes fade away, class difference come to rest primarily on occupational positions and the economic advantages and powers associated with them.

Ashok Thakur, a former education secretary, and S S Mantha, a former chair of AICTE -- two people who ought to know what they are talking about (writing in The Indian Express recently) -- point out that 'due to deep-rooted social prejudices against working with one's hands as it is considered lowly and demeaning', vocational education, which was supposed to an integral part of the 10+2 system introduced in the mid 1960s post the Kothari Commission, went for a toss'.

Even a well-intentioned effort to speed up skill development by creating a new ministry of skill development can backfire. They believe that the way out is to stream students into general or vocational line from Class IX.

This, they believe will result in 'de-stigmatising vocational education by making it part-and-parcel of the school and university system'.

The other side to the jobs issue: Many businesses can't grow in India because people with those skills don't exist. This happens most acutely when the technological paradigm of a time is going through massive change as we are living through now as the Information Age gathers steam.

Curricula fall behind and it is no easy task to bring curricula up to speed.

For example, in today's critical skill Machine Learning, curricula in our top ranking engineering colleges and management schools are lagging times by five years. It lags in engineering college because statistics is not a core subject there and it lags in management schools because programming languages such as R and Python are not core subjects.

The transition from a world of exactness to one of probabilities is not appreciated in engineering college and the transition of managers from those who supervise others to those who roll up their sleeves and do computations themselves is not appreciated in management schools.

In other engineering and management colleges, the lag is probably 10 years and in polytechnics and ITIs by 25 years.

If this is not corrected immediately, Indian companies will fall behind international competition, thereby leading to job contraction. And our election season may turn chaotic.

Ajit Balakrishnan, founder and CEO of Rediff.com, is the author of The Wave Rider, A Chronicle of the Information Age. You can reach him at ajitb@rediffmail.com

Ajit Balakrishnan / Rediff.com