How to bridge India’s tech-induced skill gap

The world stands on the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, powered by a wide range of new technology breakthroughs — Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, advanced robotics, Internet of Things, cloud computing and 3D printing — and the revolution is expected to result in major changes in the labour market globally by reducing the demand for middle-skilled workers doing repetitive tasks, and increasing the demand for more highly-skilled workers and also low-skilled workers doing non-routine work.

While many developed countries, such as the US, Japan and several European economies, are already experiencing this labour market polarisation, the market is also hollowing out in many developing countries — although at a rate slower than the developed world (World Development Report, 2016).

In India’s case, this polarisation can be seen in the organised manufacturing sector, where the share of high-skilled occupations in total manufacturing employment increased by more than three percentage points, while the share of middle-skilled jobs decreased by 6.3 percentage points from 1993-94 to 2011-12. Looking at the impact of technological progress on various manufacturing industries in India, capital-intensive industries — automobile manufacturing, for instance — have a greater probability of adopting advanced automation and robotic technologies, compared to the labor-intensive manufacturing industries such as textile, apparel, leather, and footwear, and paper manufacturers.

Further, in the services sector, particularly in the IT sector, e-commerce, banking and financial services and health care services, there is a huge potential for automation technologies, which would increase the demand for skilled workers and reduce the demand for middle-skilled workers.

However, in India, over 80 percent of the working population is engaged in low-skilled jobs in the unorganised sector. These workers aspire to join the middle-skilled workforce in the organised sector to raise themselves from poverty. However, the changing nature of work due to technology advancements in the organised sector prevents their upward mobility and any improvement in their incomes.

Addressing the challenges induced by technological advancements requires reforms in India’s higher education system. The institutes of higher learning should redesign the course curriculum by understanding the key market transitions amidst the technological advancements. This would enable the country to create a workforce which could be placed in the positions demanded by the companies in the digital era and thus bridge the skill gap in the labour market.

However, looking at the current state of higher education in India, one can perceive that it is not just the quality of the system which needs to be improved, there is also much to be done in terms of the number of students enrolled in institutes of higher learning and heterogeneity existing in access to higher education based on socio-economic status, gender and also region. The Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in tertiary education in India is 26.9 per cent, which is lower than that of China (48.4 per cent), Indonesia (27.9 per cent) and the Philippines (35.3 per cent), among others.

Further, the GER in India for the male population is 26.3 per cent and 25.4 per cent for females. The GER also varies across different social groups. For the Scheduled Castes it is 21.8 per cent and 15.9 percent for the Scheduled Tribes.

There are also wide variations in the number of colleges for higher education across different states in India, with the lowest number of seven colleges in Bihar for every 0.1 million of eligible population to 51 in Telangana and Karnataka. The top eight states in terms of highest number of colleges in India are Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh, which have 28 or more colleges per 0.1 million of the population.

The disparity in the distribution of the colleges is also seen across different districts in these states, with the top 50 districts having about 32.6 per cent of the colleges.

In addition to the inequalities existing in the access to institutions for higher education, another issue with the state of higher learning in India is that a majority of the students are enrolled in undergraduate programmes, compared to masters and the doctoral programmes. Moreover, at the undergraduate level, there is a low pass out rate of the students — of the 2,90,16,350 students enrolled, the number of pass outs have been 64,19,639 in 2017.

Given that the Indian system of higher education faces multiple challenges of low gross enrollment in its colleges and universities, with most students settling on undergraduate studies, along with various socio-economic inequalities existing in access to higher learning, it is imperative for the country to address these issues.

Further, emphasis must be given on increasing the number of students who pass out of colleges/universities, along with increasing enrollment numbers.

The technology-induced skill gap which the Indian economy is facing across its different sectors is bound to increase with the given higher education system. The change has to be brought from outside the existing constructs. Improvement in the teaching methodology from the traditional lecture courses, accreditation of online courses and redesigning the course curriculum to make it industry-relevant are some of the ways the technology-led changes in the labor market can be dealt with.

The article was published with Outlook India, Business Standardand Money Lifeon October 2, 2018.

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