Low employable skills: A South Asian tragedy


Naveed Anjum, IDA

“Education is a big challenge now. If we do not change the way we teach, 30 years from now we will be in trouble. Because the way we teach, what we teach is the same from 200 years ago. And we cannot teach our kids to compete with machines, because they are smarter. We have to teach something unique, that a machine can never catch up with us.” These lines quoted by Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group fits the notion of employable skills crisis in the coming future. In the age of Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0, the employ ability will be based on skills and not on a degree one holds. The future job market seems unfamiliar with no idea of what kind of skills will be needed to get into the job market. The future workplace will look totally different from that of today. Automation, digitization, and other forms of technology will wipe out millions of jobs while, at the same time, create many new opportunities. Next generation workers must be prepared to participate in what is called the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0 for short.

The Indian educational scenario looks thriving with approximately 904 universities and more than 47,000 colleges. However, the real problem lies in the fact that these institutions are operating like ‘degree producing factories’, not bothering about the employ ability of their students, even as the country tries to keep pace with the fast-paced information revolution, especially when the world recognizes those equipped with relevant knowledge and technologies, and competencies and skills to apply them. With centuries old pedagogical approaches, Indian students are not getting the requisite kind of skills that will help them secure their future 10 years from now. The situation is quite similar with the entire South Asia.

South Asia has experienced some of the fastest economic growth rates globally but the region needs a fair amount of investment in skill development to further its growth in the coming decades. Today, South Asia is home to the largest number of young people of any global region, with almost half of its population of 1.9 billion below the age of 24. Nearly 100,000 young people in South Asia enter the labour market every day, making it the world’s largest youth labour force.  Youth unemployment remains high (at 9.8 per cent in 2018) because of changing labour market demands and over or under qualification of job candidates. In most South Asian countries, the projected proportion of children and youth completing secondary education and learning basic secondary skills is expected to be more than double by 2030. Still, on current trends, fewer than half of the region’s projected 400 million primary and secondary school-age children in 2030 are estimated to be on track to complete secondary education and attain basic workforce skills. According to Henrietta Fore, Executive Director, UNICEF, “South Asia is at a critical juncture, with a limited window during which it can reap significant demographic dividends from its talented and capable youth. Get it right, and millions could be lifted out of poverty. Fail to do so, and economic growth will falter, youth despair will rise, and further talent will be lost to other regions.”

Whereas, if we talk about India only, it will have the highest number of secondary school graduates among South Asian nations i.e., over 30 crore by 2030. The problem is not that the country will be with such a huge number of graduates but what is troublesome is the fact that nearly half of them will lack skills to enter the workforce according to the UNICEF report titled GBC-Education 2030 Skills Scorecard. The report predicts that only 47 per cent of Indian school graduates by 2030 will have the basic skills to be employable. However, the number will be an improvement from the present 19 per cent. Another UNICEF report blames the low quality and suboptimal vocational training which does not give students the desired skill levels that the labour market demands. These skills include those that are related to the use of technology, digitization and automation that most professions now rely on and require their staff to know at least the basics of these.

The report added that this finding is important especially for India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh because, with almost half of its population below the age of 24, it will make up a large part of the labour force until 2040, which if skilled in the right manner will have the potential to drive productive economies. The highest learning levels in the region are expected in Bhutan, which is projected to have 81 per cent of young people learning basic secondary skills and completing school, up from 47 per cent today.

Projected Number of School-Aged Children & Skilled Youth by 2030 (South Asia)

Country School-Aged Children Percentage of Skilled Youth
India 30.96 crore 47%
Bangladesh 3.78 crore 55%
Pakistan 6.43 crore 40%
Nepal 71 lakh 46%
Sri Lanka 38 lakh 68%
Bhutan 2 lakh 81%
Maldives 90,000 46%

©Global Business Coalition for Education2030 Skill Scorecard

According to the GBC-Education 2030 Skills report, countries with rapidly growing youth populations are most at risk of falling behind. The report concluded that more than two-third of children in low-income countries — many of them in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East —will not be on track to have the skills they need to succeed in the workplace of 2030.

Children on Track to Complete Secondary School & Learn Basic Skills by 2030 (Other Low and Middle-Income Regions)

Region Today 2030 Projection School-Age Children in 2030
Sub-Saharan Africa 9% 17% 426 Million
Middle East and North Africa 36% 57% 102 Million
South Asia 26% 46% 404 Million
Latin America 37% 50% 102 Million
East Asia and the Pacific 30% 79% 325 Million

©Global Business Coalition for Education

In lower-middle-income countries this figure is 60 per cent and for upper-middle-income countries it is around 40 per cent. Unless dramatic reforms in delivery, innovation, inclusion and financing take place to change the trends, these children will be left behind by the global economy. They are likely to be unemployed, stuck in poverty, not contributing fully to their economies and societies, and dependent on government assistance. The opportunity to become drivers of — or even participants in— Industry 4.0 will remain just a dream. The world already has a staggering income divide and is believed to further widen and inequality will also grow.

Preparing Young People for the Job Market

There is an urgent need to train youths with skills that can help them to with stand the future market. Marginalized youth cannot deliver poverty reduction, development or sustainable economic growth. Non-skilled young population cannot survive in a fast changing economic environment and will eventually be left behind in the race of economic upliftment. Skills training is, therefore, emerging as a more immediate solution.

India’s National Policy for Skill Development that aims to have 400 million trained youth in India by 2022 is one such effort to deal with this looming problem. The policy had set a target of at least 30 per cent female participation in skill development programmes for employment by 2017. Similarly, Bangladesh adopted a National Strategy for Promotion of Gender Equality in TVET, which aims to raise female participation in Technical and Vocational Training to 40 per cent by 2020.  And the Adolescent Girls Education Initiative in Nepal was set up to provide training and employment services for 4,500 young women between 16 and 24 over a three-year period.

But education and skills cannot be a substitute for one another. The two need to be on a continuum. The Sustainable Development Goals recognize the urgent need to bridge the worlds of education and employment to effectively harness the enormous potential of youth. There is clearly a need for skills development, but it cannot be a substitute for all that basic education provides.


One Response

  1. It is very disappointing to know that employable skills are very less among South Asian people. It is high time that we change our education system. Educational institutions must take steps to create students who are employable. Thanks for sharing an alarming post.

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