The availability of technology-based resources and tools was roughly the same in December 2019 as it was in March 2020. However, when countries started imposing lockdowns, there was an instant change in attitude towards technology. Zoom wasn’t just the tool used for communicating with long-distance clients, it became the staple for completing day-to-day work. Digital payments became a saving grace, and households turned to e-commerce & the gig economy for their bread & butter, literally.
Most MNCs and formal employers managed an overnight switch to work-from-home. Teams who worked within the same four walls, were now linked through video conferences. Business continuity plans were drawn up, and job roles re-defined. Fast food chains played along and offered “Work-from-Home ” combos and digital marketers pandered to the new way of work. White-collared employees grappled with boredom at first, but then it looked like the lockdown is not just a question of staying put for a few weeks. The lockdowns offered protection from the virus, but it left the citizens open to pay cuts, deferred salaries, and unemployment.
The first wave of folks who were adversely affected by the economic consequences of the lockdown were the blue-collared workers, whose employment is contingent on the ability of their business to remain open, on their individual ability to commute, and most importantly, the ability of their customers to reach them. Millions who simply couldn’t complete their work using a laptop were left behind. Repairmen, service centers, beauty parlours, restaurants, hotels, construction contractors, domestic help and over 120 million workers lost their income overnight. This led to one of the largest reverse migration waves, which the country has witnessed in decades. Even for those who hadn’t lost their employment, questions around safety in the workplace became potent.
The next wave which hit the country, was a result of other countries facing similar situations, causing India’s overseas migrant diaspora to lose jobs. Millions needed the nation to bring them back home. India’s flow of remittance had been threatened, along with another jump in unemployment levels. The impact of living in a globalised world meant that one couldn’t really thrive alone. Between the top and bottom of the employment pyramid, each level has been experiencing its own unique challenges. For those in the livelihoods sector who have been working on skilling & migration related issues for decades, this was the first time where “migrant workers” became a buzzword. More than just a statistic, the reports of workers trying to walk back to their home town, and the hardships they faced along the way, is a morbid reminder of the humanitarian fallout caused by the economic lockdown.
Short-term vocational skilling has been the hitherto unsung hero of the unemployment crisis for many years now. The model has worked in the past because of its promise of employment. The value chain for every training organisation is “Mobilisation – Training – Placement – Retention”. What set apart a training organisation from a skilling organisation was the commitment to offer placements. Pratham Institute has trained over 100,000 youth since 2005. As of March 2020, 85% of the youth trained were offered jobs upon graduation. When the lockdown came into effect, questions arose around the efficacy of the model, and what the future could look like for vocational skilling.
While most higher education institutions were able to switch to online learning rapidly, the skilling ecosystem had to grapple with the idea of catering to those who probably don’t have adequate access to the internet, smartphones and no prior experience of online learning. But, as with every other industry in the country, it became apparent that for the skilling movement to continue, brick-mortar training centers wouldn’t be sufficient and tools such as video conferencing, self-paced e-learning, online assessments etc would have to be deployed immediately. This also brought to light the digital divide which existed in India.
It has been long estimated that the future of learning will be dependent on technology, but the expectation was that India had time to make that transition. 2030 was the earliest deadline, and even that seemed like a challenge. The fact is around 560 million Indians are internet users, which implies that roughly 1 in 2 Indians don’t have access to the internet. Of those who do, the folks who use it for learning purposes is a niche group (less than 10 million), concentrated primarily around urban areas. There is a significant gender divide as well to digital penetration in the country. In such an environment, the idea that one’s ability to learn is dependent on streaming speed, is a harsh reality for many.
Making Digital Skilling Work
Going digital is easier said than done, especially for vocational skilling, where lessons are delivered primarily through practical training. But, going digital is necessary, because as industries kickstart, the availability of jobs will be less and the competition fierce. From April 2020 onwards, Pratham Institute began experimenting with various strategies for digital skilling. When promoting digital skilling, it’s not just about creating a digital textbook and a virtual trainer. The task is to convince someone to change their attitude to learning in general, especially those who may have skipped the schooling process altogether. In the midst of a lockdown, as scores of young people returned home unemployed, the immediate task was to connect with them and identify their needs.
- Networks Count – Pratham spun the concept of webinars and in two months launched over 200 modular sessions, for topics from the vocational skilling curricula. Trainers from around the country conducted sessions on domestic plumbing, home facials, four-wheeler repairs, fake news awareness, digital payments and much more in several regional languages including Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, Odiya, Assamese and more. The twist in the tale is that the masked hero of the initiative was the methodology and the social structures which the organisation had built in communities over the past years. Grassroot presence rather than digital penetration. Having the mobile number of the Sarpanch on speed dial and a database of youth with their interest areas mapped are the real assets during these times. Without real networks in communities, selling the idea of digital skilling would have become a pipedream.
- Access for the Unreached – There is a certain stratum of the population, who is linked to the global world through the web, but vocational skilling has always catered to those couldn’t be reached. Access to smart devices and the internet is a stumbling block on the road to digital skilling, however with digital penetration being what it is now, creative solutions can offer alternate pathways. Setting up digital libraries in communities with the support of local leadership, sharing offline digital learning resources, packaging trades into micro-courses, using familiar technology platforms are among the many ways through which digital skilling can be made accessible.
- Hybrid Skilling Models – Lastly, it must be recognised that digital skilling cannot be wholly digital. Blended or hybrid models which combine the best of virtual classrooms with hands-on practical training are more likely to yield success. As the restrictions around educational institutions are lifted, training centers will open up. However, if social distancing norms are accounted for, then it is likely that these training centers may not be able to operate at full capacity. Employers who are willing to invest in on-site training can help increase the scope of digital skilling. A combination of self-paced learning, virtual sessions with trainers, and practical training at centers or job sites, may be the new face of vocational skilling.
Change in strategy cannot happen overnight, it requires considerable amount of preparation to be done in advance and the space to experiment, re-invent, unlearn and innovate. Digital skilling won’t depend on the hardware or the code, rather on the people behind the movement. Non-profits become vital entities in this juncture. When the nation abandoned its migrant workers to walk their way back home, they underestimated their significance. Rural communities are close-knit ones who learn from each other far faster than nuclear urban households. Word spreads fast, and changing minds will need something far more than minimum wage and congested living conditions.
The good news is that unemployment levels which had risen to 23.5% in April, have dropped to 11.6% in June. As the lockdown lifts, millions in the country will have to make the choice between safety and livelihood. The partnership between government, CSR, non-profits and other players in the skilling ecosystem, will determine the way forward for youth in India in this new normal.
Annette Francis has been working with Pratham Education Foundation’s vocational training and entrepreneurship arm, Pratham Institute since 2018. She currently focuses on research and innovation projects being pioneered by the organisation. Her primary area of interest is researching technology-based solutions for mitigating challenges in the development sector, specifically within the livelihood and education space. She has previously worked in a teaching capacity with non-profit and for-profit organisations based in India and Scotland.
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