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Vocational Education in India: Lessons From the World's Largest Workforce

Earlier this week, we posted a general overview of education in India, today we turn to a look at the vocational education system. Heather Ridge, an agriculture and science teacher at Boulder Universal school in Boulder, Colorado, has just returned from a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grant in India where she spent six months examining workforce readiness. Here is what she observed. This post is part of our ongoing series exploring vocational education around the world with Advance CTE.

By guest blogger Heather Ridge

If you're looking for an electrical engineer, India is a great place to find one, but good luck getting the phone number of someone qualified to wire the house. The push towards higher education over the last decade has doubled the number of students enrolling in higher education but, much like in the US, the skills they are graduating with have many who follow workforce development concerned. Current policy makers are turning to new programming in vocational education as a way to meet this challenge. 

India will soon have the largest and youngest workforce in the world.
With more than 40% of the country's 1.2 billion people under the age of 20, the level of skills and talents these youth might bring with them will have profound impacts on both social and economic factors within the country and around the world. In a recent report, only 2% of the Indian workforce was considered formally skilled and less than 7% of students under 15 were involved in any form of vocational training. Industry sectors projected to face the largest gaps are skilled trades for construction and infrastructure as well as banking and finance, which are seen as essential to economic growth and development.

These kinds of numbers demand attention from the government to address the growing skills gap between what knowledge and abilities students leave the classroom with and what the workforce demands. With 17 different ministries in India currently engaged in some sort of skill development scheme, the push towards revamping the role that vocational education can play in secondary schools has led to the newly revised policy of Vocationalisation of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education and the launch of the new National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF). As a career and technical education teacher (CTE), I spent the first few months of 2016 traveling around India to see how this new policy was being implemented at the classroom level.

Creating a Career and Technical Framework
The National Skills Qualification Framework was launched in 2013 and is a framework that organizes competency-based learning into levels that allow learners to gain certification through both formal and informal skill development. As part of this new framework, both universities and secondary schools are gaining access to resources that allow them expand vocational courses and degree programs. As a high school teacher, I was most interested in seeing how new vocational programs were being created for students in class 9-12 around the country. 

With centralized curriculum being taught in the country's estimated 1.3 million different schools, the first step the government took in creating new vocational course options was to develop learning standards.  The creation of new Sector Skills Councils (SSC), which are industry-led groups focused around particular job clusters like manufacturing, agriculture, and trades, has worked to create new National Occupation Standards. Along with industry-specific competencies, each of the job qualification packets that the SSC's put together include soft skills, such as communication, designed to prepare students for the professional environment. From here, the National Occupation Standards go to the PSS Central Institute for Vocational Education, where they are turned into curriculum and materials for teacher training. 

At the implementation level, government-run schools are selected by the state and two vocational programs based on the National Skill Development Corporation's skill gap analysis. This public-private partnership looks at industry needs and workforce data to map out where skills gaps exist.

Due to the growing technology demand, each school offers an IT/Computer Science program, in addition to options ranging from automotive, agriculture, security, and healthcare as the second program option.  From the 40 schools originally piloted, there are now over 2,000 schools around the country offering these four-year programs to boys and girls in class 9-12. That number is expected to double within the next year as more states become involved in the program.

Connecting Industry with Classrooms
curriculumworkhealthcareteacher.jpegThe vocational classrooms I visited while in India were cramped, crowded, and under-resourced, but filled with enthusiasm.  Students were clearly very excited about a style of hands-on learning that combined both theory and practice and diverged from the traditional rote memorization and recitation that is commonly associated with government schools. Evidence for the growing demand for these types of course can be seen in the enrollment. At all of the schools I visited, applications for the programs far exceeded number of seats available, which are capped at 25 per program per class. 

When questioned, it was clear the part of class students liked best was the practical experience that not only involved their own labs, but visits to industry. As part of the newly revised scheme, all programs have a prescribed number of visiting guest lecturers, who are remunerated for their time, as well as field visits to different industry partners each year.  While labor laws forbid students actually working as interns at a business, they have multiple opportunities to visit sites with their class and explore careers and skills within that industry. 

Through the newly established National Skills Qualification Framework, students within the programs earn standardized level certification that they can take with them to higher education or the workforce. 

Combining Best Practices
When evaluating best practices in vocational education, all eyes turn towards Switzerland, Germany, and Finland. These countries offer duel-track programming that sees higher enrollment in career and technical courses than other countries and, correspondingly, have some of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world. Delegations have been sent and articles reviewed as to how these models might be replicated in American and Indian classrooms, but many fail to recognize the duel challenge when it comes to cross-cultural vocational education solutions. Along with the cultural differences in regards to education, one must also consider the cultural attitudes toward work.  

In the US, and in India, there is a hierarchy of knowledge and not all jobs are seen as equal—this has deep roots in India's caste system and in America's white collar vs. blue collar economy. Do an informal investigation of school children on any street in India and the vast majority are being pushed by parental expectation into engineering and commerce fields. In both countries, certain jobs are viewed as prestigious or acceptable, while others are not. This negative social bias exists despite the level of interest by the student or even other tangible factors like overall lifetime earnings, which often show those in skilled trades out-earn and are more employable than those who have pursued more "academic" pathways. By contrast, those western European countries with a tradition of vocational education (perhaps because of this tradition) demonstrate less cultural stratification around employment options and pull enrollment from all levels of socio-economic backgrounds. India and the US have much more in common with each other than with the European models they hope to emulate.  

One thing both countries can further develop is the idea that vocational education is not only for "certain kinds" of students. While both countries could benefit from addressing the negative social bias, many current policies serve to reinforce it. In India, introducing vocational education policy at only government schools, which are perceived as the schools of last resort, encourages the misconception that vocational programing is only for the poor to earn livelihoods. In the US, there is still a strong belief that vocational training is a lesser alternative to academic learning, rather than a step on the way towards lifelong learning and professional development.

One thing both countries can celebrate, however, is a shifting commitment to supporting students in developing their postsecondary workforce readiness. Whether they want to be electrical engineers or electricians, educators and policymakers are starting to implement new approaches to skill development for future graduates.

Follow Heather Ridge, Asia Society, and Advance CTE on Twitter.

Image of author reviewing curriculum with CTE teachers at GSSS Ambamata in the state of Rajasthan. Courtesy of the author. 

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