Skilling the Youth Ecosystem: Can It Be an Antidote to Society's Overstretched Job Scenario?

10 Sep 2021

International Youth Day is celebrated annually on August 12 to bring youth issues to the focus of the international community and to celebrate the potential of youth as active partners in the global society. In this article, Dr Livleen K Kahlon expounds on the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 and feels that we need to act now to catch the 'potential workforce' at an early age and equip them with soft skills and technical expertise so that once they step out of their formal education stage they are able to earn their living. Avenues are to be created to match the skills of every youth and some of these areas are being addressed by the NEP.

Youth ecosystem

The population of youth in India is considered as a demographic dividend, but will this status last forever? By the year 2036, population in India will not be that young as it is today. As compared with the scenario of 2011, the Indian population below 24 years will see a 15-per cent dip. The median age will also jump by almost 10 years, touching 35 years, by 2036. Within the country, certain states such as Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu will have a higher median age in comparison with the national average. This diverse age range will pose problems since policies will have to be aligned keeping in mind regional variations. We are losing out on time, and it is extremely essential that we mainstream our youth dividend into 'meaningful' work opportunities.

Demystifying NEP

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, passed by the Union Cabinet in July 2020, promises an overhaul of the existing education system. The NEP is considered as a silver lining because it aspires to transform the Indian education system. In a nutshell, this policy is expected to help India reap its demographic dividend. The NEP comes with a range of promising features including equitable and inclusive education for every child, along with foundational literacy and numeracy by 2025. This policy also speaks about an increase in public investment by the central and state governments to 20 per cent of overall public expenditure over a 10-year period. A more robust engagement with private sector to enhance R&D for a smoother execution of government policies is also expected. The NEP is a unique opportunity for students and teachers to simultaneously learn and enhance their core competencies. Curriculum, paedagogy, training of trainers, administrative changes, and co-creation of educational opportunities are all included in the NEP, which is an effort towards a transformative reform. Opportunities are seen for enablers and multiple stakeholders ready to invest with resources and opportunities to realign education system as a step towards provisioning learning for all. The NEP provisions material and courses to target trainings for job readiness based on requirements related to skilling and re-skilling. Focus on soft skills such as critical thinking, creativity, scientific temper, communication, collaboration, multilingualism, problem solving, ethics, social responsibility, and digital literacy are going to provide a backbone support to the new curricular and paedagogical structure for school education so that by 2022 the curriculum and paedagogy are transformed with minimal rote learning. Integration of vocational education into all institutions— schools, colleges and universities will provide access to vocational education to at least 50 per cent of all learners by 2025, to realize the full potential of India's demographic dividend.

Addressing the Gaps

There are challenges in smooth execution of the NEP considering diversity of the country. Language barriers exist and these will bar the flow of foundational literacy in a multilingual country such as India. Teachers will need lateral inputs from other support systems such as volunteers and expert agencies. Accountability of educational institutes in addressing societal challenges also needs to be ensured. A major challenge in achieving complete success for the NEP is availability of funds to roll out suggestions in the policy. Hence, corporate social responsibility and philanthropic investments are important for the success of the NEP.

A Step-by-step Approach

The NEP will remain a puzzle unless we do a thorough investigation of its elements. The NEP endows the initial five years of school with a lot of flexibility, which enhances a child's potential to develop multiple cognitive abilities. This is an opportunity to start an early process of recognition of his/her individual skill sets, since mapping of these is bound to reap dividend as every learner will pick up a trajectory of growth that helps him/her to build upon these identified skills. Grades 3, 4, and 5 are seen as the next preparatory phase incorporating aspects of formal classroom learning. These can be reinforced to include more do-it-yourself (DIY) activities. These learnings can further be strengthened by middle school education (Grades 6–8), which regulates both abstract thinking and subject teaching. And finally the secondary education phase of four years (Grades 9–12) can facilitate multidisciplinary studies with appropriate exit options, which can be utilized for sound investments in skill-based careers for youth. The NEP also visualizes a strong arrangement of ownership by community. The creation of School Complex Management Committees (SCMC) will create adequate volunteering opportunities for children. These will also serve as an early lens for identification of skills amongst children, which can then be routed to work opportunities in consultation with community. School–community interlinkages have till date been an optional mechanism but they surely have a potential of scaling up. We have historical evidence that proves that environmental projects taken up by schools in consultation with community have led to improvement of living spaces, and provided solutions of waste, water, and energy management. School-led campaigns related to 'say no to crackers', adoption of local waterbodies, have seen several successes and these are credited to the eco-club movement spearheaded by schools in the country. Similarly, if the NEP-promoted skill initiatives in schools are provided a community backing, it will definitely succeed. Monitoring mechanisms need to be strong to capitalize the benefits. In order to understand this transition in simple terms, an interest about renewable energy technologies in a child identified at school level can fructify into a technical skill enhancement at the college or university level, leading to work and job opportunities. Hence, a child with an avid interest in hands-on projects can opt for vocational education about applications of non-conventional energy sources at a school level and further volunteer and apprentice with community projects dealing with renewable energy (maintenance of solar street lighting in neighbourhoods, design of new devices powered by renewable energy, etc.).

On-ground Implementation

While the Ministry of Education, Government of India is urging for an immediate roll-out plan by states on the NEP, there are different implementation strategies being proposed by the states. While Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and Gujarat have confirmed an early implementation of the NEP in 2021–22 itself, innovative suggestions are being proposed like setting up of a unified college management system, multiple entry-exit points, and flexible credit transfer schemes (Karnataka). A diverse range of subjects such as cinema, wildlife tourism and yoga are being proposed by Madhya Pradesh; and a thrust on use of regional languages in technical education (Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttarakhand). Successful implementation of the NEP will be a game changer and the government intends to follow this up closely by setting up of a monitoring dashboard to assess live progress against 181 tasks assigned to be completed under the NEP 2020.

The Challenge of Skilling

There is another angle to the understanding of skill-based initiatives. A rational analysis of recommendations from the NEP reveals that while this is a robust plan, but rising unemployment amongst the youth also needs to be considered against the current global skill ecosystem. There is no denying the fact that creating awareness around skilling and employment opportunities for youth is of critical importance. This can take shape of sensitization drives, campaigns, competitions, festivals, and several other non-formal, informal, and formal interventions. The time is 'now' to seriously think about 'the skill ecosystem'. Even before the pandemic brought the world to a standstill, 267 million young people were 'not in employment, education or training' (NEET). As per the policy brief (The World of Work and COVID-19) issued by the Secretary General of the United Nations, the work sectors adversely hit by the pandemic crisis are those which had majorly engaged youth. With shutdown and slowing down of business, the current scenario is bleak. The current pandemic has created socio-economic stresses triggered by closure of schools, colleges, and workplaces. It has also created a greater need for resilience, especially amongst our younger population, as they will translate to a future workforce. Digital skills, enhanced learning competencies, a range of training opportunities, are all a must-have in the changing world. Outreach to disadvantaged learners needs to be a priority area of work. It is of paramount importance to strengthen skillsets of youth to enable them to secure and retain jobs. Sustenance is a ground-zero reality, and all our efforts need to be diverted towards this critically-important issue. An urgent need of current times is to equip young persons with employability and resilience skills and help them find jobs during the looming recession when youth employment prospects are looking bleak across the globe.

The Global Scenario

As per the International Labour Organization observation, more than one out of six youth are unemployed. Unemployment rates vary from region to region. But the fact remains, engagement of youth (15–24 years) in active workforce is on a decline. While the global youth population has risen from 1 b to 1.3 b from 1999 to 2019, a corresponding employment rise has not happened. So, where are the missing numbers headed to? The current global youth unemployment rate is 13.6 per cent, and these numbers are more rampant in developing countries. A ray of hope rests on the fact that youth are more tech-savvy than other sections of the society. This is a unique opportunity as markets around the world have a higher demand for working skills such as AI, data analytics, and cloud computing. Many establishments have already taken a proactive plunge and are already into technology skilling of youth. Leading amongst these are Coursera, Dior, Huawei, Festo, IBM, Microsoft, Orange, and PIX. UNESCO and Microsoft have also moved forward to create a Global Skills Academy. Along with digital upskilling, this academy will provide a free access to employability-oriented training materials. The academy is a feature of the recently established Global Education Coalition. Already 250 VECs in 160 countries are linked with the UNESCO-UNEVOC International Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training. A bottom-line to successful implementation of all these initiatives is a dire need for creation of inclusive, sustainable and resilient economies with massive investment in education and skills training and expanded partnerships.

Youth ecosystem

Pushing Forward the Youth Agenda

International Youth Day is celebrated annually on August 12 to bring youth issues to the attention of the international community and to celebrate the potential of youth as active partners in the global society. The theme of International Youth Day 2021 is, 'Transforming Food Systems: Youth Innovation for Human and Planetary Health', with an aim of highlighting that success of such a global effort will not be achieved without the meaningful participation of young people. These issues have a strong appeal and also an opportunity to bring forward youth strength to work in directions beneficial to society. While we create hope of a better tomorrow, we also need to ensure that work opportunities balance out the growing numbers of young people. After all, unemployment is a major disruption in smooth functioning of a society. And during the current pandemic time we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. The need for education and employability is as critical as getting a dose of life-saving medicine. Even if a single individual gets excluded from this process, an adverse chain reaction will be triggered that will eventually affect the entire human race. We have to assess the potential and capabilities of every member of the society and give him/her matching avenues of work. An issue to be addressed on a priority basis is whether we are reaching a stop gap arrangement, or are all the technology-driven employability opportunities holistic in nature? An answer to this must rest on an honest introspection of the world around us. We are lending out skills to an isolated, insecure, and confused youth. They are mostly getting into this out of necessity and not always as a matter of choice. In order to bridge the gap between opportunities and existing skills, education must focus on 21st century skills since this can pace up the graph of global employability. While efforts are being made to ramp up the technology-driven skills, we are still to pay attention to basic sensitivity and adaptive skills that make every youth a value addition to society. Driven by high emotional quotient, empathy, mental wellness, ability to work in teams, communication, sharing, and a respect for diversity, these are a true employability asset that society needs to invest in. Issues of employment vs employability need to be highlighted through important days such as World Skills day (July 15). These types of advocacy opportunities are important to create an enabling environment that supports and strengthens employability and resilience skills that will help youth to find jobs, especially during the looming recession induced by pandemic and slow economic growth.

Immediate Steps

We need to act now to catch the 'potential workforce' at an early age and equip them with soft skills and technical expertise so that once they step out of their formal education stage they are able to earn their living. Avenues are to be created to match the skills of every youth, so that we do not create a world full of idle people with minimal scope to being employable. Some of these areas are being addressed by the NEP. I would also like to propose a few other steps that can be explored:

  • Identification of institutions, and youth movements with a strong grassroots presence
  • Mapping of strengths of these entities, to check for synergies, overlaps, and gaps

Timely investment in raising an achievement of global competence amongst youth is essential. Globally-competent individuals can examine local, global and intercultural issues, understand and appreciate different perspectives and world views, interact successfully and respectfully with others, and take responsible action towards sustainability and collective well-being. Global competence is the backbone for the 21st century skills. Measuring global competence is a challenging task as it is a process with long-term goal. Agencies need to come forward and assist in successful implementation of the NEP.

TERI's Engagement with Youth

The Environment Education and Awareness (EEA) area in TERI engages with private sector and government organizations for working with schools, colleges and universities through its ESD (Education for Sustainable Development) projects. Ongoing engagements with several regional and global EE networks including UNESCO, RCE, Engagement Global ExpertNet, UN SDSN, are firmly established. Successful youth-driven action projects have been implemented in collaboration with EU, GIZ, Embassy of Italy, British Council, Education New Zealand, Robert Bosch Stiftung, USAID, MYA, and the MoUD, GoI. Partnerships with corporates such as RMZ, Tetra Pak and Genpact led to meaningful initiatives rested on ecopreneurship and environment leadership. Overarching objective of these programmes is to focus on developing competencies in young people that are relevant for creating an empowered workforce, which would work towards building low-carbon societies. Students from schools and colleges can also join the growing network of TERI's GREEN Olympiad beneficiaries to enrich their knowledge about environment and sustainable development issues. From 2021 onwards, orientation towards green skills is also being addressed through the Olympiad. Students can visit project website, for more details.

Dr Livleen K Kahlon is the Associate Director at the Environmental Education and Awareness division, TERI, New Delhi.

This article was first published in the online magazine TerraGreen.

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Environment education
Government policy/regulations
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