RAJHEDI, INDIA – As India’s economy grows, cities expand and new industries arise, officials and policy analysts are grappling with a key question: Will Indians have the skills to build the new India?
By 2022, India will be short of more than 103 million skilled workers in the infrastructure sector, about 35 million in the automobile industry and 33 million in construction. By contrast, there is expected to be a shortage of only 5 million in the technology sector.
But as higher education has rapidly extended into towns and villages across the massive nation — college enrollment tripled between 1991 and 2011 — so have student aspirations to pursue the white-collar professions widely viewed as the most respectable: medicine, teaching, business management, and software and electronics engineering.
The result, researchers say, is that the professional goals of a fast-growing body of educated youth are running ahead of the skills that India will desperately need during the next decade of its economic transition. The mismatch only adds to concerns that India’s swelling young population will yield less of an advantageous “demographic dividend” and more of a demographic disaster.
“Indian families tend to put a lot of emphasis on college degrees as a tool of aspiration and growth,” said Dilip Chenoy, who heads the National Skill Development Corp., which was set up by the government four years ago. “So what we have is a whole lot of people with degrees in hand but with no relevant skills.”
In Rajhedi, a large farming village in the northern state of Haryana, families today speak of skipping the incremental farm-to-factory journey and instead express hope that their children will secure office jobs that bring respect and social status.
Vanshika Sachdeva, a 12th grade high school student, is the first in her family to speak fluent English. She rides a motorcycle, carries a smartphone and plays volleyball. Her parents — her father is a wheat farmer and her mother the village council chief — did not study beyond 10th grade in school.
But when it comes to choice of career, Sachdeva defers to them.
“My parents want me to be an electronics engineer, and that is what I will study in college,” Sachdeva said.
Rajhedi is in a district that boasts small- and medium-scale industries comprising of sugar mills, plywood and machine parts manufacturing. But Sachdeva’s parents’ choice for their daughter’s course work was not based on research about the kinds of jobs that are available locally or elsewhere.
“We want an engineer in the family. There is a higher status attached to the engineering degree,” said Anita Sachdeva, her 38-year-old mother.
But she does not want her daughter to be a civil construction or machine engineer. She wants her to work with electronic products, because she hopes it will be a “respectable office job fit for women,” even though the salaries may be similar.
In a recent survey of more then 2,800 Indian students, the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that “aspirations of students are largely misaligned with the needs of the Indian economy.” It said the construction and automotive sectors are expected to need the most skilled workers over the next decade, but “only a very small proportion” of students want careers in those fields.
“There is an acute awareness gap about where the job opportunities are,” said Megha Aggarwal, the lead author of the survey, to which 84 percent of students responded that family elders guided them on education and career choices. “The local industry is not doing enough to train and communicate with the students or make their jobs attractive.”
One million Indians will enter the workforce every year for the next two decades. More than half of India’s 1.2 billion people are under the age of 25.
“If we don’t get our act together in time and employ them gainfully, there will be a huge social and political problem in our hands,” Chenoy said.
Facing that tide, the government has set itself the ambitious target of giving employable skills to about 500,000 Indians by 2022. It has begun upgrading hundreds of languishing vocational training institutes with new industry-specific skills courses and setting up skills development centers in partnership with businesses.
In February, the government announced that it will establish 300 U.S.-style community colleges that will offer short courses tailor-made for various industries.
Not too far from Rajhedi, plush-looking private engineering colleges are mushrooming — dozens in the past decade. But India’s recent software boom has led many more students to enroll in information technology courses, widely seen as a ticket to upward mobility and a modern lifestyle, than in the less glamorous engineering classes.
“Everybody said that software engineering is the path to the future; we all rushed in like in a herd,” said Meena Rani, a 23-year-old student of information technology. “Now I hear there is a glut in IT, and the big opportunities are in civil engineering.”
Not only is there a mismatch, but there just are not enough jobs being created to keep pace with the staggering number of graduates looking for work. The rate of unemployment among Indian graduates is over 9 percent. It is not uncommon to see degree holders working in malls as sales representatives, earning very low salaries.
Representatives of the local industries say that educated youths only want jobs in the big cities. And across India, there is a yawning shortage of skilled blue-collar manpower in textile factories, as well as construction project foremen or machine operators.
That contributes to inordinate delays in implementing projects, businesses say.
“Projects get delayed, we spend more money in training recruits, we open our own colleges with specific courses for the skills we need,” said Arun Bhagat, spokesman of a large Indian infrastructure company called GMR, which builds power plants, highways and airports. “It is very difficult to find skilled engineers to build and operate our power plants or manage the construction of highways. They are in such a short supply that they just fly off the shelves.”
Ravali Pothala, 21, is one such recruit who recognized the opportunities. She is in her final year of civil engineering studies at GMR’s college in the southern Indian village of Rajam, and she said she wants to build highways, factories and bridges.
“There is an average of 50 new job openings for civil engineers daily,” said Pothala. “The demand is high because India is growing, and so much of infrastructure is yet to be created.”