Is skills development the answer to economic and social upgradation in the Global South? Some reflections on evidence from India

Anita Hammer

Skills are considered the answer to economic development and reduction in inequality in industrialised as well as industrialising societies. Not surprisingly, skill development has attracted considerable attention from policy makers in India, e.g. the formation of the National Skill Development Council to coordinate skill development and various public-private partnership initiatives on skill formation. The policy changes in India, evident in the National Skill Development Policy 2009, are in line with strategies elsewhere: skill formation and upgrading has assumed a critical role with increased global competition, either as a means to retain competitive advantage by industrialised economies or to upgrade by emerging economies.

 

India has witnessed an impressive increase in GDP growth over the last two decades. At the same time, it is undergoing a demographic shift i.e. an increase in the share of working-age population in total population. With a working age labour force of 431 million (those aged between 15 and 59 years) in the total labour force of 470 million (NSSO 2009-10), the challenge is employment creation and skills upgrading of the existing as well as growing workforce. The National Skill Development Policy 2009 set a target of 500 million to be skilled by 2022, with the Twelfth Plan (2012-17) target of skilling at least 50 million people by 2016-17. Indeed the fear is that if the skills challenge is not met within the next decade, India may not be able to sustain growth and it may leave large numbers among the increasingly youthful labour force unemployed with all its attendant negative implications for equality and social cohesion (Mehrotra et al. 2013). The key question is: can India remain competitive through its existing patterns of skill formation?

 

The role of skills is particularly emphasised in new industrial regions that are developing in order to attract industry, especially multinational firms. Specifically inserted into global production networks, such regions are often associated with skill development and/or overflow. In policy literature, this has been examined through the concept of skill ecosystems (Finegold 1999) that rests on a certain balance of power between firms, the state, and skilling institutions. My research conducted in the manufacturing firms of one such region in North India during 2014-15 reveals there are considerable institutional barriers to the emergence of a skills ecosystem. Trade unions are excluded from skilling decisions and institutions, and labour is not an actor in a context where post-independence compromise meant that the state represents the interests of labour. For unions, their exclusion takes skills out of their bargaining portfolio further weakening their position.

 

One-sided supply side skilling strategies persist in firms that reinforce the institutional fragmentation within the Indian skilling system as well as the considerable unequal power relations in the labour market. On the one hand, the system of skilling institutions is fragmented between public and private institutions, between centrally certified providers and others that go considerably beyond this and are oriented at the German system. On the other, when it comes to the demand for labour, recruitment decisions always have to be considered against strategies of in-house production vs. outsourcing. Inevitably, long supply chains in the textile and automotive industry draw on the informal economy which, to a large extent, is based on informal skilling practices. Informal workers are /remain weak in the absence of a clear employment contracts, and with limited union coverage and social security.  Because of their weak labour market position, even skilled informal workers cannot bargain for much. These factors combine to entrench disincentives by firms to train or to involve labour in skilling decisions. Only 17% of firms provide training in India. The political economy encourages outsourcing, and thereby further undermines any requirement to engage in skilling.

 

In conclusion, while the government has put forward an integrated and holistic policy, underpinned by the insight of the skills ecosystems literature, the new policy faces severe challenges in a context of fragmented institutional skilling structure and unequal capital and labour relations both nationally and in the region. With over 93% of workers as informal, power relations are skewed in favour of employers. The imbalances between capital and labour do not provide any collective constraints or offer firms any incentives to develop work organisations that require skilling in a coordinated institutional environment. Firms draw their competitive advantage from recruiting from and outsourcing to the informal economy. This is unsustainable in a globalizing world where other destinations may provide the cost advantage to capital that India currently does. No matter how comprehensive a policy, it is unlikely to succeed unless unequal power relations in the labour market are addressed.