India's employability quotient

With significant technological strides, we must realign our education system to create more employable citizens

The singular expectation from university education is guaranteed employability and, thus, a return on investment. When this fails to happen, it is because the quality of education does not respond to the market demand.

Drawing on data from 60,000 graduates pan-India, an employability solutions company noted that around 47 per cent of Indian graduates are unemployable. According to a McKinsey report, only a quarter of Indian engineers are employable. Other studies put it at a much lower figure, even as low as 5 per cent. These are alarming statistics because they would significantly and negatively impact India's demographic dividend.

In the meantime, technology has emerged as a game-changer. Breakthroughs in robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, 3D printing, driverless vehicles, for example, have triggered a revolution that is expected to transform everyday human experience.

Take robotic surgery, for instance. The surgeon can now carry out the most complex procedures with far greater skill, precision and dexterity. Robotics, similarly, is being used in the construction industry and it is being argued that with robotic systems, the output would be much more consistent, accompanied by higher quality, speed and efficiency. In the military, it is estimated that the US armed forces could have more robots on the battlefield than real soldiers by 2025. Not only would these robots have deadly capability but, more importantly, their use would dramatically reduce the loss of life among American soldiers in combat zones.

In a similar fashion, 3D printing is already impacting manufacturing, the production of medical devices, the fashion industry, architecture and the automobile industry. The dramatic impact that the technology revolution is having and would continue to have is an indisputable fact of contemporary life.

This would suggest that in four or five years time, when a student graduates, the job that the person would do is yet to be created. For educators, this would prove to be a nightmare, unless they prepare students to anticipate uncertainty and have the ability to respond to it.

This is not true of Indian education, however, because of its steadfast refusal to evolve and embrace new challenges and prepare for a rapidly changing world. Unless it does so, education would not lead to employability or job creation through entrepreneurship.

What we know as facts are, first, that the rapid breakthroughs in technology would result in several current jobs being done by machines. We are already witnessing this in multiple fields, some of which we interact with in our daily lives. Many supermarkets, for instance, have introduced pay machines and dispensed with manual bill generation and payment counters handled by staff. With the increasing use of credit cards, pay-and-go would displace more persons from their current jobs in many retail outlets. This would be equally true of airline and other modes of long-distance travel where boarding passes can now be printed without having to visit the counters. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that around one-third of all jobs across 46 nations would be displaced by 2030.

Second, how we negotiate our relationship with technology would be critical to our well-being. At present, there is a fear of, and even resistance to, technology because of credible apprehensions about the loss of jobs. We need to recognise that technology is only a tool meant to assist us and to improve overall performance and productivity. Rather than a threat, it is meant to complement our core capabilities and free us from drudge work that machines might do better and more efficiently.

Even engineers, architects and doctors need to rethink their role, as machines would now replace what they did. But, then again, there are several other areas where technology would be found wanting. Consequently, there would be an increasing demand for new skills, as the workplace would itself be dramatically transformed.

The McKinsey report estimates that automation could force anywhere between 75 million to 375 million into new jobs by 2030. This is borne out by other studies, as well, that argue that global, virtual teams would replace the current workplace environment because project teams would now be geographically dispersed. PricewaterhouseCoopers projects this new style of working to increase by 50 per cent by 2020 resulting in a potential shortfall of 85 million qualified workers globally by 2020.

Third, this suggests that education needs to build the soft human skills that Artificial Intelligence cannot emulate. What we teach, consequently, needs to be rethought. While strong technical knowledge is important, it is equally important that students master intercultural communication and are in a position to perform in geographically dispersed virtual environments. Team building, leadership, crisis and conflict management, and dealing with people would be the key tipping points in deciding who is employable and who may be displaced.

Reimagining employability is imperative for India but its success is entirely dependent on how we redesign our approach to education. What we require is close collaboration between the corporate sector and educational institutions to create the workforce of the future.

(The author is a former diplomat and the inaugural India country director for UNSW Sydney. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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