It is the beginning of the academic year and the scramble for admissions is almost over in Karnataka. While the majority of the students are taking up science and commerce with engineering and accountancy in mind there is a small but considerable percentage of students looking elsewhere –vocational education training (VET).

Most of the students who take these courses are those who were unable to gain admissions into regular colleges either due to financial constraints or due to below average performance at school level. Also, the students come mostly from the middle class and the lower middle class families.

Still, only two per cent of the student population in the age group of 15-25 years in the country is enrolled in VET programmes, according to iWatch, a Mumbai-based voluntary organisation which provides a large number of vocational and pre-vocational training courses. This is much smaller compared to other Asian countries like Malaysia and Taiwan where over 60 per cent of the students enroll in VETs. The result is that tens of thousands of students are stepping out of schools (and sometimes dropping out of colleges) without job skills. iWatch records that over 40 million educated youth are registered at employment exchanges across the country despite the huge demand for workers from the growing industries. In the meantime, a UGC survey this year on the quality of universities and colleges came up with a startling data that more than 50 per cent of the students who pass 12th standard do not even enter college.

In Karnataka the situation is no different. In the year 2006, more than 50,000 seats went unfilled in the vocational training institutes, according to a news report. The state has more than 350 government and government recognised private institutes that provide vocational education to students. The courses are provided in a variety of areas from traditional sectors such as manufacturing, tailoring and electronics to the current hot favourites - BPO training, fashion technology and retail. Most of these courses are short term courses ranging from two months to one year of training. The eligibility for these courses is 10th standard or 12th standard pass. These courses are mainly designed for students who are unable to pursue higher education but need to prepare for employment nevertheless.

Despite a push from the institutes and the industries to make VET more accessible and viable, it is still not the first choice for many students and parents alike. This may be a perception problem as well. VET is considered to be a poor alternative to an engineering degree, a diploma or a Bachelor's degree. Poornachandra, father of a VET alumnus says "I don't see my son making it big in his career. He is employed and earns a decent salary but I am not confident of him getting an opportunity to grow like someone who has a degree."

The sky rocketing salaries of IT professionals with engineering degrees in Bangalore is another reason why the VETs are treated as last options. Poornachandra regrets the fact that his son did not get enough marks to join the engineering course and he was not able to pay the money to get a management seat. "Had he pursued engineering he would have been earning almost three times the salary he is getting now," he says. His son agrees with the statement.

Thirty-two-year-old, Satish, also from Bangalore took up a course in carpentry at a local Industrial Training Institute (ITI) after completing his 10th standard. Today he runs a successful business of making furniture for offices and homes. But ask him if he wants his son to continue his business in the future and he says, "That will not be his first choice. Even though I am successful I never got the respect like some one with a blue collared job would get. In my family I was always the boy who didn't study well in school but somehow managed to be successful. So I want my son to get a degree and then he can decide what he wants."

But the industry experts say this is a myth that needs to be disproved. With the recent opening of the economy there are newer sectors such as the Information Technology Enabled Services (ITES), telecom and retail. These sectors are facing acute shortage of skilled manpower and are not very rigid about hiring degree holders. The retail industry for example is largely manned by people who have passed 8th standard to those who have crossed 12th standard. Philip Sargunam, Manager – Training at the newly started and Bangalore-headquartered Manipal Retail Academy (MART) says, "A degree holder can only claim higher salary when joining but later it is the skill that will help the candidate grow. We have instances of skilled undergraduates being promoted with higher salaries compared to just graduates without any skills. Plus there is always an option of upgrading one's qualification through distance education or part-time courses."

Even though students are not rushing to VET courses in large numbers, there is however, a growing awareness on the importance of vocational education. Kishore, a college dropout from Bangalore says, "I am not interested in doing a BA which teaches me nothing (about the jobs). Instead I am willing to pay for such courses by reputed organisations that'll guarantee a job." Sharanya a 17-year-old student of Architectural Draughtmanship at the government-run Regional Vocational Training Institute (RVTI), Bangalore, says, "My parents could not afford to send me to college for graduation. And since I needed a job to support them I decided to do vocational training. Here the fee is much lesser compared to other places where I enquired and also the completion certificate from this institute is more credible in the job market." Sharanya pins her hopes on the booming construction business to provide her with a job when she passes out.

The prospect of immediate job offer is what draws a lot of these students to VET. Anita, another student of RVTI says, "My sister got a job within a week of completing the course in electronics here and she has managed to get a good salary with promotions in that company. That was a motivating factor for me to join this course." V Ananda, Assistant Director of training at RVTI for women based in Bangalore says that in terms of job offers the VET students stand better chance than even the diploma holders in some of the sectors. "We have companies coming to us complaining that the diploma holders sometimes lack the practical knowledge that our students have. Our alumni in different companies are doing well and return to recruit students from here," he adds.

This need for skilled personnel is felt across industries. Purnashri, an HR executive from Playcon Consultancy, Bangalore, says, "We get a large number of requests for manpower from the ITES segment. But there is a lack of skilled personnel." She notes that the voice–based BPOs are willing to take 10th and 12th standard pass candidates, and that they spend a lot of money and time training the new hires on things as basic as communication. "And there is no guarantee that they will stay after being trained. So if someone could provide quality training, the companies are more than willing to take them in," says Purnashri.

There is another problem. The manpower crunch across industries at the entry level is so stark that companies do not have the luxury to wait for the candidate with the right skillsets and they end up hiring whoever is available. This is leading some candidates to believe that training prior to the job is just a waste of time. HR professionals however say that while the companies do take in freshers due to project pressures, it is the candidates' growth prospects that is later marred due their lack of skills. The companies cannot also move them to other projects. This puts the companies also in fix because they need to look out for fresh candidates again in a short span of time.

iWatch believes that there is an urgency to provide VET to help the youth become economically independent. iWatch has made several recommendations on VET. Some of them are:

  • •Long term planning of education and training should allow about 90 to 95 per cent of the population to learn a skill, a trade or a competence. In fast developing (China, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia) and developed countries (Japan, Germany, Korea, Taiwan, UK, Australia, Canada), this is the case.
  • •Pre-vocational courses should be made compulsory and started in all schools for classes 8th, 9th and 10th.
  • Enterprise Skills Education or ESD should be made compulsory and started for classes 8th, 9th and 10th.
  • India is endowed with traditional arts and crafts at the village-level, these should be encouraged as many of them are of great value in terms of economic empowerment of rural India. They need to be integrated in the schools of that particular local area.

In the recent times, industries have been complaining that the quality of the students available for recruitment is not up to the mark even at the degree level. The main reason being that the students are only good on paper and have very little or no working knowledge of their subjects. There have been efforts to take inputs from the industries to design courses or have finishing schools. This has been successful to some extent in sectors like IT where the demand is very high.

Between the better ITIs, RVTIs and private players like MART, there is ample opportunity for scores of youth to find a job or even start their own small scale industry. But the path is not simple. There is a lack of understanding on the significance of acquiring necessary skills to excel in jobs.