Skill development holds the key to reinvent Indian workforce in times of Covid

The Economic Times, July 11, 2020

By Pradeep S Mehta and Sarthak Shukla

Already reeling under an economic slowdown, many industries are now fighting a battle of survival in the times of COVID-19. Hiring freezes, haircuts, salary deductions and layoffs have become the mantra of many businesses to remain afloat. At the same time, the demand for front line workers, or COVID warriors as they are called, is rising rapidly.

To deal with the pandemic, the Government of India has been actively persuading the goal of marrying economic restoration across industries and ensuring employment security for its largely informal workforce without compromising the health and safety of citizens. Steps in this direction are being undertaken by both the union and state governments.

However, it seems that achieving this goal would require compromises for some sections. For instance, workers’ safety cannot go hand in hand with relaxed regulations around industrial inspections and occupational safety. Thus, the need of the hour is to reinvent the Indian workforce and systematically deal with structural issues in the economy to ensure that we emerge as a more resilient society.

The Prime Minister of India, in an address to a medical institution this month, hailed the front line workers as “soldiers, but without uniforms”. These essentially include the health workers, sanitation workers, medical professionals amongst others. In addition to these, the official website of COVID warriors also identifies several other jobs, workers of which are called as warriors in the fight against the coronavirus. These include nurses, pharmacists, Lab volunteers, the National Service Scheme, the National Cadet Corps, ASHA workers, Anganwadi workers, home guards, firemen, amongst others.

The basic tasks expected from these front line workers, in the words of the Prime Minister himself, are “cure” and “care”. The “cure” part is the expert domain of medical professionals and health scientists. However, for the “care” part, a lot of existing workforce can be potentially deployed given that certain standards and conditions are followed. For example, the highly skilled airport staff workers, hotel staff and other hospitality workers, who have worked in a demanding service sector. They are trained to cater to customers under testing conditions. They can be engaged proactively as healthcare workers and customer-facing tasks in hospitals.

Additionally, with rapidly changing nature of work, the pandemic has widened the fault lines in the skill development rubric of the nation. This is reflected by the common narrative across sectors that availability of skilled workers is an ever impinging concern for industries. Be it manufacturing or services, this sentiment resonates across the spectrum. As a response to it, India Inc. has been shifting gears to a world of virtual operations. This eventually will lead to an increased demand for workers in logistics, food delivery, fin-tech platforms, BPOs and customer services and other similar fields.

With such developments, there will be some winners and losers. For instance, there will be a surge in online platform based services and some of the existing professions like gyms will shift to online mode of operations like online gym training sessions. Another example could be the market for formal footwear going down but for casual and leisure footwear going up as more and more institutions adopt the work from home culture.

Thus, it seems that although a large chunk of conventional types of jobs can become less attractive for the informal workforce, but there will be some jobs where the existing workforce can be put to use their existing skills. Ideally, this can serve the twin purpose of providing employment avenues for the out-of-job workers while also ensuring that adequate skilled workforce is available for critical and upcoming tasks in the economy.

But, how to actually roll it out? The first step for rolling out such a plan is to ensure that the existing initiative of database creation and skill matching of workers is effectively implemented. For achieving the desired outcomes, the key lies in reinventing the approach to skill development, training and apprenticeship programmes for the target workforce. Skill development should be seen as a parameter of nature of job which is inextricably linked to remuneration and social security. This assumes even greater significance for tasks that involve risking one’s life, like of the COVID warriors.

The manufacturing sectors in India, especially the labour-intensive ones, often use ingenious ways of getting hazardous tasks done at the lowest labour cost. Some exploit the vulnerability of marginalised sections by deploying them for risky tasks, like the Surat textile factories engage tribal workers for shoving coal into a boiler. Others resort to paying marginally higher for dangerous tasks. In this scheme of work, the incomes of workers are completely delinked with skill and social security, which is extremely critical in current times.

Therefore, a changed mindset coupled with efficient implementation of skilling strategy is required to make use of India’s demographic dividend in such a way that there is a win-win situation for industries, workforce and the society at large.

The authors work for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group.

This news item can also be viewed at: