My specialist interest area is how Vocational training programmes play out in developing countries. The experiences of these programmes, despite their growing popularity in policy talk, has been mixed. There are many implementation challenges that come in the way of success, which I have written about elsewhere. However, I shall argue, that there are conceptual problems in the way these programmes are usually conceived, and unless those issues are addressed, even well implemented programmes will fail (or, one would never be able to implement a programme well). Below, I have highlighted five such 'foundational issues', which I have put in a question form, because these mostly go unanswered.
1. Is Vocational Training Valuable?
The very idea that some people who are not academically capable need to be put through vocational training devalues the proposition almost immediately. It becomes second best, a route for those who are failures. The aspirational middle classes immediately disengage, anyone who may build a successful career through vocational training isn't still seen as a successful role model. The more the government rhetoric about vocational training, the worse its perception gets.
2. Does the Government know what skills are needed?
Simple answer: They don't. They often read the same newspapers that we are reading, and they have an equally lay opinion about this as ourselves. They don't often ask or commission serious research, other than being presented with research by the likes of Pearson, who says the skills needed are exactly the ones they have books for. The Indian government announced that they want to train 500 million people, but even several years after the announcement, Ministers and bureaucrats had no answer what these people will be trained on. They finally got around to the idea of creating sector skills councils involving employers, just when Britain, on whose model this was conceived, was getting out of the model. In the meantime, several millions of dollars of Government money has been spent on training god-knows-what.
3. Does the Employer know what skills are needed?
An economy's skills requirement is slightly different from the HR Manager's recruitment requirements next month. In fact, the HR Managers' list should play almost no part in defining the economy's skills requirements in the developing nations (it may be fine for matured labour markets), when many trades remain unorganised or partially organised. Further, if an employer really feels a particular skills requirement urgent, would they not immediately try to fulfill that either by spending money to train people or even importing workers. Government spending on training needs of the employers, done for all the good reasons of fostering long term thinking, actually create a perverse incentive of channelling the money into reducing labour costs (as Morrison's, a supermarket chain in Britain, was caught doing) and reducing the employer involvement in and commitment to training (which I experience first hand doing various funded training in Britain).
Besides, the developing country economies, the way they are connected to the world economy today, are supposed to be facing demand shocks, wild fluctuation in what work they do from one day to another, because they are often just following skills requirements of metropolitan economies, on which they have no control. Their labour market projections, therefore, should be based on close understanding of the nature of demand and work in the metropolitan economies, not just anecdotal observations of local employers. This is hardly understood or factored in defining the skills training programmes.
4. Is it possible to teach a skill with a short intervention?
Government mandated vocational skills training programmes, with its inevitable strings-attached structure, result in clear timelines and standardised structures, but do people learn skills like that? From when one could stand on a classroom for a certain number of hours and teach people Cooking? Isn't it intuitive to think when it comes to doing things like that, people will learn differently, at different paces, and with different degrees of intervention?
In fact, in many cases, government mandated training initiatives lower the economy's skills base than improving it.
This happens for two reasons: One, because certification trumps competence. When the skills training programmes start, the government tries to organise the trade and pushes for everyone to have a certificate. This undermines the economy's traditional ways of developing competence, learning it the hard way through apprenticeships, and encourage new ways to gain the skills at a college.
Two, because the programmes in the college are often time-bound and standardised, these create an artificial standard of competence - graduating class! The time spent in college and even the certification may be totally unrelated to actual competence. Often these create a short-cut to skills, and if we learnt anything about expertise, there is hardly any short-cut.
5. What incentives do the providers have?
The weakest link in the government mandated training programmes is indeed the 'providers', the commercial training companies who get paid to deliver the training. These are often chosen on the basis of commercial and financial criteria, so they are often established trading entities, and because of the financial benchmarks used in the selection process, often entities with large turnover but in interests other than education. So, when the governments are discovering their enthusiasm for vocational education, they are not trying to spawn a start-up network engaged in it, because that would be too risky, or sponsoring community networks, because seeing as the state does, that concept does not exist: Rather, they are trying to do this by giving the orders to people often engaged in other trades, as training, seen from the bureaucrats' desk, is a non-specialised activity. This indeed creates a certain set of incentives for the providers in turn: They effectively become middlemen rather than educators. The money is in securing orders, managing bids and project managing, rather than actually teaching anything to anyone: The unfortunate irony is that such top-level things are referred to as know-how of the trade.
That providers are not educators create a system which may be about everything else but education. I have met providers who has spent an enormous amount of money creating powerpoint in several languages but the idea of actually delivering training themselves never crossed their minds. They can't even see themselves training people so beneath them: The world of 'vocational training' is far removed from the airconditioned offices full of very educated people (with certification in quality control, project management and instructional design) but those who would never attempt, or be able to, change a lightbulb if it pops.
Richard Sennett explored the idea of 'skills' beautifully in his The Craftsman and I shall recommend this to all policy-makers before they start thinking about skills training. Skills is not a magic potion, but a habit acquired through engagement, commitment and practice, embedded in the values of the community one lives in: Hardly can one extract the skill outside its social context and build a package as if this is only a reality show. This idea gets missed when the governments proclaim their intent to do 'skills', cheered on by publishers who see rising sales and middlemen who count the commissions. One may soon need a different approach, a 'Life Start Voucher' perhaps for the young unemployed, who could use this to start a business, learn a skill or even settle in a new place, to be left at their choice. The colossal waste of time and money in the name of skills training will soon force such a rethink.
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