Friday, February 12, 2010

Invest in Vocational Training

Education is key to development – it would be hard to dispute this simplistic truism. But what education ? Primary ? Secondary ? Institutions of high learning ? What ?

This post argues for vocational training being the single biggest priority. There is no doubt that universal primary education has to be a basic human right, and a basic human responsibility. But I would place vocational training a shade above even that. For vocational training ensures people have jobs. Ensures that they have a little more wealth. And when they have that they would themselves ensure that their children receive the best primary education they can find, and afford.

Both China and India do a lot in the field of vocational training. Training people to be machine operators, welders, plumbers, carpenters, nurses, technicians – there are scores and scores of professions where , with a little training, people, who are otherwise unemployable, can find a job. These don’t need a very high basic education for it to be effective. And they offer quick rewards – it does not take an enormous amount of time to acquire these skills and get a job. And even if jobs are not plentiful readily, these skills lend themselves to entrepreneurship.

Start National Institutes of Vocational Training. Give them an aura of respectability. Start dozens of them in every city, in every state, in every country. Governments, in partnership with industry, must invest heavily in them (better to invest in this than to pay the dole). Make it virtually free for those being trained. Make employers, or employees, pay off some portion of the costs after they have found the job.

Make these institutes a place where people can come back to multiple times in their career. If they get laid off, they come back and acquire a different skill, perhaps. If at that point in time, there are plentiful jobs for hair dressers, but not so much for boiler operators, well – whoever wants to train to be a hairdresser can easily do so (incidentally, the most promising profession in China should surely be the hairdresser; every Chinese is obsessed with his or her hair and there are only 5 hairdressers every 10 mtrs in China ! And surely it has to be the most depressing profession in India; Rajalakshmi wouldn’t be caught dead having her hair cut !!)

I also suggest that when somebody is laid off, the employer is required to fund that person’s reentry into the technical school as part of the compensation. And the employee needs to constantly re skill into the professions that are in demand. To my mind, it’s a tragedy that most of us, when we pass out of University and take up work, stop re skilling ourselves.

So IITs, IIMs, Harvard, Jiaotong, are all very good. But they should come slightly lower down in the pecking order. The technical schools should occupy the pride of place. Mao Zedong said, in a completely different context, “Let a hundred flowers bloom”. I suggest, “Let a million technical schools bloom”.