India should worry about a generation of youth idling away

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By Priya Agrawal

Lata’s expression that day was a mix of delight, surprise, disbelief, and pride. She had made it through the Marriott interview. She could not wait for Monday and her first day of work.

Among 423 million young adults in India, Lata used to be one of the 13.2% of youth her age unsuccessfully looking for a job. The critical part of that measure is “unsuccessful.” Choice is everybody’s imperative, which sometimes, even as egalitarian development sector folks, we seem to forget, especially when it comes to youth employability programmes.

Lata was willing and able to work, and hence she found a job. What about the millions of youth who want to be skilled enough for the workplace, but first want to study further and then enter the workforce? Are skilling programmes wasted on them? There is enough evidence that points to the fact that the positive effects of youth employment programmes are not instantaneous, and hence it is important that we view such programmes as long-term strategic investments.

Not in education, employment, or training

One of the key indicators proposed and accepted as a measure of the Sustainable Development Goal 8—promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all—is the not in education, employment, or training number (NEET).

The NEET was a little-known measure in the early 2000s to highlight the vulnerabilities faced by adolescents who had dropped out of education. It assumes even more significance now as we look at youth productivity as a whole—especially of young adults from disadvantaged and high-risk backgrounds.

The number is simply the total number of young adults minus the number of youth (between 15 and 29 years of age) in education, in training, or in jobs. These youth, who are potentially doing nothing, are the ones who we, as a nation, need to be most worried about.

A high NEET rate as compared with the youth unemployment rate could mean that a large number of youth are discouraged workers, or do not have access to education or training. As much as 27.2% of India’s 423 million youth population are NEET. These are the young adults who are currently isolated from the mainstream and have either given up or do not have access to any opportunities.

A matter of choice

It is intuitive to infer that the majority of young adults, especially in the 18 to 21 year age group in the higher socio-economic strata, are in education and not looking for employment. Hence, the same rationale could be extended to say that one of the early markers of privilege—along with a private-school education—could be to keep a young adult in education until such time that they wish or that their family can afford.

Why does that choice only remain the prerogative of the economically advantaged? Surely, we do not ask an undergraduate degree college only about their employment rates—just as the number of students taking up higher education is a matter of pride for most institutions, can a skill development programme not enthuse young adults, particularly school dropouts, to complete high school as a first step to achieving their career plan? In fact, that may be a more sustainable route for them to find and retain employment that stays relevant to the vagaries of the labour market.

It is an oft-repeated adage that we cannot really predict the jobs of the future. Yet, it seems counter-intuitive to most of us that building core work skills and self-reliance is perhaps the only sustained answer. For that to become a reality, we have to trust our young to make that choice to stay in education, get technically trained, or start working. And all three are equally significant indicators of success.

A nuanced understanding

Of all young boys in the 15 to 24 age group, only 6.4% are NEET, compared to a staggering 44.9% of girls in that age group. Indian culture looks down on families that “live off” a woman’s income and it is surprising to see the number of urban households also falling prey to societal pressure.

The honour of a girl is almost always a burden that the family of the girl carries and hence it is safer to keep her home rather than let her go out and work, lest she gains financial independence. Economic freedom is seen as being directly linked to the dreaded autonomous decision—making calls on life and marriage. This explains the large proportion of girls who are not in education, employment, or training.

Dropping out of education means social isolation, which also severely limits access to other basics such as healthcare, peer support, and so on. When a girl who had dropped out of education in class 7 or 8 goes back to school, battling all these societal shackles, it is most definitely a measure of success.

The government spends upwards of Rs3,000 crore on skill development every year. These are only the budgets of the ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship, not the other livelihood and technical education schemes. Yet these programmes are plagued by inefficiencies arising out of low enrollment.

According to the National Skill Development Corporation, 3.4 million youths have been trained in 2015-16. In this context, it would make sense to leverage the investments already made and ensure that young adults judiciously choose and enroll into technical training, as well after an intensive career counselling and core work skills module. This carefully matched profile of youth to skills training based on their aptitudes and interests is not only a smart move, it needs to be seen as a success metric even after a basic skilling programme.

It is time that we revisited the constricting and unilateral metric of job placement as the only indicator of success: we need to broaden our understanding of what fuels the productivity of young India. Perhaps learning from motivated young adults is the answer.

Source: Quartz

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