Everyone around the world let out a collective sigh of relief last week when news broke that the 12 children and their football coach stuck in a cave for two weeks in Thailand were successfully brought out alive. This was a feat requiring great skill on part of many which included the divers, medical staff, the people involved in setting up the rigging inside the cave, those who set up pumps to take out water and even the cooks who kept the rescue team well fed with nutritious food. Members of each of these groups that formed the rescue team had two things in common—that they were each highly skilled in their own areas of expertise and that they had the soft skills, the ability to work as a team, complementing each other while being persistent and innovative. Skills that they were otherwise using for earning a living was on this occasion used to save precious young lives!
Skills and skilled people have been greatly valued throughout history. The great Mughal king Akbar was known to have the nava-ratnas (nine geniuses). The most famous of them is of course Tansen who was a highly skilled singer and myth has it that his songs could even make it rain!
Here I want to share my thoughts on the perception that skills education has in the minds of common people and why I think it has come about to be so.
The advent of modernisation along with industrialisation across the world has seen the gradual erosion of the value attached to traditional skills. Mechanisation of production and the introduction of production lines ushered in the concept of workers needing to ceaselessly focus on one repetitive job. No longer was it necessary for anyone to master all skills relating to a particular occupation. A young apprentice at a blacksmith learnt everything from the technique to manage the temperature of the fire to different types of hammers to be used to shape the metal from the master craftsman (ustaad). People could just buy vessels in all shapes and sizes which were mass produced.
Traditional skills no longer were sufficient to earn a living. In their place new skills had to be mastered. The methodology used to pass on skills too underwent a massive change. Teaching of skills was formalised and started taking place in schools and colleges set up for this purpose. The respect and pride that once was associated to being a master craftsman (and regretfully it was almost always a man, rarely a woman) also diminished. In the minds of people, the emphasis shifted from what job you could perform with great skill to what academic degree you possess. Criteria for selection to jobs too started to be specified in terms of degrees acquired. Technical and vocational education that focussed on providing skills to students started to be perceived as being secondary to Bachelors and Masters degrees where the emphasis was on learning and understanding theory. The link between applying what you learnt in the day to day practical life became rather tenuous.
As science progressed further and more and more mechanisation started taking place, the technical and vocational education system imparting skills was slow to respond and did not keep pace by adapting the curriculum to stay relevant. The courses that were taught in the technical schools and the resulting skills that were developed were not in sync with the job market of the day. This mismatch between skills that were taught and the skills that were needed by the industry increasingly led to a situation where these graduates had to be retrained by the industry that recruited them. The trainees therefore started considering the time spent in technical and vocations schools acquiring skills that they were not going to use as an opportunity cost. They were better off to directly get jobs which were essentially low skilled ones but enabled them to start earning right away. The industries found it more cost effective to recruit youth and impart skills that they needed to do a particular job through focussed training provided to them on the job site immediately on recruitment.
Women, who have historically been barred from learning and practicing a skill (not a single navaratna in Akbar’s court was a woman), faced barriers that were rooted in patriarchal mores that were prevalent and continue to be so, in the society. Over the years, skills have been stereotyped and occupations using them have been "assigned" to males and females—particularly in South Asia. A perfect example is professional driving which is usually considered to be an occupation for men while not considered suitable for women even though the underlying skill of driving can be as easily acquired and practiced by women. In contradiction, the occupation of a medical nurse is considered suitable for women more than men! The impact of this stereotyping has been that women are massively underrepresented in the technical and vocational education sector and therefore also in employment.
It is time that initiatives are taken which focus on changing the low value attached to skills education. As technology changes rapidly, it is the practical knowledge and skills that people possess that is likely to be in demand rather than theoretical and bookish knowledge. Soft skills like persistence, taking initiative and working in teams will also continue to play a key role in determining future employability of the youth. As Bangladesh rises towards becoming a developed country by 2040, it will be the skilled women and men who will act as the fuel. It may not be an exaggeration to state that it is the skills of these women and men that will make them the ratna (jewel) of the country and not their academic degrees. This world youth skills day let us all pledge to treat skills, skills education and skilled youth with the dignity that they rightfully deserve.
Snehal V Soneji is Chief Technical Advisor, Skills 21 Project, ILO Bangladesh.
Skills 21- Empowering Citizens for Inclusive and Sustainable Growth is a European Union funded project in close collaboration with International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Government of Bangladesh. Skills 21 seeks to increase productivity and employment opportunities through an environmentally conscious, inclusive, demand-driven, and interlinked skills development system responding to the needs of the labour market.