Vocational Training – Crucial, But Not Everything

Antara Ganguli, Deputy Country Representative of UN Women in Bangladesh.
Antara Ganguli, Deputy Country Representative of UN Women in Bangladesh.

By Karina Veal

Completing a short training course doesn’t necessarily provide the ‘employability edge.’ What else is at play?

"You can’t fix in three months what the education system hasn’t fixed in 12 years," says Manish Sabharwal. As cofounder and CEO of TeamLease, an Indian company that currently employs one new worker every five minutes for the past five years (and which turns down 95% of those who apply), his views have weight. And the most common reason for turning down 95% of applicants? Not lack of specific job skills, but lack of general employability skills.

Employers in fast-growing economies scramble for workers, searching for the best available, giving proof to the timeless saying that ‘your people are your best investment.’ But who are the best? Low employment outcomes from many vocational courses throughout Asia show that simply completing a training course doesn’t necessarily provide the ‘employability edge.’ So what else is at play? To provide better policies and services one has to look at broader horizons – young people come to vocational training as well-formed young adults, with schooling behind them, and society all around them.

The 12 (or 10, or 8) years of schooling undertaken before entering the labor market have to be sound. Good education allows children to grow and learn about themselves, as it is a social as well as knowledge experience. Besides literacy, numeracy, knowledge of key subjects and an understanding of how to learn (and how to continue to learn), we also expect schools to lay the foundations of transferable skills such as communication, teamwork, or the ability to understand and adapt to new situations. The skills, in short, on which to base later social and career progress.

But it isn’t all about school, either. Family and society are powerful shapers of the people who comprise future workforces.

Antara Ganguli, Deputy Country Representative of UN Women in Bangladesh, makes the point that a training course cannot compensate for the broader societal influences regarding gender. The views and customs of family and culture shape what women believe they themselves can do, and what others believe they can do. These factors go beyond attitude, and the impact goes to the core of possibility. A basic vocational course can’t fix that, either. We have to consider the whole woman – her situation and the constraints put on her before expecting her to even enrol in a vocational course or apply for a job.

To some, these are tough messages. The massive fast growth of short-term training programs across developing Asia is certainly crucial to helping industry meet its human resource needs, but is not a panacea for all ills, nor is it appropriate to push the responsibility too much onto employers. How much employers invest in their workforces must be commensurate with the value they perceive as coming from that investment. We cannot expect employers to compensate for deficits created by schools and societies.

No surprises here. We have to look at the interplay of school, training course, employer and society, and tweak to deliver outcomes sought by employers and to meet aspirations of young people.

Mr. Sabharwal and Ms. Ganguli presented at the ADB International Skills Forum in December 2015 in Manila.