Is the Indian education system productive enough

First European companies relocated cheap work abroad, then highly qualified jobs. Now it's the turn of education. How Switzerland wants to bring apprenticeships to India.

Rajendra Ghume sits in his office at the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) in Aundh, a suburb of Pune. The huge room and the horseshoe-shaped desk make it immediately clear to every visitor who is the boss here. What the room doesn't reveal is the fact that this is an educational institution. Yes, he knows about the upcoming Swiss pilot project, in which the Swiss vocational training model will be presented in India for the first time, says Ghume. This is "a kind of sandwich of courses", in which the trainee is put in a tight spot between school and work. Working at a workbench in a factory hall is new for trainees in India, he says. And immediately makes it clear that he is skeptical of the model: "My top priority is to give the students theoretical training so that they are well prepared for professional practice."

The head of the Aundh Apprenticeship School is proud to be able to guide his students on how to advance without a college degree. He cultivates a remnant of the age-old and deep-seated caste thinking, according to which mental work is noble - and manual work should only be done by caste-less people. But with this conviction he is doing his apprentices a disservice, because even with an ITI degree from Aundh, most of them will not remain unemployable in the global workplace that India is increasingly becoming. It is this drama of Indian vocational training that the Swiss project is supposed to defuse.

In May 2007, the Indian real estate and construction company DLF-O’Rourke announced that it had hired 22,000 workers in the Middle East. The company can only implement its investment program in India if it imports the necessary skilled workers - electricians, construction machinery drivers, mechanics, plumbers, bricklayers - from abroad. The irony would be that all of the hired workers were Indian: people from Kerala and Bengal who had moved ten years ago to work during the construction boom in the Gulf States. Most of them, hired only for their pure labor, had also learned their trade there. Now they were ready to return to their homeland for a little less wages, because in Dubai they were ultimately no more than temporary work slaves.

The country with the largest labor reserves after China - 13 million young Indians enter the labor market every year - has to import its skilled workers. When Reliance Industries recently installed a second refinery next to its existing one in Gujarat, India, the vast majority of the 40,000 employees were "foreign" workers who built the facility in a record sixteen months. And the users of the motorway between Mumbai and Pune were amazed when they drove past a construction site last year where Chinese workers controlled traffic. The gas pipeline from the east to the west coast of India was laid by a Chinese consortium, which not only sent the pipes but also its plumbers.

The same can be said of India's education system as of the drinking water supply in large cities during the monsoon season: "Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink." The country is in the middle of a demographic boom. While other countries are forced to grapple with an aging population, India will have 400 million people in the most productive age bracket of 15 to 30 years of age over the next 20 years, far more than China. The chance of supplying the world market with young skilled workers is enormous - if it weren't for the annoying fact that India cannot even meet its own demand for trained skilled workers.

The demographic dividend threatens to turn into a demographic mortgage if the education system is not improved rapidly and radically. More than half of the 15-year-olds who force their way into the labor market every year lack the necessary basic vocational training. This means that the pool of around 85 million workers without training in the industrial and service sectors is growing inexorably. In the construction industry alone, 30 of the 35 million workers are at best semi-skilled day laborers.

India's reputation as the world's future “think tank” hides the deficits in the training of craftsmen and skilled workers. Of course, the country has some excellent colleges, and their engineering schools spew out half a million graduates each year. But of the 600,000 candidates who apply each year to one of the seven Indian Institutes of Technology, only 1,200 are accepted. In addition to these few top institutions, there are tens of thousands of engineering colleges of very different quality. A McKinsey study revealed a few years ago that only about a quarter of the 500,000 technical school graduates are employable at all.

The situation in the area of ​​vocational training is even more desolate. The country has over 5,000 industrial training institutes (ITI), 3,000 polytechnics and 20,000 private technical colleges. These schools only graduate around 770,000 apprentices each year. No wonder: Less than 1 percent of the federal and state school budgets go into craft training, so the appeal of this career path is correspondingly low. Only 3 percent of all students who have reached tenth grade want to hit it.

The Indian government has recognized the dramatic situation and is making efforts to improve the quality of vocational training. Anyone visiting the large ITI campus in Aundh will see a large sign. The title “Mission” reads: “ITI Aundh and Tata Motors are committed to training a globally competitive workforce to keep pace with the technological demands of industry and the growing universe of knowledge.” Tata Motors is India's largest vehicle manufacturer, recently owner of the English car brands Land Rover and Jaguar. Its headquarters are in Pune, and the sponsorship of the largest local ITI was the obvious choice when the Indian government announced the model of a public-private partnership for these training centers in 2007. First of all, Tata set up a “Center of Automotive Excellence”, in which pupils are to be trained to become auto mechanics in a one and a half year course. The graduates of the first graduation class were all taken over by Tata Motors.

The model primarily serves the interests of the company. Does it also serve the country? Aundh's ITI is undoubtedly one of the best, and the large campus, with its many classrooms and model workshops, is more like a university than an apprenticeship center. A visit to the classrooms shows how little the Indian state has paid attention to vocational training and how little Tata Motors has done so far for the basic equipment of its sponsored child.

The school desks in the main building have been the same for fifty years, the slate blackboards are difficult to write on, the apprentice draftsmen have to draw ellipses and rhombuses by hand because they have neither drawing boards nor drawing materials. There are computer lessons - with a picture of Bill Gates on the wall next to that of Mahatma Gandhi. But shorthand is still taught in the local language Marathi in the girls' class, and in the telecommunications laboratory the standard devices are teleprinters, crank devices and walkie-talkies weighing a kilo.

The structure of the courses is even more fatal. According to Indian apprenticeship law, as Rector Rajendra Ghume proudly declared, they are based on theoretical training. The theory is followed by two years of practical experience in a company. To ensure that students find employment, the law forces companies to fill 10 percent of their workforce with ITI graduates. But most companies feed young people into unskilled jobs because they are not well trained for their specific needs. So it happens that the Indian industry disdains the craftsmen trained by the vocational schools, although it is struggling more and more to meet its need for qualified skilled workers.

This is the chance for Switzerland to make its dual vocational training model popular in India as well. On October 1, the first course will begin at the ITI in Aundh in the presence of the Swiss ambassador, which takes the basic problem of Indian vocational training - lack of practical relevance - by the horns. The first 20 apprentices, mostly ITI Aundh graduates, will complete their third and fourth year of training in the factories of four Swiss companies in India: at the packaging machine manufacturer Bobst, the food technology group Bühler, the machine industrialist Burckhardt Kompressoren and the textile machine manufacturer Rieter. There they will work in the company for three days and learn practical theory for two days. In the summer, two specialist speakers from Switzerland had trained twenty instructors for this task, half of them instructors from the four companies and half of them teachers of the ITI.

The VET project (Vocational Education and Training) is an initiative that was initiated two years ago by the Swiss-Indian Chamber of Commerce (SICC). In 2006 India and Switzerland celebrated sixty years of diplomatic relations; the Chamber of Commerce wants to testify to the mutual friendship with the project. It is based on two insights: The Indian economy is on the threshold of modernization and globalization and is urgently dependent on well-trained skilled workers; and Switzerland owes its prosperity and its leading position in industry to a large extent to technical and technical vocational training.

Although the VET project is an anniversary gift from Switzerland to India, it is not industrial development aid - it serves the interests of both partners. This is also recognized by the business associations Economiesuisse and Swissmem, which, like the Federal Office for Professional Education and Technology (OPET), were won over by the idea and supported the conception and financing. “Switzerland has an interest in international recognition of its technical qualifications. The lack of recognition is often a problem for assemblies abroad, ”says SICC President Franz Probst. Exporting the “Swiss apprenticeship training” quality label could pave the way for this. In July 2009 a delegation headed by Probst and OPET director Ursula Renold traveled to India and signed the relevant memoranda with Indian business associations and representatives from the two states of Maharashtra and Karnataka.

For the four Swiss companies operating in India, too, participation in the project is in their own economic interest, as Rodolphe Keller, Director of Bobst India, explains. Bobst has been producing packaging machines for export in Pune for five years. It was very difficult to find qualified fitters, welders, locksmiths and tool mechanics, says Keller. Because the work culture of the "Chalega" - which means something like "let's let it go" - usually destroys the individual skills of the employees. Since the company in Pune only carries out the final assembly and purchases 90 percent of the parts, over a dozen instructors had to travel from Lausanne to train the suppliers.

However, it wasn't just self-interest that made Bobst the VET partner from the very beginning. Rodolphe Keller is convinced that the success of the Swiss parent company, the world's largest manufacturer of packaging machines, is also due to the dual system. Bobst is still training 260 apprentices in Lausanne. A large number of the 70 graduates are taken on by other companies every year - “with a kiss on the hand”. In India too, Bobst sees itself as a locally anchored company, as part of Indian society. “Our commitment is long-term, we also want to leave something behind here,” says Keller.

Sunil Khodke is one of the foremen who will start as a trainer at Bobst India in the autumn with the supervision of the first apprentices. “It is the first time that we practitioners are treated in the same way as ITI teachers,” he says. “We can learn a lot of new things here, for example about teaching methods. But I believe that teachers can learn from us too. For example discipline, accuracy, quality awareness. "

Bernard Imhasly was NZZ correspondent until 2008; he lives in Mumbai.

This article comes from the NZZ Folio magazine from September 2009 on the subject of "The Apprentice Report". You can order this issue or subscribe to the NZZ Folio.