Skill-driven entrepreneurship

Switzerland has a tradition of inclusive growth, due to the fact that it has no natural resources. Thus, for the country to progress, every citizen needs to be able to contribute, by way of knowledge or skills. This was recognised as far back as over 250 years ago, when watchmaking skills enabled Switzerland to sell thousands of watches each year. These were hand-crafted and provided the workers with a better quality of life than working on farms.

Today, Switzerland segregates its students when they are about 13 years old, via a national examination. The students who have a natural bent towards further education as demonstrated by the ‘gymnasium’ exam, are given the option to pursue higher education that leads to university and enables the students to go into advanced education in areas including engineering, sciences, arts or medicine. Only about 20% of the total students take this route.

The remaining 80% of the students complete their secondary school and as a basis for careers via the apprenticeship program. Over a period of time, these students are tested for natural affinity and interest in other areas dealing with skill-building. These include mechanical, electrical or other service industries. The 80% of students who go into secondary school are further subdivided into ‘Sec A’, ‘Sec B’ and ‘Sec C’. The students selected for ‘Sec A’ have the pick of the best work opportunities, which include micro-mechanical or technical work requiring a high degree of skill or competence. The students qualifying for ‘Sec B’ would go to technical work areas that require a limited amount of skill. The students who are unable to get selected in ‘Sec A’ or ‘Sec B’ go to ‘Sec C’, which enables them to go into service industries such as becoming sales staff in stores.

After the students complete their secondary school, they spend the next 3 to 5 years in doing apprenticeship. The students spend 3 to 4 days every week in a company and 1 to 2 days in a vocational school where they receive theoretical instruction in their chosen industry. By the end of the apprenticeship period, these students have become skilled workers, with a clear understanding of all practical elements of the skill underpinned by a strong theoretical understanding of their chosen field.

The alignment between theory and practical is driven by Switzerland’s strategy of defining the skill requirement in the foreseeable future for a given skill by getting feedback from companies operating in the industry. Associations responsible for each skill then prepare the syllabus and course content, which is then provided to the secondary schools. More importantly, the practical elements of the skill that the student has to learn are also provided to the company where the student does his apprenticeship. It is the responsibility of the company to ensure that the necessary training is provided to the student. Due to this, the student learns only those skills that are relevance for industry. Testament to the success of this program is the fact that the average wage in Switzerland is over CHF 80,000 per year for skilled workers. More interesting is the fact that the employment level for skilled workers averages over 97%. They must be doing something right.

India is today at the crossroads, where between now and 2022, it is estimated that about 500 million (50 crore) people will join the work force. They are largely uneducated, and possess no skills of relevance to prospective employers. If the workers joining the workforce are provided the right skills, these 500 million people can truly be a population dividend. But without the right skills, this population looking for work can give rise to civil unrest, as the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to increase.

A skilled workforce is also very attractive to developed nations since it can enable them to continue their higher standard of living. A large skilled workforce would enable India to export skills to the rest of the world, in a world where the value of skills is much more than products. It is after all skilled workers who drive development in even developed countries. The higher earning of locally employed skilled people can pay for the pensions of the ageing populations, a key issue that the developed countries are only now beginning to recognise.

India is in the midst of a generational opportunity to take blue-collar skills and more importantly the skilling mindset as well as the focus on skill development that has made Switzerland arguably the wealthiest country in the world, to India. In addition, if workers who are provided skills are encouraged to become skill-based micro-entrepreneurs, this will enable them to go back to their villages of origin.

Today, able-bodied young persons leave their villages in search of work and move to large cities. This results in a drain for these villages, making them even more backward. By going to the larger cities, these persons get stuck in the spiral of poverty, since they continue to work in unskilled and low-paying jobs as contract workers.

If these same people are provided skills, it will lift their earning potential. In areas like construction and infrastructure, it is estimated that India will require over 76 million skilled workers between now and 2022. At this time, the total number of semi-skilled persons in this critical area enabling fundamental development varies from 2% to 5%, although the reality may be even more distressing.

Some of these workers may want to go back to their regions of origin. Instead of trying to stop them from returning, they should be supported in their decisions. In addition, they should be equipped with additional tools like understanding of very basic finance to help them become micro-entrepreneurs. If micro-loans are also provided, this will enable them to buy tools necessary to practice their skills.

If these workers return to their regions of origin equipped with skills like welding, carpentry, electrical and drainage, it will lift the quality of life in these backward areas. The presence of these skilled workers will also attract national and international companies to set up manufacturing operations. For the regions, these skilled workers will transition from being job-seekers to micro-employers.

Today, states and regions try to support those without employment with grants and other subsidy schemes. In turn, this funding comes from the central government. By encouraging skill based micro-entrepreneurship, states would be able to wean away from constant support, since these micro-entrepreneurs may in turn hire and train other persons who see a better quality of life driven by skill-based work than subsistence farming on ever-reducing plots of land. Skill-driven entrepreneurship will also inculcate a modicum of equality in these largely traditional and cast-based rural communities. Prosperity as a result of blue-collar work will give respect to these critical skills. The micro-entrepreneurship based skilling model can thus enable entrepreneurs to become engines of growth that can propel the states towards a path to prosperity.

There is already some work on-going in leveraging the Swiss skilling expertise to India. These initiatives are required to roll out high quality, and more importantly, the value and relevance of skills, in creating better value and for forging a path to a better life.

Changing the focus from employment generation to providing skills that create employability will have a much more sustainable impact in all regions of India, moving it towards sustained development and to becoming a true resource pool for the world.

The only way for India to progress is to ensure that every Indian is considered an asset and follow a truly inclusive model for development. This will be the result of providing skills based on capability to every Indian, whether able-bodied or differently-abled. This is something of true sustainable value that India can gain from Switzerland. This is India’s moon shot for our generation.