Enhancing skills


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NOT so long back, most studies on skills training, work and employment were limited to describing policies and programmes implemented by the government, highlighting the relatively low coverage, quality and efficiency of Indian vocational training and education as well as the apprentice system (GOI 2001/2002; Mamgain/Awasthi 2001). The government, aware of the low skill levels of the average Indian worker, has fortunately now given priority to skill enhancement and education of the workforce.1

Two aspects are crucial when we discuss the low educational levels of the Indian workforce. Alongside access to quality education, a basic premise for the development of a professional workforce, vocational training too remains exclusive. This is due to the small number of seats available and the selection process and criteria defined by the training institutions that would entitle a student to utilize these training facilities. In fact, the vocational training institutions set up by the government are accessible to only those select students who have cleared at least level 10 and 10+ (in a few trades, less than 10th standard is required). With a mere 5% of the Indian labour force in the age category between 20-24 who have obtained vocational training, India lags behind the international average, where for instance Korea excels with 96% or Mexico with 28% and Botswana with 22% respectively (GOI 2003: 11).2



Consequently, with the exception of some vocational training in poverty alleviation programmes, the government and other training agencies ‘play an insignificant role in the development of the informal sector skills’ (Mamgain/Awasthi 2001). Training for workers in the unorganized sector has so far mainly been imparted by NGOs and member based organizations (e.g. trade unions or cooperatives) or by traditional forms of skills transfer through master craftsmen, on-the-job training, and within the family or community outside the formal training system. One possible reason why training was confined only to the organized sector and thus exclusively limited to secondary level students, has been the implicit assumption inherent in the dominant development model that the unorganized sector workforce would be absorbed by the organized sector during the process of industrialization.



However, recent reports have shown a shift at the policy level with the government recognizing the need for reforms in employment related skills formation and vocational training. As per the recommendations of the National Commission of Labour (NCL) and task forces of the Planning Commission (GOI 2001/2002), India requires a more efficient and responsive training system such that the workforce has a chance of being absorbed and re-employed in an increasingly competitive labour market, at home and internationally. A flexible vocational training and education system needs to be developed to provide the space for workers to switch between work and training as per their requirements, be it in the organized or the unorganized sector. Continuous learning is the main requirement for the modern worker who at the same time should be multi-skilled and team oriented, as well as capable of flexibly anticipating and adjusting to changes (GOI 2003). The NCL recommends a competency based training approach (CBT), which would provide both the market sensitivity and flexibility required for the overall workforce and the unorganized sector workforce in particular.

Section I of this paper briefly discusses the CBT approach and examines its potential to meet the skill requirements of the entire Indian workforce. CBT has many advantages as well as limitations when it comes to the unorganized sector, given the primary focus on enhancing directedness of workers to encourage conscious and self-directed decision-making at the workplace and consequently in their lives.

Section II proposes an alternative approach to learning rooted in humanistic and integrated continuous learning for adult workers, but incorporating certain aspects of CBT. The learning approach is sensitive to the particular requirements of the working poor, the weakest group of the unorganized sector. Given its generic perspective and flexibility, it can easily be adopted for the entire unorganized sector and even be a powerful model for the organized sector workforce since it does not limit itself to a micro-perspective, but has an institutional structure and an inbuilt process for monitoring and audit that ensures an organic mode of continuous learning.



Finally, section III, describes some conceptual aspects of Mayaorganic, a market-oriented development model for poverty alleviation which has been implemented by MAYA.3 Mayaorganic proposes an institutional framework which incorporates both the market perspective and the learning model while challenging and redefining existing relationships, be it at the educational and vocational training system level or at the production and labour system level. Both forms of social exclusion – no access to education and vocational training on one hand and no decent work in the labour market on the other – have contributed to a perpetuation of different forms of poverty marked by low skills and productivity and exploitation in the unorganized labour market.




Though not a new approach, CBT has gained popularity in the last two decades. Valued for its focus on industry requirements, it has become the dominant approach to promote multi-skilling in national vocational training and education systems in many newly industrializing and industrialized countries.4 This is more so since markets have become saturated and the competitive advantage of industries lies not only in quantities of production (economies of scales) and low cost but on flexible supply and high quality (economies of scope). ‘At a given moment, quality became central to the creation of competitive advantage in the market and started to become the basis for competitiveness-productivity strategies on a wide scale’ (Mertens 1999:11).

Qualifications have usually been associated with the capabilities acquired during school and further education for the purpose of fulfilling a certain job and function in an effective way. It can be defined ‘as the potential capacity to carry out or realise tasks corresponding to certain jobs or activities’ (Mertens 1999: 63). In many instances, qualification and school certificates were requirements for basic and further education and training in a particular activity. The training system and labour market, both highly exclusive and oriented towards certification and school-based qualifications, regards competency as equal to qualification. Increasingly, however, the perception of qualification has changed to an understanding that a focus on competencies would encourage continuous learning, which, it is assumed, is more holistic and self-directed and supportive of learning at the work place.

Competency refers to knowledge and abilities that ensure that an individual arrives at pre-defined results, thus allowing a person to discover different solutions and ways of reaching specified result. On-the-job learning becomes crucial as functions and results are more relevant than qualifications or mere fulfillment of tasks by the workforce. Going beyond the mere specialization of a person in a particular activity, competency enhances capabilities that enable a person to switch between industries and firms more effectively (transferability).



The traditional vocational training and education systems are insufficiently sensitive to market requirements and have been criticized for their lack of flexibility in coping with continuous changes in the labour markets. In today’s context the development of curricula is a near futile exercise, since the material that is developed for training may already be outdated when it enters the market. The result is that students rarely acquire the skills required to ensure access to regular employment in the organized sector. The main advantages of CBT lie in the continuous involvement of industry in developing and redefining modules and standard setting for training which is both classroom-based and on-the-job (GOI 2003).

Another advantage of CBT lies in the process of assessing individual competency. Given that competencies are a set of attributes, assessments must indicate a benchmark of knowledge a worker has acquired so far. Instead of absolute marks and standards, defined by external institutions and which qualify or disqualify a person, assessments must invite the individual to reflect on his/her performance and develop capabilities to move towards the identified objectives. It must be transparent and encourage the workforce to learn and improve its competency. Learning therefore gains a new meaning, being part of a continuous process, contributing to institutional learning and the achievement of an enterprise’s objectives.

CBT has, however, been criticised for not fulfilling a major objective of training: to make a worker more responsible and self-directed, while making use of his/her knowledge to adapt to changes and new challenges at the workplace itself.



It has been pointed out that the humanistic aspects of education, which can be subsumed under life related, attitudinal and other generic aspects important for work related competency such as conceptual thinking and experimental knowledge and communication, have been overlooked since the focus was essentially on industry-specific learning at the workplace.5 The tendency is for learning to become fragmented, narrow and rigid, limiting its intention to be instrumental for the workplace requirement of the enterprise. ‘The checklist approach, in which a competency is achieved/not achieved or a person can/cannot perform a particular task is considered simplistic and demotivating, suggesting a "minimum" level of acceptable performance rather than a standard of excellence’ (Kerka 1998:2).

No one would deny the positive aspects of the government move towards a more demand-oriented and flexible vocational training and education system approach. However, the drawback lies in the approach itself which misses out on the primary rationale: to equip the workforce with the capability to identify changes, reflect on work quality and be more self-directed towards conscious steps in favour of change. Though the skills acquired might be more applicable and useful to find employment in the labour market, there is a danger that the training methods result in exam oriented courses and certification based on outdated training modules and assessment tools. Such a process does not transform students into professionals the market is waiting for: a well-informed, competent and self-driven workforce, intrinsically interested to improve and refine existing skills towards a better understanding and therefore a better performance in an enterprise.

CBT is a powerful approach that can reach out to the excluded unorganized sector. So far, however, there is no empirical evidence to substantiate this claim. CBT is strongly focused on (formal) industry where learning happens within fixed timings and workplace and where it is assumed that the workforce is regularly employed in a decent work environment. In India, where more than 92% of the workforce is in the unorganized sector, such assumptions appear unwarranted.



Though the CBT approach is more flexible and dynamic than traditional training and does not rely on qualifications alone but on results being achieved as measurable outcomes, the question is how learning, standards and certification can be imparted to ensure access to training and learning for workers on a continuous basis and acquire market relevant knowledge. Another question relates to how skill and knowledge transfer can become effective for unorganized sector workers to enable them to use their newly acquired capabilities when life related issues (e.g. literacy and numeracy) are not incorporated in the process of learning. As mentioned earlier, a significant part of the unorganized sector does not have the numeracy and literacy skills that are required for many professional activities, nor is the working environment conducive to organized ways of living or learning.



Given the irregularity of work and therefore income insecurity, planning of life careers and further continuous training will become an almost futile and non-affordable exercise for the workforce unless the methodologies and delivery of training and education are related to their reality. In professions where higher education is required and life is more structured, work and life are more easily separable than in poorer and low skilled sections of the unorganized sector. Work skills and life perspectives are closely linked to each other and shaped by the environment people live in. Similarly, workers are neither aware of the changing quality requirements nor do they have an understanding of changing skills requirements in the markets.

Training confined only to work-place related skills will not be sustainable unless the systemic shortcomings which perpetuate poverty and limit people’s aspirations, therefore social and economic mobility (resulting in social exclusion due to educational and training related inequality), are addressed. Persistent inequalities with regard to access to education, training or decent work determine and pattern people’s capabilities to overcome their own limitations. Further, the people themselves interpret and perceive their situation individually even though it is structural and systemic. This often results in a feeling of powerlessness, manifested in various forms of frustration, passivity or aggression.

Training needs to go beyond access to entitlements to capabilities that ensure self-directedness. We argue that training and education are political since they question existing power relations and encourage social transformation (Freire 1972). Training also requires collective learning so that existing structures can be challenged, and alternative, more equal, institutions can emerge and be owned by the people themselves. Education and training should encourage people to understand and reflect on their status of powerlessness and passivity within a collective structure, which provides them with the required feedback and takes them to a level where they start to consciously take responsibility towards change and therefore for their own lives.



The earlier discussion emphasises the systemic drawbacks of the current situation of the unorganized sector, where mere access to skills training is insufficient to resolve the problem of sustained learning. It necessitates taking into account systemic dimensions affecting the unorganized sector workforce, such as the dual social exclusion of the educational and vocational training system from any form of learning, particularly continuous learning, as well as from any form of decent work through the market. Even though multi-skilling and competency based training are now being promoted, the market still dictates the content of learning and expected competency instead of encouraging the workers’ interests for learning and self-directedness. As quickly as the markets express a need for particular skills and utilise them accordingly, they also discard the same as soon as they are redundant. Such a situation makes it difficult for the trainees to be self-directed as their learning strategies are focused only on how to effectively react to the changing market situation and not on personal development that could encourage the learner.

In most instances, learning is limited to individual intake of information with no mechanism for reflection on learning. It is worse in the case of the unorganized sector given the absence of any structure/organization that would encourage reflection on market changes and the identification of learning needs. Consequently, people are prevented from responding to the rapidly changing market demands in a planned manner, resulting in limited opportunities for improving skill levels and working conditions.



Taking these aspects into consideration, we propose a new learning approach which emphasises systemic changes for skills enhancement at the macro level and self-directedness at the group and individual level.6 The approach intends to promote continuous learning and not mere acquisition of qualifications/certificates and where learning is institutionalised through a resource network, a learning audit system and continuous reflection within a group and between individuals. Yet, it is sensitive to the learning needs of the individuals and groups. The environment built by such an approach differs significantly from that of a traditional training institution (which is static and physically immobile) as it is more a virtual space that utilizes all available resources – markets, trainers, information, books – to facilitate learning.

Learning within this approach includes not just workplace related outcomes but also life skills, as the latter are imperative for effective utilization of learning in all life spheres (Pieck 2002). The focus is to build the capabilities of the workforce such that they are able to assimilate, synthesize and internalize new information and opportunities in any circumstance they find themselves in and develop capabilities to determine the circumstances. Therefore, even though markets and products may still determine training needs, the workforce is not limited by the patterns set by the market but is enabled to make more proactive choices rather than involuntarily react to the market.



With its roots in humanistic philosophy, self-direction as a concept is by no means new, having been widely discussed and applied in adult education circles and by educationists and psychologists during the last century (see for instance Brockett/Hiemstra 1991; Rogers 1961). Even though it draws from sources which might have been published within a different context, time and environment, it is still valid since it addresses different levels of learning. It focuses on psychological aspects and individual goals and interests of learners and accords these a central place in the educational process while emphasising the need for a collective self that includes social and political dimensions to it. This approach draws on Freire’s political discussion of empowerment through adult education, ‘conscientization’, and the need for social mobilization to overcome structural inequalities and facilitate social transformation.

As Carl Rogers had observed, ‘Anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential, and has little or no significant influence on behaviour… the only learning which significantly influences behaviour is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning’ (Rogers 1961).

In a self-directed learning process, the learner herself becomes the engine for learning; it is not externally imposed but intrinsically motivated. The individual discovers her own powers to learn and only requires certain moments for reflection with a facilitator and/or group in order to see other perspectives and techniques based on which she can then consciously make a choice for the more suitable option. The main objective of self-directed learning is that a person realizes that learning and development only happens through her; that trainers and educators can only initiate and be a catalyst for further development/learning. This process of realization is seen as crucial for personal empowerment.



Mere upgradation of technical skills and work related competencies of the unorganized sector workforce will not result in changing the situation either in relation to work (better wages, multi-skilled, flexible adjustment to market changes) or to improve the quality of life unless capabilities are developed such that a person makes effective use of such skills and relates the learning to other life spheres. The focus of the approach is to build such capabilities of the unorganized sector workforce that they start making conscious decisions which are based on critical reflection in any area of operation: at work and other life spheres. In particular, the influence of the environment people live in, on their life-perspectives and actions is paid significant attention such that they are able to relate the skills acquired to changing market needs and utilize ongoing interactions with markets and the formal industry to further enhance their skills and capabilities.

The content of learning includes both technical skills addressing aspects of efficiency, quality consciousness, finish of the product/service, basic skills of literacy and computation, and life skills related to a vision, innovation, identity, communication, problem solving, decision-making, critical thinking, teamwork, democratic functioning, participation, and political articulation (within a group).

An approach to self-directed learning involves a radical shift in the role of ‘trainers’ or teachers, moving from a premise of instructional knowledge-transfer towards facilitation. A facilitator is seen as one who supports learners to identify needs, set outcomes, strategise, access resources, assess own capabilities and consistently be on the path of learning. This demands a close understanding of each member and group, engaging them in discussion and dialogue and relating learning content to life experiences of the learners, to arrive at a diligent blending of political needs with the immediate reality of the individuals and communities.



Facilitation implies taking the people from where they are and ‘to go with them beyond these levels of knowledge without just transferring the knowledge… the question is not how to take advantage of the reading of reality, which the people are doing, but to make it possible for students to make a different and much deeper reading of reality… such learning enables the students to connect their experiences with information and therefore, being able to generate knowledge and learn’ (Horton/Freire 1990).

The primary role of the facilitator is to support the individuals to understand new horizons and apply this understanding in different situations, thereby increasing possibilities and creating new options for social and economic mobility of the workforce. Learning together with individuals and groups, the facilitator helps them to develop their own views and analysis of an existing problem through self-reflection and mirroring on skills enhancement, cross-learning, execution of orders, performance, without imposing an agenda or abdicating responsibility. They need to gain a sensitive understanding of ‘invisible’ factors that influence learning, for instance, issues of power inherent in gender, class, caste, religion, leadership, or even long years of experience of working in a particular sector. Enabling the individuals and groups to challenge internalised beliefs and develop critical abilities through actively seeking and interpreting feedback.



As Dewey (1938) observes, ‘Not all experience educates. For learning to happen, an experience must include two key dimensions. The first is continuity: the learner needs to be able to connect aspects of the new experience to what he or she already knows, in ways that modify this knowledge. The second is interaction: the learner needs to be actively interacting with his or her environment, testing out lessons developed in that environment.’

Interaction with many individuals and groups enhances reflection and supports the learner to gain a ‘real’ understanding of a particular issue. Through interaction the individuals are encouraged to analyse and reflect on different viewpoints to take more conscious decisions based on an objective and systematic understanding of available choices.

In training of the unorganized sector such a process of reflection needs to be institutionalized so that learning is not incidental but part of a continuous process of questioning the existing status quo. Learning, therefore, is not limited to time bound micro-interventions, but helps individuals and groups to define and redefine their perspectives. The collective/group on one side and the support of networks and resource persons on the other offers the possibility of dialogue, mirroring and reflection and a deeper understanding of reality; therefore, learning becomes systemic.

Traditionally, resources have been understood as books and teaching materials. Within this approach a structure is in place at the macro level which makes available different kinds of learning resources – be it experts from the private sector, trainers, people from the communities, in addition to training materials of various kinds. In the new approach resources are visualized as available everywhere and anytime depending rather on how the learner might avail of them. Even though learning and skills development can be facilitated, finally it is the learners’ responsibility to make effective use of the acquired knowledge in his/her daily life. A learner with a certain level of self-directedness will not run short of resources or need to depend on any expensive school material, since any locally available tool can be utilized for learning.



Even if resources are not locally available, but if the individual is able to clearly define a learning outcome, s/he knows how to access the vast resources, if there is access to a network. In fact, the person him/herself will become a resource for learning and a part of the resource network within the community that makes cross learning a viable option for self-directed learning. Thus, rather than a static group of a few experts identified as trainers, within this approach resources are created and recreated through a dynamic partnership-oriented relationship between the formal industry, markets and the unorganized sector.

One major drawback for the unorganized workforce is the lack of any standards and certification system, which makes wage setting in the labour market extremely non-transparent and exploitative as wage levels are only based on an arbitrary market value. In our model, contrary to absolute standards and qualifications, the learning outcomes signify a direction towards which each individual and institution can choose to take a particular path/methodology and time for learning depending on their present levels and priorities. This helps determine future learning agendas based on outcomes set in the interest of the group and individuals. Such standards also help gain legitimacy and recognition within the formal industry as a quality workforce in setting wages for individuals, ensuring transparency and encouraging learning itself.



A learning audit system is distinct from a test-based assessment as it involves an ongoing process of feedback on learning outcomes through self-reflection, client feedback, market information, specific order/product related feedback, discussions within the group and across groups and during the execution of orders. Assessment, therefore, does not limit itself to externally imposed criteria but encourages learners to continuously reflect on their performance, which is an equally important aspect of the assessment process. Thus, the assessment practice moves beyond an ‘expert’ paradigm towards one where learners are facilitated to set, manage and assess their own learning agendas for better work and more decent living.



In many instances, however, most training interventions imparted by the government and NGOs have not been sustainable, limiting themselves to some short-term training, which would not necessarily equip the trainees with the capability to succeed in a highly competitive labour market. Unless systemic aspects for learning and work are addressed simultaneously, poverty reduction and empowerment of people will be incidental and not large scale.



On the one hand training and education needs to be continuous and take account of and actively address the status of people, the various forms of deprivation they face, their high level of disorganization and the lack of an organizational structure for collective voice which would enable them to realize opportunities for change. Training and skills upgradation also need to be institutionalized and recognized; therefore, the need for an audit and monitoring system which has clearly defined skills standards and yet serves as a feedback and encouragement for further learning. On the other hand, training and skills upgradation need to be linked to the market, both on-the-job and rooted in a continuous process of reflection on work, orders and training.



Mayaorganic,7 an integrated macro approach, which is being implemented in Bangalore (urban and rural), attempts to change systemic shortcomings in the training system as well as in the production-labour market which perpetuate poverty. It facilitates a process that enables the working poor to overcome three main forms of deprivation (i) absence of a forum for articulation because of a lack of formal structure and organization, (ii) income insecurity and low quality of work and (iii) few opportunities for education, learning and skills development – all of which result in low bargaining power in the labour market.

Mayaorganic ensures not only access to continuous learning for groups and individuals but also to markets and information, as well as to other formal institutions (e.g. credit or government institutions). It provides a formal institutional structure to sub-sector enterprises and collectives which was non-existent for the unorganized sector workforce.

The accompanying graph illustrates the process of learning towards self reflection and self-directedness as envisaged within such an approach. The initial phase involves greater initiative by the facilitator, while over time, through an increased institutionalization of the process of reflection and learning, individuals and groups are enabled to move towards identifying more complex learning outcomes by themselves. Simultaneously, the role of the facilitator and resources will increasingly be determined by the learners, based on their learning outcomes and enhanced capability to access and make use of these resources. Such a process increases the transferability of learning to other life spheres.


Process of Learning Towards Self-Reflection and Self-Directedness in Mayaorganic




1. According to NSSO data, a mere 10% of the male and even less (6.3%) of the female workers have marketable skills (GOI 2001). Even more disturbing were the basic literacy statistics of the Indian labour force for the year 1999-2000: 44% of the Indian labour force is illiterate and the same is the case for 69% of all women in the labour force. More than 66% of the Indian workforce has not attained secondary or higher education: for women, the percentage is even higher at 75%. Less than 33% of the workforce has attained secondary level and above, which would be the level of education required for further vocational training or education. However, even out of these 33% only a minor share passes secondary school, which reveals the high drop-out levels during secondary education.

2. These estimates of skills and competencies need not be taken as absolute truth as they don’t necessarily reflect the competency levels of the Indian labour force since skills in this particular context are confined to certification and qualifications by schools and training institutions, and not necessarily to the competency on-the-job.

3. MAYA’s main focus in the last 14 years was on the eradication of child labour. How the perspective on child labour has changed towards a systemic understanding of child labour where livelihood issues in house holds and the community are essential for the eradication of child labour can be read on www.mayaindia.org

4. Countries, which have developed national vocational training policies with the CBT approach are USA, UK, Australia, France, Malaysia, South Africa and many more. CBT has been applied in many different ways, emphasizing either the behaviourist approach (e.g. USA), or the functional approach (e.g. UK) and finally the constructivist approach (e.g. France). For further discussion see Mertens 1999).

5. See for instance some evaluation reports on CBT in Australia on http://www.ncver.edu.au

6. For further reading on the learning model, please contact mayaindia@vsnl.com

7. For more detailed discussion of Mayaorganic, see concept note and the forthcoming publication on Mayaorganic on mayaindia.org. Mayaorganic currently works in four sectors, with home based workers (garments, embroidery), casual construction labourers (men and women), domestic workers and lacquerware workers.



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