Skill Development Programs: Challenges during pandemic

A blog on how six important pillars of skill development programs got affected during the COVID-19 pandemic.a

India’s vocational training and skill development ecosystem which primarily consists of thousands of training institutes faced unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. All the six key pillars of short-term skill development programs: training courses, target group, project funding, delivery model, training quality and job placements have been severely impacted due to the lockdown forced by the pandemic. This blog focusses on challenges faced by short-term skill development programs which are supported by either government funds or corporate social responsibility (CSR) grants. I have also shared some information about how our skill development programs at Dr. Reddy’s Foundation (DRF) have been affected and how we navigated through this situation.  

Training Courses

Training courses had a varied impact based on nature of the course. It is tough to deliver technical courses online. Therefore, the impact on courses which are “foundational” is less than the “technical” ones. Most of the organizations are able to manage foundational courses online – either delivering program virtually or through self-learning apps. We at DRF were able to successfully transition to and manage all key processes of our “core employability skills” led training program online. However, in case of our healthcare programs it was difficult for trainers to deliver classes online due to the “technical” nature of the courses and the practical elements involved. 

Target Group

Most of the target group who avail skilling programs is from the low-income families. Internet accessibility has increased from 20 percent to 50 percent in the past 5 years which means that there are still 50 percent of Indians who have no access to internet. Certainly, a huge majority of those who don’t have access to internet will be the low-income group. For them the availability of digital infra, such as smartphone and data connectivity, is low. In DRF’s skilling programs, which are primarily designed for 10th and 12th pass unemployed youth, we have found that 30-35 percent of our students who were in the ongoing batches before lockdown was announced did not own smartphones. Pandemic has created a digital divide among millions of these youth, reaching out to them through any kinds on online program is difficult.

Project Funding

The funding sources for all government programs were unavailable during the extended lockdown period. This created a lot of stress on small skill development organizations and as a result, they were forced to downsize their project staff. As pandemic has still not come to a halt, government has many other priorities and it seems building government funding pipeline may take more time. Private organizations, most of them I know, have provided a lot of flexibility to their NGO partners to try new approaches to ensure that the lockdown impact on skilling programs is less. 

At DRF, we faced both the situations and diversified funding portfolio helped us to survive – on one side all our private long-term CSR partners supported us to manage our “core employability skills” program online, on the other our healthcare skilling program, supported by government is not running for the past eight months. Though, as per the recent guidelines, government supported skill development centers are allowed to operate from third week of September, unless enough funding is provided on time, it will take few more months to start the new batches.

Delivery Model

Majority of skilling programs in the country follow a classroom-led delivery model and hence, most of the skill development centers faced huge infra and human resource related challenges to convert their operating models online overnight. On one hand participants who are from the low-income families didn’t have access to digital infrastructure, on the other even trainers were not equipped enough to deliver virtual training. At DRF, we quickly trained all our trainers on delivering virtual training effectively, strengthened our Learning Management System (LMS), changed our outreach strategy for this phase to enroll only those who have smartphones, and made training available at a discounted fee (in the nominal fee we collect from participants to ensure their seriousness in the program), enabled them buy required data packs to avail training online. 

Training Quality

Maintaining the same quality of training in digital delivery model like the classroom-led model is a challenge. Logistic issues, trainer’s approach to engage students on digital platforms: Zoom, WhatsApp, Learning Management System (LMS) etc. and commitment of participants to learn online are some challenges that interfere with training quality. The skilling ecosystem is already facing a challenge in bettering the quality of training, converting models online now further impacts the quality of training. We at DRF, started delivering our “core employability skills” training program virtually through zoom, in the first half of a day. We utilize the second half to keep students engaged through WhatsApp and use our LMS to conduct assessments and for self-learning. Counselling students on digital infra requirements, engaging parents through online parents meet, conducting extra sessions on every Friday, and orienting trainers on conducting effective virtual classes helped in achieving good learning outcomes. 

Job Placements 

The job placements, which are the key to success for all short-term skilling programs, were adversely impacted mainly due to: (1) the negative impact on demand-supply chain which meant few job openings. Sectors like retail, hospitality, and tourism were severely affected and had fewer job openings compared to healthcare, BFSI, ITeS, e-commerce, logistics, (2) fear of COVID-19 infection forced some students and their parents to defer the placements and (3) lack of transport facilities, especially public transport which is most preferred mode for this segment of youth, made commutation to workplaces difficult for even those who received an offer. In our skill development programs, clearly explaining to the youth about the available jobs during counseling, engaging parents through online parents meet, and also reaching out to the new employers by conducting regular monthly studies during the extended lockdown phase helped us in identifying new job openings. The nature of “core employability skills” which are industry agnostic and serve for multiple sector entry level jobs, helped us to make use of various job opportunities.

The Way Forward

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has brought upon tremendous challenges. But as people say “never waste a crisis”, it has also accelerated the online delivery models design process at various skill development organizations. It has also brought an important behavioral change: the participants are getting comfortable with online training. In a recent study we conducted with the participants who are attending our virtually delivered skill training, we found that 40 percent are comfortable attending program online. This insight helped us design our Digital Delivery Model which is now tested at scale with more than 5000 participants, without de-prioritizing our classroom-led model which is still very relevant for a sizeable portion of our target group. Going forward skill development organizations should try and find innovative ways, say for example effective online training, to reach out to millions of unskilled youth. Being agile and adapting to situations is crucial to stay relevant and continue creating positive impact.

Pranav Kumar Choudhary | Director Operations

Disclaimer: The views published in this blog are that of the author’s and do not reflect DRF’s policies or views.

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