Recently, I saw a report in the papers about unemployment trends and how it may actually be rising in India (can't find the link), and the lack of relevant skills was one of the main reasons.
Which made me think about vocational training. Which usually makes me slightly angry, becausewhen it comes to young adults, training is often restricted to sewing/tailoring for girls and electrician's/mechanic's work for boys. It bothers me: this acute famine of the imagination. I mean, is this all we can think of? Is this all we want - tailors and electricians?
Then again, I was forced to do a rethink about skills, when I noticed that my bai's daughter wearing a frock with her back exposed. The frock was a rather pretty one; it was just that a few buttons had fallen off. I asked my bai (Raj) why she didn't mend the dress and discovered that she didn't know how!
I was surprised, because I'd assumed that everybody knew how to put a button on a shirt. Later, I discovered that the bai working in my mother's house didn't know either.
This is particularly hurtful, because not only can she not afford too many new clothes, but the ones she does get have to be discarded very quickly. One button or hook falls off and the clothes begin to look shabby. As things stand, Raj cannot imagine using her hands to do anything except cleaning, or at most, cooking. Not only does this limit her work options, she is actually spending more than is necessary, paying other people to get the edge of a saree done or loosening a kurta.
Now, I happily wear decade-old clothes. I even wear mom's clothes, at least thirty years old, if they're in reasonably good shape. (There was one pair of socks that I was especially loathe to throw away since my mom's darning is so exquisite). Which got me thinking about the way I acquired my (admittedly limited) skills.
I can replace buttons, create button-holes and hook-loops, hem, seam, make very basic clothes... (regretfully, can't darn or embroider). Despite being terrible at needlework, I was more or less forced to learn, thanks to my mother who headed the school and made this stuff compulsory - even for the boys (a favourite pink lehenga, cut out of an old chikan saree, was a self-made gift from the nieghbours' son).
Similarly, all students did gardening work - we hefted pickaxes, grew small patches of sugarcane and maize, handled manure and took turns to water potted plants.
The strange thing is, we never thought of it as acquisition of skills. We thought of it as an unnecessary pain, because we were sure that we weren't going to become tailors or gardeners. It is only now, when I see how frighteningly limited Raj's options are, that those lessons in Art&Craft and SUPW (Socially Useful Productive Work) seem to be rather useful.
But the problem is, I don't know if they exist where they're needed. And if they do, then why have separate vocational schools? It would be much simpler to just introduce an extra class focussing entirely on one skill (ideally chosen by the students themselves), let's say, in secondary school. By the time a child clears his secondary level boards, he/she would have at least two sets of additional skills. No?