On International Women’s Day, Farzana Afridi considers a key issue in the creation of good jobs for women – the provision of skilling. She discusses the lack of physical and financial access to skill training, shortage of demand-relevant and high-quality programmes, and inefficient matching with jobs post-training. While highlighting recent government proposals to address these concerns – such as launching a unified Skill India Digital Platform – she contends that a more gender-sensitive approach is needed.
The sectoral composition of employment in India has changed over time, with a shift away from the traditional agriculture sector, and towards services rather than manufacturing. Economists have raised concerns regarding the slow transition from low- to high-productivity activity in India as a whole, and the pressing need for the creation of ‘good jobs’ (Kotwal 2017). Both the ongoing structural transformation and the informal character of the labour market has affected women disproportionately in the past few decades – the observed fall in rural women’s labour force participation (Afridi et al. 2018) accompanies a high proportion of women working in the informal sector1 and stagnant workforce participation rates in urban areas.
A key issue in the discourse on the generation of formal sector employment, therefore, is the provision of high-quality, relevant and affordable skilling to the masses, and women in particular.
Does skilling lead to more secure wage employment?
Not only is there a surprising dearth of large-scale, rigorous research on the impact of skilling on employment, we know very little about the determinants of skill training take-up in the Indian context. A handful of studies indicate that providing skill training to women can improve their labour force participation rates in India, relative to women who are not skilled.
Using a combination of administrative and phone survey data, Barua et al. (2022) show that the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Kaushalya Yojana (DDU-GKY – a public vocational training programme targetted at poor rural youth) increased employability of registered trainees in four states in the short run. Although, they find no differences by gender in the effect of training on wage employment, trained women are more likely to engage in self-employment. Maitra and Mani (2017) offered women in low-income households subsidised vocational training in tailoring, and found that ‘treated’ women were more likely to be self-employed, work more hours per week, and have higher monthly earnings – benefits that sustained for a period of 18 months.
Most notably, these findings suggest that for women, self-employment (often informal in character) rather than wage employment is likely to increase, even when they are skilled. This is in contrast to other countries, which find an increase in wage employment (see the experiment by Attanasio et al. (2011) in Colombia). It is therefore worthwhile to delve into the current skilling ecosystem to understand the potential factors that not only limit women’s access, but also the extent to which they benefit from skilling in India.
Effect of labour market and socio-economic conditions
Physical access: Existing studies highlight distance to skill training centres, credit constraints and lack of childcare support as barriers to women’s access and skill training completion rates (Maitra and Mani 2017). Cheema et al. (2022) offered skilling in Pakistan at centres located at varying distances from residences and found that women are four times more likely to complete the programme if the training centre is within their village. This is largely due to safety concerns associated with accessing far away locations. Although group transportation alleviated the problem to some extent, these concerns are likely to be salient in India as well.
Choice and quality of training courses: Although the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) system in India is the most affordable and dense network of training centres (with almost 15,000 centres across the country) only about 7% of the enrollees are women (NITI Aayog, 2023). Technical and electrical/mechanical engineering courses, which women are less likely to enroll in, are offered more often and are dominated by male trainees. In addition to the lack of infrastructure and quality instructors, less than 17% of the ITIs cater exclusively to women offering computing, secretarial, cosmetology, and soft skills training.
Matching with employers and jobs post-training: The limited evidence also suggests that women have worse post-training employment outcomes relative to men. Studying participants of the ‘Skill India’ programme, Pande et al. (2017) find that men are more likely to receive and accept job offers at the end of training. Women’s high drop-out rates from jobs are linked to family reasons and job location. In the case of DDU-GKY in Bihar, Chakravorty and Bedi (2019) note that trainees (including women) placed in jobs tend to drop-out after 2-6 months. Lack of industry demand for and linkages to training institutes, career counselling and job placement programmes may disadvantage women in particular, as their job search networks are often tight and narrow (Afridi et al. 2022).
The existing literature supports the view that skilling has tremendous potential to improve employment outcomes for women. Yet, in practice, the realisation of this potential runs into challenges pertaining to actual job market conditions – what skills are in demand, where work is located, how much it pays, and whether the work environment is conducive.
Bringing skill training closer to women
The Union Budget 2023-24 has proposed an expanded digital ecosystem for skilling, with the launch of a unified Skill India Digital Platform. Preliminary field work under the Digital Platforms and Women’s Economic Empowerment (DP-WEE) programme finds that platform-based employers also impart training through online videos on the platform apps, or in hybrid formats to allow for flexible participation in training modules. This can potentially ease skilling for women with mobility and domestic constraints to some degree. However, at the same time, it is critical to ensure that women’s digital disadvantage is addressed – as per the latest National Family Health Survey (2019-20), only 33% of women in the lowest wealth quintile in India have a mobile phone that they themselves use.
Furthermore, digital training is unlikely to fully replace in-person classes, in which case women may need to be motivated by friends and colleagues who are also undergoing training, and commute in pairs to enhance their sense of safety. Reliable and safe public transport and hostel accommodation at training institutes can be game changers in this regard.
Making skilling financially feasible
High-quality skilling is often costly, and families may be reluctant to devote limited resources to the vocational training of women as they may not foresee good returns to such an investment. However, steps are being taken to provide financial support. In the Union Budget 2023-24, the government proposed a National Apprenticeship Promotion Scheme to provide stipend support to 4.7 million youth over three years. Besides improved credit and scholarship programmes aimed specifically at women in order to enhance access to skill training, government-run ITIs can consider accepting fee payments in installments or offer subsidised loans, rather than demand full fee payment at the beginning of the course. Additionally, potential employers can also encourage skilling by deducting training costs from worker earnings in small instalments over time post completion, thereby incentivising the trainee to complete certification.
Better post-training outcomes can also be achieved through deeper industry tie-ups and demand mapping by skill training institutes. In this regard, the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana emphasises on-job training, MSME and industry partnership, and the alignment of courses with the needs of industry. The scheme also aims to cover new-age courses like coding, artificial intelligence and robotics, as well as soft skills. Further, career counselling, job placement cells embedded in training institutes and harnessing alumni networks can be effective in activating the ‘role model’ effect for women trainees.
Although several initiatives are being undertaken to improve the skilling ecosystem in India, they are currently hampered by a lack of focus on women, who form a large proportion of untapped potential labour. There is an urgent need for policy impetus on reducing the specific disadvantages that women face in transitioning to high-productivity, formal sector jobs. Through measures that improve women’s access to new-age technology and skills that meet sectoral demands, we can realise the full potential of the country’s economic growth.
Nalini Gulati and Rohan Varghese provided inputs for this article, which is based on ongoing work with Tanu Gupta (ISI Delhi) and Kanika Mahajan (Ashoka University).
- According to an ILO Report (2018), almost 90% of women in employment work in the informal sector.
- Afridi, Farzana, Taryn Dinkelman and Kanika Mahajan (2018), “Why are fewer married women joining the work force in rural India? A decomposition analysis over two decades”, Journal of Population Economics, 31(3): 783-818.
- Afridi, F, A Dhillon, S Roy and N Sangwan (2022), ‘Social Networks, Gender Norms and Women’s Labor Supply: Experimental Evidence Using a Job Search Platform’, IZA Discussion Paper 15767.
- Attanasio, Orazio, Adriana Kugler and Costas Meghir (2011), “Subsidizing vocational training for disadvantaged youth in Colombia: Evidence from a randomized trial”, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 3(July): 188-220.
- Barua, R, P Joshi and S Singh (2022), ‘Short run effects of skill training for the unemployed youth in India’, Working Paper.
- Chakravorty, Bhaskar and Arjun S Bedi (2019), “Skills training and employment outcomes in rural Bihar”, The Indian Journal of Labour Economics, 62: 173-199.
- Cheema, A, AI Khwaja, MF Naseer and JN Shapiro (2022), ‘Glass walls: Experimental evidence on access constraints faced by women’, Working Paper.
- International Labor Organization (2018). “Women and men in the informal economy: A statistical picture.”
- Kotwal, A (2017), ‘The challenge of job creation’, Ideas for India, 15 December.
Maitra, Pushkar and Subha Mani (2017), “Learning and earning: Evidence from a randomized evaluation in India”, Labour Economics, 45(April): 116-130.
- NITI Aayog (2023) “Transforming Industrial Training Institutes.” Report.
- Pande, R, C Moore, S Prillaman and V Singh (2017), ‘What constrains young Indian women’s labor force participation? Evidence from a survey of vocational trainees’, Working Paper.