Hunched over their computer screens with newspapers scattered on their desks, a group of girl students is animatedly discussing the latest news stories of the day at one of the oldest women’s colleges in the southern state of Kerala. The task is to articulate their opinions on topical news subjects in clear, fluent English.

“Additional Skill Acquisition Program (ASAP) classes are totally different from our academic pedagogy. This is a platform where we can discuss, debate, and air our opinions which has helped boost our confidence.”

Archa B. Jayan, a student among the group at the Government Women’s College

The setting is not the usual academic lecture class but a skill training module in operation. The group is among nearly 200,000 students (including 58% women and 56% from disadvantaged group) enrolled in Kerala’s undergraduate colleges and higher secondary schools who are being imparted foundation training in communicative English and basic computing skills as part of the state’s path-breaking skill endeavor – Additional Skill Acquisition Program (ASAP). The aim is to boost the students’ soft skills and readiness for modern jobs.

“ASAP classes are totally different from our academic pedagogy. This is a platform where we can discuss, debate, and air our opinions which has helped boost our confidence,” says Archa B. Jayan, a student among the group at the Government Women’s College in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram. The course trainer, Indra Mani says, “the activity-based experiential learning, before or after regular classes, has been found to be a game-changer for students as they become more confident communicators.”

Foundation skills training is supplemented with industry-relevant vocational training and on-the-job training in a 3-tier model followed under the program. This approach is meant to ensure that by the time the students graduate, they would be market-ready for industry jobs and meet the state’s demand for a skilled workforce.

More than 1,100 partner educational institutions and over 120 Skill Development Centers (SDCs) across the state are involved in the skilling effort following a hub and spokes model. An SDC acts as a hub for about 10 neighboring schools and colleges.

Through its focus on improving employability, the program is aiming to address a unique paradox that Kerala presents for its policymakers - despite the best education indicators in India, the state is struggling with high levels of unemployment.

Pared with a high literacy rate of 94%, the state’s unemployment rate at nearly 12%, is more than double the country average of 5%. Among the unemployed, the educated unemployment forms a major chunk and is a source of worry for the state government. The expansion of education clearly did not translate into raising the level of employability of Kerala’s educated youth. Lack of job-oriented skills was identified as one of the main reasons for this phenomenon. The state government launched ASAP to address this challenge.

Before the launch of the program in 2012, most of Kerala’s vocational training programs focused on courses for plumbers, electricians, fitters, and lathe operators which offer limited job opportunities within Kerala. There were few training opportunities to prepare Kerala’s youth for jobs in emerging sectors including the fast-growing services sector. Consequently, Kerala’s graduates were unable to compete effectively for modern jobs. 

The ADB-supported program is gradually changing this scenario

“The program is transforming the skill ecosystem in the state and presents a unique skilling model for other states in India to follow,” says Dr. Veena N. Madhavan, Chief Executive Officer, ASAP. “We now offer more than 80 skill courses from 23 sectors to about 30,000 students every year. The courses are aligned with the National Skill Qualification Framework (NSQF) certification,” she says. More than 200,000 students have been trained under the program so far.

Hand embroidery is one of the courses at CSP, Kulakkada.
Hand embroidery is one of the courses at CSP, Kulakkada.
(Photo: Amit Verma/Asian Development Bank)

A broad mix of vocational courses includes data entry operator, automotive technician, account executive, animator, craft baker, beauty therapist, fashion designer, floriculturist, event planner, community nursing, emergency medical care technician etc.

“Courses are selected based on recommendations from the respective business advisory committees (BACs) to ensure industry/market relevance,” says Dr. K.P. Jaikiran, Head, Curriculum Development, ASAP. The BACs include members from industries, experts, and institutions for monitoring, updating, and validating the curriculum of the job roles for the vocational services offered.

“The quality of training materials, its responsiveness to the industry needs, and its alignment with national occupation standards are reviewed on an ongoing basis,” he says.

The program impact is reflected in the sharp jump of 41% (over the baseline) in the latest employability score for ASAP trained candidates. This indicates the effectiveness of training in making the candidates more employable as per industry standards.

Scaling up the program further

A state-of-the-art building of CSP at Kulakkada.
A state-of-the-art building of CSP at Kulakkada. (Photo: Amit Verma/
Asian Development Bank)

Advanced training centers are now being set up in engineering colleges to offer training in modern vocations such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and cloud computing.

To expand training to the community at large, the program has devised a path-breaking concept of Community Skill Parks (CSPs). They are multi-skill development centers equipped with modern training facilities, that provide skill-enhancing opportunities for all ages and social groups such as middle-rung government officials, housewives, students, and school dropouts.  

The CSP in Kulakkada near Thiruvananthapuram, the first one to be launched in 2019, offers courses catering to beauty and wellness, apparel sector, information technology, food, and beverage sector, and languages. The CSPs follow a public-private partnership (PPP) model where the government provides basic infrastructure including building, and industry partners are roped in to identify, design, and manage market-relevant courses. At least 70% of pass-outs are placed by industry partners who include several reputed national and international enterprises.

For homemakers, the program has made special provision of She-Skills training centers. The objective is to improve the living standards of women by helping them learn marketable skills. Beauty therapy is one of the popular vocations at these centers through 11 job sectors covering 23 courses.

Going forward

Training on PV solar system installation by operating partner at CSP, Kunnanamthanam.
Training on PV solar system installation by operating partner
at CSP, Kunnanamthanam. (Photo: Fook Yen Chong/
Asian Development Bank)

The ASAP management plans to turn the entity into a self-sustaining company with a revenue model of offering consultancy services to other states. This ambition is built on a solid cadre of nearly 3,000 skill development executives (SDEs) and over 200 program managers created through the program. In fact, developing a talented pool of trainers with sustained quality improvement through regular training of trainer programs has been a key success of the program. The SDEs, selected from diverse backgrounds, including professionals and graduate students, are the backbone of the program tasked with foundation skills training.

The fact that 66% of the SDE cadre constitutes women has encouraged more and more girls to join the training programs. The program managers are tasked with running vocational training courses and are deployed by the training service providers engaged under the program to impart market-relevant skills training. “We have set up a very replicable kind of skilling model. We welcome other states to become our partners and visit our state to see how this skilling initiative has been worked out,” says Dr. Madhavan.

The Government of India’s policy think tank, Niti Aayog, recognized the program as the best skill initiative in 2017.

The case study was written by Rajesh Deol, Senior External Relations Officer and Kanupriya Gupta, Senior Economics Officer, at ADB’s India Resident Mission