Who will skill India’s millions of unskilled construction workers?

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Who will skill India’s millions of unskilled construction workers?

Who will skill India’s millions of unskilled construction workers?

01 Apr 2020 Long Read

To cut its losses from a yawning skill gap, India’s biggest employer needs the government and industry to act. CW explores who should do what.

Real estate and construction are India’s biggest employers (leaving aside agriculture), according to the Economic Survey 2017-18.

A peculiarity of this industry is that it employs huge numbers of people with little or no formal education or training, people who typically “can’t afford the cost of training,” to quote Narayanan Ramaswamy, Partner and National Lead for the Education & Skilling Sector, KPMG in India. Consequently, he surmises, “the building and construction sector suffers from the biggest skill gap.”

Going by Human Resource and Skill Requirements in Building, Construction and Real Estate, a KPMG report for the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), the industry currently absorbs roughly 68 million people, of whom more than 90 per cent are deployed in building construction. Over 80 per cent of those employed in building and construction are minimally skilled, according to this report. This paucity of skills hits the construction industry in many ways.

Why skill?

Skilling and certification bring a bundle of benefits. Topmost is the improved quality of infrastructure and buildings constructed and onsite safety. “If you audit the poor quality of the finished product, at some point you will find that the people involved in the construction were not skilled,” points out Col (retd) Anand Kumar Singh, CEO, Construction Skill Development Council of India (CSDCI). Likewise, “audits of onsite tragedies show that workers are unaware of safety practices to be followed.”

“A skilled worker is more likely to produce better workmanship,” observes Anthony de Sa, Chairman, Madhya Pradesh Real Estate Regulatory Authority. A second derivative of skilling is productivity.

“Skilled workers are definitely more likely to work faster (and better) and generate less wastage,” says Singh. “Unskilled workers will consume more resources and deliver less.” Third, skilling improves the employability of workers.

“Structured training enables freshers and less experienced workers to progressively improve their knowledge and competencies in their respective trades,” opines R Ganesan, Head, Corporate Centre & CSTI, L&T Construction. “Trained technicians are integrated into the mainstream via certification by approved national certifying authorities (NSDC/CSDCI).”

“It is in the interest of workers to have proof of their skills as this helps them in mobility and employment,” adds Singh. Another benefit of skilling is the improved marketability of projects. “Having only skilled labour working on a project increases its saleability,” observes Gautam Chatterjee, Chairman, Maharashtra Real Estate (Regulatory & Development) Authority.

Considering that the majority of Indian workers lack the resources to undergo training, which of three key stakeholders will take up the mammoth job: The government, industry associations, or individual companies?

Associations to lead “Industry associations can play a huge role in furthering skilling,” opines Ramaswamy.

The Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India’s (CREDAI) top focus area is skilling construction workers. Since 2011, CREDAI has trained over 150,000 construction workers; 50,000 in the last year (FY2019-20) alone. A CREDAI partnership with PNB Housing Finance operational since 2015 has trained more than 40,000 construction workers and youth in trades like masonry, electrical, plumbing, etc. Under the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY), CREDAI has taken up the Recognition of Prior Learning mode of skilling workers. It identifies skill gaps in workers and bridges those gaps through job-role specific short-term training. CREDAI is committed to train 75,000 such workers in the ongoing year (FY2020-21).

CREDAI also plays an active role in developing National Occupational Standards for various job roles through the CSDCI and actively promotes the engagement of industry in skilling. Putting workers through a nationally standardised course as per the National Skill Qualification Framework and subsequent certification are the objectives of the CSDCI, states Singh.

Another industry organisation, the Infrastructure Equipment Skill Council (IESC), counts 43 original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), whose products engage over 90 per cent of the industry’s workforce, as its members. IESC has developed National Occupational Standards and Qualification Packages for 39 job roles (these have been validated by the industry and are in use); and National Skills Qualifications Framework Levels 3 and 4 for operators and mechanics, and Level 7 for supervisors, together covering over 80 per cent of the workforce.

Since being created in 2014, IESC has accredited 61 training partners pan India, the majority being OEMs and their associates; empanelled 220 qualified and certified trainers; and trained around 40,000 people. It is also working towards bringing the vast pool of experienced but not formally certified operators into the fold through the Recognition of Prior Learning model. In the next 10 years, IESC aims to train over a million operators and mechanics, assisting certified personnel get placed in India and abroad, certifying 5,000-plus trainers and accrediting around 400 training partners.

The skill gap also extends to qualified members of the industry. “Both foundation and mid-career training for engineers is essential,” explains D Sarangi, Director of the Indian Academy of Highway Engineers (IAHE), which organises training for highway engineers and professionals of the central and state governments, public sector undertakings, contractors, consultants, etc, on planning, designing, constructing, operating, maintaining and managing highways including bridges and tunnels. During the current year, the IAHE has trained 2,867 engineers over 99 programmes and trained 2,867 engineers.

Involve industry

After the advent of the CSDCI, about 700,000 people have been skilled and certified in the past three years. Singh acknowledges that this is far too little. Ganesan puts the onus for upskilling workforce on construction companies.

L&T established its first Construction Skills Training Institute (CSTI) in 1995 in Chennai, and has thus far trained nearly 200,000 rural youth through that and other campuses (in Ahmedabad, Delhi, Bengaluru, Cuttack, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai), offering training in vernacular languages for 15 occupations and 54 job roles. Also, L&T is India’s first construction company to be registered under the National Apprenticeship Promotion Scheme with the Regional Directorate of Apprentice Training. Over 4,500 candidates have enrolled under the scheme to date.

The problem is that “while some of the leading construction companies today invest a lot in training, the smaller players and the lowest level of contractors in the value chain are not interested in skilling labour because that would mean paying them more salaries,” observes Ramaswamy.

“The industry at large is still not open to the idea of investing in the skill training of workers and largely relies on schemes like PMKVY or collaborates with the government under the National Urban Livelihoods Mission or agrees to train workers onsite (in which case they must compensate workers for the wage loss incurred while they attend training),” says Narendra Kumar, Vice President, East Zone, CREDAI.

Legal provisions could help push construction companies to skill workers. In this sense, the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act 2016 (RERA) is one piece of legislation that has pushed the quality of workmanship into the spotlight and, albeit indirectly, compelled developers to emphasise training by making them “statutorily liable for any construction defect, including structural defect or any other defect in workmanship, quality or provision of services,” according to Chatterjee. “Now, for five years from the date of handing over possession of a property, the promoter has been made liable to rectify such defects or pay appropriate compensation to the allottees.”

“Considering that quality of construction primarily depends on the quality of input materials and the quality of workmanship, RERA necessitates site engineers to certify that input materials conform to the National Building Code (and other code) standards applicable in India. However, even if the input materials are of high quality, if the workmanship is poor, the quality will suffer,” Chatterjee continues. “The fact that RERA makes the promoter responsible for labour, even when it comes from a contractor, is an incentive for developers to ensure that all the labour working on a project gets skilled.”

HS Mohan, CEO, Infrastructure Equipment Skill Council, additionally suggests that “legislating the Construction, Earthmoving, Mining & Material Handling Equipments (CEMM) Act would be a game changer. Mandating the deployment of skilled and certified operators, in a phased manner, against all government tenders, will help the industry become more productive and cost-effective and focused on safety.”

Advocating the carrot approach instead of the stick, Ganesan believes the Central Government (MSDE) and state skilling missions should incentivise employers to train labour in construction activities.

De Sa suggests that companies take in interns and trainees, train them on the job, allow them to gather experience, then test and certify them to make the initiative really effective. He proposes this be taken up as a corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative.

Government’s role

One of the challenges obstructing skilling is that the “existing education or training infrastructure available for people absorbed in the construction industry is outdated; people training in those facilities simply are not ready for better paying jobs in the sector,” points out Ramaswamy. “Existing ITIs lack the infrastructure to train the millions of people who need training,” agrees Singh. “The skills required for most jobs are evolving rapidly but the learning and training systems are lagging,” adds Ganesan.

It makes sense for the government to fund the creation of training institutes, especially for trades that need more expensive infrastructure such as simulators, construction equipment, etc.

Mohan calls for government support to establish and operate training centres for operators and mechanics. “Given the growing demand for operators and mechanics, OEMs alone cannot fully skill the ecosystem,” he says.

Raghu Balan, Executive Vice President-Quality, Safety and Technology, SOBHA, suggests that the government creates (and runs) training facilities in rural areas, with the real-estate sector partnering those on a rotational basis.

One model training centre in the rural segment is PARFI (PanIIT Alumni Reach For India) Foundation, a not-for-profit, Section 25 social enterprise, that offers soft and behavioural skills training to unemployed youth who have studied till grade eight. SOBHA sources labour through PARFI.

Youth are trained at the Gurukulin Chaibasa, Jharkhand, and then sent to Bengaluru, where they are further trained at the SOBHA Academy, on aluminium, tiling and waterproofing for a month before being posted on project sites.

Kumar emphasises the need to continue schemes like the PMKVY Recognition of Prior Learning for construction workers, and the urgent need for Centres of Excellence to incubate innovations in construction technology, train trainers and promote skilling on the whole. Training institutes run in collaboration with industry would also help.

In Maharashtra, MahaRERA has designed, funded and launched a programme to train a pool of 500 expert trainers (111 trained so far) to start with, in key trades, through three training partners: Rustomjee Academy of Global Career in Thane, KUSHAL in Pune and Sushil Bahuddeshiya Shikshan Sanstha in Nagpur. The modus operandi involves inviting developers to nominate persons to undergo one month of training on a CSDCI syllabus and, thereafter, train the developers’ unskilled or semi-skilled workers, explains Chatterjee.

With these trained trainers, “MahaRERA aims to train and certify all the 10-12 lakh unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workers employed in about 20,000 MahaRERA registered projects across Maharashtra over the next five years,” shares Chatterjee.

“MahaRERA has (now) requested the Maharashtra Government to permit the labour cess meant for labour welfare to be used to skill workers on site,” shares Chatterjee. “This labour cess is available with most state governments, and is mostly unutilised so far.”

Concerted efforts

Industry-government-company partnerships may also spell the way forward. For instance, the IESC has signed MoUs with skill development missions and corporations in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. It has also signed an MoU with the National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation to skill people employed on road construction projects in the Northeast and one with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India. Indeed, only concerted efforts will help the Indian real-estate and construction industry bridge its yawning skill gap.

Skills Shortage by Trade

Construction equipment operators and mechanics: Based on the 2019 sales of 90,000 construction equipment units and the projected growth to 300,000 units over the next decade, the Infrastructure Equipment Skill Council estimates that roughly 1 million existing and 1 million additional operators and mechanics need to be skilled and certified.

Plumbers: India has roughly 0.35 million skilled but uncertified plumbers. The Indian Plumbing Skills Council aims at skilling and certifying 1.2 million technicians by 2022.

Welders, cutters, fitters, equipment operators, engineers and inspectors: The current shortage of 1.2 million welders may increase to 1.35 million by 2023 in view of the infrastructure projects – roads, railways, bridges, power and shipping – being implemented, all of which need persons skilled and certified in metal joining technology, according to the Indian Institute of Welding. Some contractors are using welding and cutting operators from China, Russia and East European countries to tide over the manpower scarcity.

Modern construction tech can reduce the need for workers by 20-30% Construction methods in vogue in India are labour-intensive and require both skilled and unskilled manpower, as a rule of thumb, in the proportion of one to three unskilled workers (to provide logistic support) for every single skilled worker, estimates Raghu Balan, Executive Vice President-Quality, Safety and Technology, SOBHA. “Unless there is a paradigm shift in construction methods, technology and mechanisation, it would be difficult to work with only skilled labour.”

Balan observes that modular and precast technologies help reduce the use of labour by 20-30 per cent and, hence, can help overcome the increasing countrywide shortage of labour, besides cut short construction time. On sites using technology, workers may need only certain skillsets and hence be trained accordingly.


To share your views on the workforce skilling challenge in India's construction sector, write in at feedback@ConstructionWorld.in

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