Our world has witnessed profound changes in technology, society and citizenship, with a global pandemic disrupting long-standing notions of life and work. The phrase “Future of Work'' has become ubiquitous with the increasing digitalisation of life and work. These changes present numerous avenues for improving productivity, monetising skills and market access to support microentrepreneurship and efficient self-employment. At the same time, they also widen the opportunity and livelihood gap between the digitally skilled and unskilled. This challenge gets magnified for the estimated 100 million Persons with Disabilities (PwD) and 660 million women residing in the country. PwD and women have limited skill acquisition opportunities and thus are at a greater risk of being left behind.

The Skill India Mission launched in 2015 continues a six-decade endeavour to impart vocational skills. The Sector Skill Councils set up under the Skill India Mission have programmes designed specifically for PwD and women. However, the skilling programmes currently underway in India are, perhaps unintentionally, limited by their structure. Many skilling initiatives are demand-driven, i.e, the kind of skills being imparted, along with the number and the demographic profile of the candidates, are dictated by the organisation/industry registering demand for skilled workers. This is a problem because hiring decisions for women and PwDs are often based on a list of vocations deemed “acceptable” or “appropriate” for them. As a result, women continue to be trapped in livelihoods tied to their traditional gender roles. Similarly, PwDs are restricted to jobs considered “doable” depending on the nature and extent of their disability. Thus, the number and type of candidates being skilled are constrained by the imagination and biases of the recruiters.

Designs of skilling programme

There are, of course, perfect rationales for the close relationship between industry demands and the design of skilling programmes: First, these programs are financed by outcome-based funding. The desired outcome in livelihood creation is easier to demonstrate through pay slips from an organised enterprise. Secondly, candidates gravitate towards jobs with established corporations for the pride and security associated with working for them. However, this also means that millions of individuals are skilled in the organised sector, contributing less than 8 per cent of jobs in the economy. Clearly, the current design has a bottleneck limiting its scalability.

To make more scalable and inclusive

The proliferation of digital platforms in India might hold the key to making the skilling programmes more scalable and inclusive. Platforms such as Ola, Uber, Zomato, Urban Company, Upwork, etc. are respected household brands and a symbol of an enterprising India. They are marketplaces adept at matching customers with the suppliers of goods and services. Unlike traditional enterprises, platforms do not have gatekeepers in the form of recruiters or hiring managers stipulating the number and characteristics of the workforce. A skilled worker can simply enroll themselves on a platform and immediately start generating income by completing jobs.

A recent report, Unlocking Jobs in The Platform Economy provides evidence that platform jobs offer greater flexibility along with a higher earning opportunity for workers. The report also demonstrates the inclusive nature of platforms, creating opportunities for women and PwDs in various jobs ranging from home services to logistics and fulfilment. In addition to flexibility, higher-earning opportunity and inclusivity, India’s latest labour welfare legislation Code on Social Security, 2020, seeks to provide a safety net, making platform work more rewarding and attractive for the workers.

Platforms are located right at the centre of the evolving future of work. Low entry barriers and high absorption capacity represent scalable and inclusive placement destinations for skilling programmes. Additionally, the jobs on many of these platforms can be broken down into specific skills to train candidates at scale. Furthermore, this category of work fits within the demands of outcome-based funding. Once enrolled with a platform, workers get detailed records of hours worked and income generated which can prove livelihood creation. Workers can also take pride in being associated with platforms as the poster child of the new economy.

With platform jobs, skilling programmes have an opportunity to train a diverse set of candidates from otherwise non-traditional backgrounds such as women and PwDs. What’s more, in training individuals for platform work, skilling programmes will help improve digital literacy. Individuals trained for these jobs will utilise other digital services from banking, payments, and job search, to social media, commerce, and entertainment. Thus, skilling programmes can prepare these candidates to unlock various benefits of the digital economy.

India’s much-touted demographic dividend will peak in 2022 when the country has the largest working-age population in the world. However, it is doubtful that we will be able to fully capitalise on it using the existing models of skilling.

Today, on World Youth Skills Day, we must confront the reality that India needs a pivot in its skilling strategy. The burgeoning Platform Economy represents a scalable and inclusive job creation engine needed for a successful pivot. It��s time to seize the opportunity to reimagine skilling programmes and empower our workforce to thrive in the future of work. Apoorv heads Accessibility & Inclusion research and advocacy at the Ola Mobility Institute (OMI). Sreelakshmi is Research Associate at OMI, looking into issues in Future of Work .