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Last Updated : Sep 12, 2019 02:04 PM IST | Source:

The automation threat to jobs is for real. Transferable skills can best fight it

A multi-pronged approach is the answer as many job roles lend themselves easily to transferability

Moneycontrol Contributor @moneycontrolcom

Sumali Moitra

Food aggregator Zomato’s recent decision to let go of over 500 staffers may be the first instance of a domestic company directly attributing redundancy to automation, but it surely is not going to be the last with a precedent now set for India Inc.

Going forward, local companies could very well no longer feel the need to act coy and fall back on politically correct phraseology such as “lack of employability” or “lack of skills” to justify mass layoffs of those engaged in legacy white collar jobs that are easily automatable.


There already exists a strong body of opinion even in this country that quality and consistency in service delivery – never very strong attributes of most Indian companies – are better achieved through automation and AI. Not to forget, these days, even many customers -- at least in urban locations -- are also quite receptive to the idea of their basic requirements being serviced by a chatbot or humanoid robot.

While one can debate endlessly on whether the long-term benefits of automation far outweigh the temporary disruptions it causes, what is most important is how we address the core issue of helping those working in low-end, repetitive jobs who are majorly put at risk when companies step up their pace of automation adoption in order to stay competitive. Especially, the most vulnerable among them -- the so-called “ordinary graduates” -- who lack the expertise to take up employment in a different sector, besides the aptitude and skills to turn self-employed or entrepreneur (even as pakoda-sellers).

So, what are the possible options before us?

Upskilling? Yes, but only so long as we are prepared to accept that it can only act as a temporary protection against the threat posed by automation.

Upskilling can help an individual stay on at his existing job for longer than a peer engaged in the same function who may not have made similar efforts to acquire additional skills if an organisation decides to axe one of them believing that the role now does not require the services of two people. But no amount of upskilling can come to an employee’s aid if a company feels that technology can do the same job seamlessly and more efficiently day in and day out and chooses to get rid of the human element completely by automating the function.

Acquisition of transferrable skills – whereby an individual can translate the learnings gained from one sector to find employment in another where these competencies are also in demand – is a far better alternative to counter the challenge posed by automation.

Many job roles across different business segments today lend themselves easily to transferability and allow a person to shift from one sector to the other. Thereby, even if a person were to lose his existing job due to automation, he could always put his transferable skills to good use for finding employment in another domain.

The National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) under the Union Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship could play a pivotal role in driving forward this agenda of transferable skills in India.

Given its status as a public-private partnership between the central government and leading industry bodies mandated to create job-ready manpower, the NSDC could use its vast network of Training Partners (TPs) and industry-led Sector Skill Councils (SSCs) to:

  • Spread awareness about transferable skills among all stakeholders, including civil society and youth already in jobs or on the lookout for employment

  • Redesign current heavily domain-specific skill training programmes so that greater emphasis is accorded to transferable skills

  • Involve industry bodies like CII, FICCI, Assocham, Nasscom, etc. in a big way to identify different kinds of transferrable skills and the sectors where these could be found useful

  • Collaborate with institutions as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the like in creating India-specific best practices for putting transferable skills to work

Undertaken earnestly, these activities could go a long way in making both holders and seekers of jobs better prepared for an increasingly automated world where many of the job roles that we know now would disappear to be replaced by fresh ones, the nature of which we can’t even hazard a guess now.

Sumali Moitra is a former employee of the National Skill Development Corporation. He tweets @sumalimoitra. Views are personal.

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First Published on Sep 12, 2019 01:59 pm
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