Digital literacy: From skill gaps to employment crisis

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While the government has been making a big deal about the Digital India push, the reality remains that there are two sides to the narrative, and the country lags behind dismally in terms of digital literacy. The numbers are telling. According to the Multiple Indicator Survey for 2020-21, published by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) last month, over 70% of Indian youth aged between 15 and 29 cannot send emails with files attached, and nearly 60% cannot copy and move a file or folder. The study also revealed other eye-opening findings, such as over 80% of Indian youth being incompetent in transferring files between a computer and other devices, among other basic ICT skills.

This is saddening news for a country that boasts the world’s largest population but has largely failed to equip its people with basic skills. The Multiple Indicator Survey for 2020-21 identified nine parameters for assessing the information and communication technology skills of Indians, and the data shows that Indian youth fare poorly in most of the listed basic ICT skills. These parameters include skills like installing and updating software, connecting and installing devices, and using basic arithmetic formulae in a spreadsheet. The highest number for an individual parameter, persons able to copy or move a file or folder, was 41.7%.

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The digital literacy gap

What is even more ironic is that India has the world’s second-largest internet user base after China, with over 700 million internet users. However, with an alarmingly large portion of Indian youth lacking basic ICT skills, it becomes clear why India still grapples with unemployment. The question arises: How can those who aren’t equipped with digital skills find gainful employment?

Fixing India’s employment problem is also connected with improving digital skills. This is especially pertinent at a time when the churn in Indian labor markets will be led by technology-driven sectors by the end of the decade, according to a recently published report by the World Economic Forum (WEF). In fact, all major reports and studies indicate that the future of jobs lies in various technology fields, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning (38%), data analysts and scientists (33%), and data entry clerks (32%).

Firms have already begun hiring for new roles such as prompt engineers, AI trainers, ethics coaches, and more, which, according to experts, will be areas beyond the reach of Indian youth if they are not able to gain skills faster. Multiple studies have already established that only one in three Indian graduates is readily employable.

Labor-market churn refers to the expected job movement, including new roles being created and existing roles destroyed, as a proportion of current employment. This does not include situations where a new employee replaces someone in the same role. To benefit from this churn, excessive resources in skilling and reskilling students are required so that the future of jobs remains secure. Without acquiring skill sets that will help secure employment in tech and allied sectors, the employment prospects of youth remain grim.

While the use of personal tech has become second nature to those born between the late 2000s and early 2010s, the skill set for personal usage is very different from acquiring professional skills.

Besides employability, there is another glaring issue for youth due to a lack of digital literacy: they will not be able to benefit from digital governance. The government has been focusing on taking governance online by using technology and digital platforms to provide efficient and accessible public services and engage citizens. However, when a large portion of the population lacks basic ICT skills, it limits their ability to fully participate and take advantage of the benefits offered by digital governance initiatives.

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Services such as online application submission, digital payments, access to information, and e-governance portals remain inaccessible without adequate digital literacy. Individuals may struggle to navigate these platforms, resulting in limited access to essential services and missed opportunities, even if the government heavily invests in developing digital infrastructure.

The government launched the Skill India Mission to ensure that students are equipped with the necessary skills to be future-ready. However, even this initiative has its own shortcomings. While the government is organized in verticals, the issues surrounding employment and skills are horizontal and cut across different ministries. In simple terms, different initiatives are not collaborating to achieve a common national goal.

All of this is not to imply that India’s future is grim, but rather to emphasize that it can be improved with timely intervention. Mobile and internet penetration in rural areas have made significant progress in disseminating knowledge. Now, it remains to be seen how quickly India can address the remaining gaps.