Work education or education for work

Sheela Ramakrishnan

There was a class when I was in high school, (eons ago!) where we learnt how to sew buttons, polish shoes, upcycle waste into new products, mend a tear neatly, do basic hemming and of course some cooking! It was called SUPW class – one that we looked forward to as a break from the monotony of academics! It was another matter, however, that this was the first period that got hijacked to complete syllabus and/or assign extra tests!

When I look back, I feel that each of the skills I learned in that class has stood me well for life. In an era of use and throw or outsourcing chores, these skills have tided over many a sticky time.

The policies of our country have constantly tried to build in skills into the education system rather than just gain knowledge. Several initiatives were introduced through the Government of India education plans over the past five to seven decades to link education to more productivity in human resources.

They had various avatars: some of them were
• Craft education (1937)
• Work experience (1967)
• Socially Useful Productive Work (1977) – in different ways in different parts of the country.

But the core intention was always the same – to make citizens self-sufficient and to promote social equity among citizens for the development of the country.

Today, the NEP 2020 outlines life skills, social emotional learning as well as internship education and vocational training as part of the same goal. The intentions are clear. The route was and is clear too. But then why is it that we still stumble when it comes to the implementation of skill education?

The policy has tried very hard to surmount the practical issues of implementation by introducing internship programs as early as grade 6.

But what is it that we are preparing our students for? There seems to be some confusion in having a common clarity of purpose when it comes to defining skills and how to get our students to attain them.

Work education – apart from core knowledge of the area – encompasses three different domains of skills that together make the bundle effective.

  1. Life skills: Goal setting, time management, financial literacy, local and global awareness.
  2. Social emotional learning with 21st century skills: Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship building, decision-making, and the 4Cs – communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity.
  3. Work place preparedness: Work ethics, professionalism, etiquette and netiquette, work-life balance, economic and environmental balance, global and digital citizenship.

Each of these domains has several competencies that this piece does not allow elaboration on, but readers would know of them. Several schools have an integrated curriculum to cover these aspects. The crux however is HOW is it covered?

Does it take the form of information being given or that of opportunities to explore and practice? It is here that educators face challenges. In classrooms that are crowded with theatre-style seating, how does one build these skills? None of these are built in isolation. They are all built when we relate with others. It is only when we interact and share thoughts and opinions that one can truly develop skills of collaboration, accepting diverse opinions, and resolving conflicts.

• In my opinion, the biggest change that is required in our classrooms today is to change the seating arrangement! It may seem small and trivial, but the way seats are arranged reflects the tone of the classroom and who is centre stage. The teacher can never move to becoming a facilitator when he or she is occupying centre stage. Change in pedagogy alone cannot bring about change – learning environments need to be supportive too. Tech platforms have understood this well and have been quick to adapt to adding “breakout rooms” in their offerings. But what about “break-out” opportunities in physical classrooms? This is an aspect to be considered. How can a student feel confident and empowered when there is a sage on stage?

• The next change to ensure effectiveness in this process is to start allotting the right dignity to skill-based vocations. We all know of those who have scored high ranks in engineering, but yet need an electrician or plumber for fixing fuses or leaks! Of what use? Where would we be without our skilled workers? The more gadgets we have in our lives, the more the need for these skilled workers. The more we hanker for just academics the more the possibility that we may not become self-reliant.

Yet we hesitate to give vocational education or skill-based workers the due they deserve. Put a carpenter and an accountant together and it is clear who today would be given a chair! We, as a nation, do not respect essential daily life skilled workers adequately.

It is high time we paint all collars white or blue – with the same colour! Our carpenters, our masons, our gardeners, our household helps – the list is long – in what way are so-called white collars any superior to them? They are just different – neither inferior nor superior. When we help our children internalize this completely, then perhaps they will not shy away from skill-based jobs or come looking only for “office jobs.” The West has done a far better job than we have in this direction. We will do good to learn from them.

• Another overhaul is to reach out to the community to provide work-based experiences for our children. When schools partner with bakeries, restaurants, chemists, weaving centres, carpentry units, mobile repair centres and such, students respect and learn the skills early on in life. They understand that these units of society make a great contribution and working in or starting a unit of your own means contributing to society.

For those who still seek knowledge-based work opportunities, schools and colleges need to “backward-integrate” to build curriculum. Educational institutions need to work with industry stakeholders to understand and determine what is required for employment opportunities. Or else the unemployed, underemployed, and unemployable ratio may not augur well for the future.

Why do these two entities – education and industry not work in partnership BEFORE rather than AFTER? We have industry experts offering inputs in management colleges, with little idea of whether these very same experts have employment opportunities for them once they complete their courses! If we can use data on the foreseeable employment requirements – say every five years, then the NCF frameworks would integrate these to make the curriculum more holistic and meaningful.

Obviously, this would mean a dynamic curriculum, rather than a static one. All stakeholders in both entities would need to be vigilant and open to making quick changes as required.

• With AI rearing its strong head, skill building needs to become a constantly revolving wheel, so that today’s students can remain relevant in tomorrow’s world. All the stakeholders of the system, especially parents, need to understand that old knowledge and skills may not ensure a bright future for their wards in the long term, in a new world. The certainty of employment and entrepreneurship is stronger when we place our faith in new skills that AI cannot easily catch up with. A recent Goldman Sachs report found that 300 million jobs around the world stand to be impacted by AI and automation, such as office and administrative support roles. The same report goes on to say that India would also be one of the least affected in terms of AI replacing jobs. While that is good news, it is wise to be prepared for the fast gallops in technology that can sometimes be totally disruptive in its creativity!

But let us pause for a moment to think – what are those jobs that run the risk of being outrun by AI? They are obviously those that are routine, monotonous and office-based. The more manual or skill component in the job, the less likely AI can interfere.

At a broad level the skills of the future are outlined as
• Analytical judgment
• Flexibility
• Emotional intelligence
• Intellectual curiosity
• Bias detection and handling
• AI delegation (prompts)

Translated to work opportunities, these could be those that require human intervention and cannot be automated:
• Health care: Nurses, doctors, therapists, and counsellors
• Education: Teachers, instructors, and school administrators
• Creative: Musicians, artists, writers, and journalists
• Personal services: Hairdressers, cosmetologists, personal trainers, and coaches

How much do we encourage our children to take up these careers? Barring the big medical D? It is clearly going to be a “Blue” over “White” in the future!

It is, therefore, a corollary that the jobs that require the least automation but ones that require physical and complex mental skills are the ones that AI cannot replace, but will actually grow:

Source: World Economic Forum, Future of Jobs Survey 2023.

How are we equipping our institutional mindsets to prepare for this? How relevant are our curricula to meet this demand? What are we changing in our existing ways to embrace the new wave around the corner?

This article merely is a submission for thought in this direction, than a judgment. To me, the answer is clear – it is not work education, but education for work. Because education is for work for almost all of us.


The author is an advisor to schools in school transformation, curriculum development and classroom methodology. She is the co-author of four series of textbooks published by the OUP, a certified ISO 21001 auditor, a counsellor and trained e-coach for students with anxiety from the Stanford School of Medicine and trained in creative thinking in the UK and activity based methods of teaching in Malaysia and Thailand. She can be reached at

Related Articles

Learning to be human

What makes work education ‘educative’

Work education for ananda

Leave a Reply