Skilling In 5G Technology Holds A Great Promise

By Telecom Sector Skill Council and Siddha Dhar

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India is at the threshold of a big revolution as the highly-anticipated 5G network is finally taking shape in the country. But do we recognise the potential it holds for the electronics industry? And are we getting ready the biggest asset at our disposal—the manpower—at the required speed? Is it possible to take our rightful place in this world without the skilled manpower?

Telecom Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw successfully tested India’s first 5G audio and video call in May this year. “Successfully tested 5G call at IIT Madras. Entire end to end network is designed and developed in India,” he tweeted.

As with any new technology, 5G brings with it opportunities and the promise of employment.

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The Telecom Sector Skill Council (TSSC) estimates that India will require as many as 22 million skilled manpower by 2025 to reap the full potential of 5G. This is easier said than done.

India is infamous for missing the bus of both the 4G revolution and the electronics manufacturing era in the past. And it can be attributed mostly to one reason—the lack of awareness of the opportunities and the challenges we face. Skilling the youth is a prime example of that.

The future doesn’t lie in the job, it lies in the person doing the job,” says Ramesh Kasetty, CEO and Co-founder, Duranc

A robust telecom sector for a robust electronics industry

The telecom industry no longer sits in the back seat of reforms. The introduction of 5G promises a gleaming future for the industry. This is the result of a long-awaited realisation—a robust electronics and technology industry requires a robust telecom infrastructure.

“The kind of new technologies that are coming, it is not possible to take advantage of that tech without having a robust telecom infrastructure underneath,” notes Dr N.S. Kalsi, Chairman, NCVET. Technology is only as good as the hands that use it. The first step to skilling the manpower is highlighting the opportunities that are available to them to utilise these skills.

The recent policy of the government to introduce semiconductor design manufacturing and the subsequent India Semiconductor Mission have opened doors for the telecom sector to emerge as an economic leader. It is expected that soon every piece of metal will have silicon embedded in it because silicon is what provides a brain to the metal. But that brain will only be able to communicate through connectivity. Hence, telecom provides it with life.

In a similar vein, the recent production-linked incentive (PLI) schemes for electronics manufacturing present further opportunities for skilled manpower to put their talent to use. The introduction of 5G has opened incredible avenues for growth across sectors. And as technologies like IoT, Industry 4.0, and AI/ML keep propping up in conversations, the significance of connectivity and data becomes clearer. But so do the challenges that accompany them.

A Case for the Learner’s Perspective
Now, while the conversation about the need and means of upskilling goes on, the ground reality is a little different. A predicament skilling centres often find themselves in is having to deal with students who have no desire to upskill. This is at the expense of large sums of time and money spent by the industry on upskilling, and students spending time learning something they do not wish to. A complete lose-lose situation. What can be done?
For starters, putting up more rigid screening tests for potential students is a good way to weed out unsuitable people. Second, Dr Kalsi suggests that keeping the sword of some monetary investment on the student’s part can be a good way to make sure that only those who are truly interested are upskilled. It is also important to understand what the people are actually interested in—be it AI/ML, IoT, or Big Data Analytics. Mapping a person for the right skill and competency is very important.

The country has an impressive herd of skilled manpower for 2G, 3G, and even 4G. However, 5G is a different ballgame. “The infrastructure which is required for 5G is different. It has more additions to it, and hence skilling needs to happen so that the workforce understands what each of these additions has to offer,” remarks T.R. Dua, Director General, DIPA.

Talent—the newest competitive edge

India’s biggest demographic dividend and asset is the people. Every year, thousands in the workforce migrate to foreign countries in search of employment and better opportunities. Arvind Bali, CEO of TSSC, says, “The responsibility on our shoulders is tremendous as this provides the opportunity to be global skilling leaders.”

This is no easy feat, though. The skilling mantra needs to work on a certain paradigm. The centres need to be omnichannel. People need to have the assurance that they will be continuously learning through digital channels and workplaces.

Skilling needs to be aspirational. Given the kind of enthusiasm and drive in the youth today, this is hardly a challenge. The real challenge lies in honing that drive and channelising it in the right direction.

As far as building international cadence goes, Bali provides an interesting insight: “It is no surprise that countries in the Middle East have numerous takers for Indian talent. But what about skilled talent? If we can send these people with a certain level of training, and make them more desirable in terms of skillset, the opportunities for these people increase manifold, and so does our quality of Indian talent across the globe.”

But there is a need to recognise skilled manpower on the home turf too. “We need a full spectrum of trained manpower in 5G. Right from the design to implementation and commissioning and finally to operation and maintenance. And then repair and maintenance services,” says Dr Kalsi.

It is no surprise that most upskilling and reskilling today happens at the workplace. But as the demand for the technology grows, a stronger foundation needs to be set.

Adding courses on 5G development in the syllabus of engineering college students can help, but a more effective way could be to also provide them with an easy way to opt out by making these courses optional, so that only the ones interested are enrolled. A smaller group also provides space to improve the quality of the course through apprenticeship programmes and partnerships with the industry and fluid practical assignments.

Providing this early on can help make the youth job-ready by the time they come out of the college. Subsequently, creating modules of 60-190 minutes that form the base of the technology can be distributed across the school level to start the process sooner. These modules can also help reskill entry-level employees who have little to no idea about what 5G entails.

Training the trainers

A major roadblock in successfully upskilling the workforce is finding people who are adept enough to impart the necessary skill. Rehman Khan Suri, Professor at DSEU, notes, “The main challenge today is providing training to the faculty which can train the skill in the particular skill-set. With the pace at which technology is changing, academia cannot really match that pace without skilled academicians.”

Good faculty development programmes, as such, are not an option anymore. They are necessary to make way for a larger skilled manpower base. New innovations only come when there is a fresh flow of ideas and a stronger collaboration between the trainers and students is the path for it.

One possible solution to this could be to make it mandatory for master’s degree holders and PhD holders to spend at least a year in an educator’s role, training not just the students but also helping upskill the rest of the trainers in academic institutions.

The debate around the quality of academia needs to be hotter. This is the only way to help provide quality educators who can help bring about the next technological disruptions through their training.

Industry, government, and academia

The facets of 5G are such that there is every possibility to create a pathbreaking framework where workplaces, educational institutions, and skilling centres can talk to each other. This conversation means that everybody involved needs to pool in their effort. It requires a holistic approach.

For the talent to take lead in not just India but the rest of the world, there needs to be a true public partnership. “A public partnership comes from the perspective of recognition and standardisation,” says Ved Mani Tiwari, COO, NSDC.Speakers

A common complaint from the industry is that there is a lack of skilled talent, while the workforce complains about the refusal of the industry to make an effort to provide that skilling on the job. A better connection with the industry is the crucial step to putting an end to this chicken and egg situation. As a first step, skilling institutes need to make certifications of such a level that the industry loves to take those certified people.

The whole point of training the trainers also needs to ride on the back of the industry. The industry-academia integration needs to take a stronger and more supportive approach. Providing the institutes with the necessary equipment, which otherwise takes ages to reach them as they pass through multiple levels of authorisations and tenders, can be a helpful step.

As for academia, it needs to have a more open approach toward upskilling the existing workforce in the industry. A big part of why upskilling seems tedious to the workforce is the number of efforts they waste in learning from scratch, something that they might not necessarily require.

Modules and courses have to be framed in a less conservative and more flexible way. For instance, counting a certain number of years of work experience as credits. With these credits, they may skip the initial foundational education and move on to the meat of the curriculum in the second or third year of college. Offering apprenticeship modes (ranging from a few weeks to a few months) can be another way to smoothly upskill/reskill the workforce.

This is how true integration and balance between academia and industry can take place.

A multi-faceted approach

IoT, drones, Industry 4.0—all these new technologies need assistance from the telecom sector to reach their true potential. Although the opportunities are riled up, the challenges to fairly skill/upskill/reskill the workforce need to be overcome to truly achieve the target.

A proper partnership by various stakeholders in the economy is the need of the hour. Skilling needs to be not just multidisciplinary but also multi-ministerial. After all, becoming a global power in the technology manufacturing space is a team effort. It is high time we treat it like one.


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