“These are exciting times for digital natives.” This message from Karan Bajwa, Managing Director, IBM India/South Asia set the tone for the India Skills Forum: Advancing Innovation and Inclusion summit in New on March 11, 2019. He added that it was a time of great opportunity for reskilling and building a more inclusive workforce for women.
Inclusion and a vision for ‘no-collar’ jobs were the overarching themes of the evening, which witnessed discussions and presentations by the people who are helping shape this future. Offstage, delegates had the chance to witness demos of how IBM technologies were being leveraged to build solutions for some of India’s greatest challenges.
With a core belief that technology is the opportunity of our time, IBM has been working in countries like India to build technologies and help leverage these to create a more equal society. The first step towards that future is disrupting the education system and creating a shift in the paradigm, where those with skills and associate degrees are seen as being at par with those that have degrees. The Atal Tinkering Labs, under Niti Aayog’s Atal Innovation Mission, is an example of how IBM is working with the Government of India to help nurture a new generation of innovators, particularly in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, by giving them hands-on experience with new technologies and mentorship to hone their ideas.
Speaking to Shaili Chopra, Founder – SheThePeople.TV, on Skills Development for a More Inclusive Workforce, Amitabh Kant, CEO, Niti Aayog, said that while India was on the threshold of a great future, owing to an increasingly younger population, enabling them with skills was crucial. “The average age of the workforce is 29 years and by 2022, we will have the youngest workforce in the world, and the largest workforce by 2027. This is in contrast to the rest of the world, where the population is getting older. But that comes with challenges, one of which is providing new skills to this population, and we will need technology to leapfrog into that future. Without technology, it will become difficult. And we can’t do it without women, who only comprise about 24 percent of the workforce. If we take it to the world average of 48 percent, we will be adding $700 billion to India’s GDP.” He said that the Government and IBM had a great partnership that was helping power this journey of encouraging women in the workforce and disrupting India’s education system to create interest in STEM and in encouraging innovators of the future.
The delegates had the opportunity to see first-hand the impact of the initiative when Jyoti and Srilekha, two young girls who are alumnae of the Atal Tinkering Labs programme, confidently took to the stage to talk to the audience about the future they were helping build.
Jyoti, a Grade 11 student from Rainbow International School, Himachal Pradesh, has created a robot, an app and a website, FarmConnect, to help farmers have a better harvest. She says she has benefited greatly from being a part of the IBM internship programme in Bengaluru through Atal Tinkering Labs. She dreams of joining the Indian Administrative Services and driving the adoption of newer technologies to address problems at the grassroots.
Srilekha, who is pursuing an advanced diploma in IT, Networking, and Cloud, and a Bachelor of Science degree in Computers from Osmania University, said she had created a platform for computer-based testing that would replace the written exam that students applying to institutes had to take. She said that she was grateful to IBM and Atal Tinkering Labs for empowering her with the knowledge, tools, and technologies that would make her dream a reality.
No discussion on new technologies would be complete without mentioning the impact that AI is having not only on businesses but our lives. Arvind Krishna, Senior Vice President, Cloud and Cognitive Software, IBM spoke to the delegates about AI and Human Potential: Changing how we teach, learn, and what we need to succeed in today’s world. From farming to education, he said that AI had permeated every aspect of our lives, and that, “Everyone should know how to leverage AI in their profession and everyone should build their skills to participate even better in the global economy.”
Giving an example of how education was benefiting from AI, he said that IBM’s mission, alongside diversity and inclusion, was to improve skills overall. “AI can create tailored curricula that make education more bespoke and cater to individual learning skills. We are going to start by making this customised curriculum available to every IBMer and then take it to our partners. It will be accessible to everybody, regardless of the knowledge base, and we believe that in eight to 12 weeks, people who have spent about 100 hours on the programme can take these AI skills and apply it to our products and services at a deeper level.”
He added that Atal Tinkering Labs and InnoNet (ATL’s Innovation Networking and Mentoring Platform) had also greatly empowered students across the country with access and hands on experience with AI. IBM would continue investing in programmes that would impact students in India on a larger scale by training teachers and working with the National Council of Educational Research And Training (NCERT), Mr Krishna added.
“AI can be like a personal coach, who monitors your work and gives bespoke advice on how you should proceed with your learning plan to give the best outcomes,” he said.
IBM has a long and consistent history of being of being one of the top-rated companies for women. This is a legacy that is being nurtured and developed to meet the demands of the increasingly technology-dependent times we live in. One of the highlights of the summit was a panel discussion on Enabling Women in Technology moderated by Harriet Green, CEO & Chairman, IBM Asia Pacific, with Gayathri Vasudevan, CEO and Founder, Labournet; Juthika Patankar Additional Secretary, Ministry of Skill Development & Entrepreneurship; and Diane Gherson, Senior Vice President, Human Resource.
Speaking on how we could bring about change and involve more women in the workforce in a country like India, where women were still largely confined to a domestic role, Ms Patankar said, “There is a need to change our cultural environment for women to come into vocational education and jobs. They need cultural and familial support. All skills should have inclusion in the agenda. Trades should be open to women as much as men. Women should have a socio-cultural environment where they feel safe.”
This support had to also transition to the workplace. “Mindset, bias and physical barriers are some of the challenges women have to face at the workplace. We are working with women in IBM India to exert more agency over their career paths. It's all about mindset and that won’t happen overnight. But we're off to a good start. Men as allies have also gained a lot of force in many countries we work in,” said Ms. Gherson.
Ms Vasudevan said, “Women should not only be encouraged to participate in feminised jobs. They should be given skill training and be encouraged to take up vocational jobs, which contribute significantly to our GDP. When inclusion is placed firmly at the centre of the agenda, you have to ensure that trades are open to women, and that the environment, from transport to public spaces, are safe and women-friendly.”
One of the key messages of the evening was that women define who they are, not society. Growth and comfort can never coexist and disruption was needed not just in education but in our mindsets. Shobana Kamineni, Executive Vice Chairman, Apollo Group, who delivered the vote of thanks, left the audience with some food for thought.
“We’ve seen over the years that women have often had to take the jobs that nobody wants. But that’s not what this Industrial Revolution is about. We are moving from blue-collar to white-collar to no-collar jobs, and this is where women can play to their strengths. This event celebrates people like Jyoti and Srilekha and the passion they bring, and leaves us all feeling optimistic about the future.”