Where Are India's Skilled Workers?

Vimla, 26, wipes the dust from her forehead with a faded blue sari and fills a round metal tray with broken stones that she carries, barefoot, across a building site for part of New Delhi's subway. "My job doesn't need any training," says Vimla, who uses only one name. Pointing to her supervisor, a man in a hard hat, she says: "I do what he says. If I was educated, maybe I could do his job."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has pronounced poor infrastructure the biggest impediment to India's growth. Yet India's roads, bridges, airports, and ports cannot be built without skilled labor. Builders including Larsen & Toubro, India's biggest engineering company, say that while the country has millions of unskilled workers like Vimla, it doesn't have enough masons, carpenters, and machine operators to construct the roads, railways, and ports the country needs. "Lack of skilled workers impacts on all three fronts: quality, delivery, and costs," says K.V. Rangaswami, president of construction at Mumbai-based Larsen.

India's economy was forecast to expand 9.7 percent last year, not far behind China's. Yet India is ranked 91st out of 139 nations for the quality of its infrastructure, behind Ethiopia and Indonesia, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2010-2011. India's construction industry had about 31.5 million workers, 83 percent of them unskilled, in 2005, according to a report last year by the New Delhi-based National Skill Development Corp.

To help tackle the shortage, construction companies have set up their own training schools. Larsen runs one in Panvel, about 56 miles from Mumbai's financial center. On a recent day, Manoj Pehre was learning to bend steel rods into rectangles so they can reinforce concrete beams and columns.

Pehre, 23, says his family hopes the training will be a first step toward running his own contracting business.Around him, other men learn carpentry, bricklaying, and welding. The three-month apprenticeship costs Larsen 21,000 rupees ($467) per trainee. Virendra Mohod, 26, who's studying masonry, says the training will give them better pay, job security, and the chance to travel.

He and Pehre are among the lucky ones. Most workers are like Vimla, who moved to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh in northern India four years ago with her husband and her son Rinka. Her son clings to her waist as she carries that tray of rocks on her head, near the $275-a-night Taj Palace Hotel.

Plugging the skills gap will also require a cultural change, says A. Janakumar, a regional training manager at Larsen's institute in Panvel. Trades are traditionally passed down through families, and laborers don't get enough respect for their work, he says, since these jobs previously were done by underprivileged members of the community. "Fathers want sons to be engineers now, not carpenters," says Janakumar.

The bottom line: India lacks the carpenters, electricians, and construction equipment operators it needs to sustain growth.

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