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The Youth of India Gains Skills to Plug IT Skills Gap with Help from the Cisco Networking Academy

October 30, 2007

By Jason Deign, News@Cisco

Being an Indian youth with little or no schooling hardly sounds like a great qualification for a career in IT.

But beginning next month, thanks to an initiative between the Cisco Networking Academy® and India's National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS), even young people with minimal education will be able to pick up basic IT skills that could set them on the path to employment in the sector.

An autonomous organization established in 1989 by India's Ministry of Human Resource Development, the NIOS will be piloting the delivery of the Networking Academy's IT Essentials course as part of the teaching offered in 10 of its 1002 Accredited Vocational Institutions (AVIs) across India.

The NIOS is the largest open schooling organization in the world, providing a free choice of self-study courses to around 291,000 academic and more than 22,000 vocational students in the 2006-2007 school year.

Around 80 percent of NIOS students are 18-to-25-year-olds who have not been able to complete their formal schooling and are looking to gain additional skills in order to improve their employment prospects.

IT Essentials: PC Hardware and Software, the first step in a training path which can lead to industry-recognized CCNA® and CCNP® certification, will replace certification, will be replace a course formerly known as Computer Hardware Assembly and Maintenance and will initially be available to up to 100 students a year across India.

As part of the pilot, the 10 AVIs selected to deliver the training will be accredited as local academies of the Cisco Networking Academy and a number of AVI staff will get Academy instructor training at Amrita Viswavidyapeeth, Coimbatore, one of India's two Cisco Academy Training Centers.

NIOS has agreed to fund the costs of lab equipment, training and curriculum support, while Cisco will provide the Web-based course materials and Learner Management System for IT Essentials, along with a 24-hour helpdesk for advice and technical support.

The Networking Academy's alliance with NIOS follows a successful initiative with another Indian non-profit learning organization, Dr. Reddy's Foundation (DRF), which was set up in 1996 by Dr. Reddy's, the country's third-largest pharmaceutical company.

DRF runs a program called the Livelihood Advancement Business School (LABS), created in 1999 to provide courses aimed at helping 18-to-35-year-olds from the economically weakest sections of society to get jobs in 'new economy' sectors such as retail or customer relations.

Following a pilot initiated one and a half years ago, the Networking Academy currently provides IT skills teaching in three LABS centers, and there are plans to extend it across all of DRF's 120 or so LABS locations in 11 Indian states, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

"The initiative has already had a significant impact on many LABS students," says Lokesh Mehra, regional manager of corporate responsibility for Cisco in the Southern Asia region.

"You have some young people whose parents have been living off 300 rupees a month and after doing the course they have been able to find jobs paying 5000 or 6000 rupees a month," he says.

Besides reaching disadvantaged sectors of society that traditional Networking Academies cannot target so effectively, collaborations such as those with NIOS and LABS, are helping the Academy to increase its geographic spread in India.

In 2001, Cisco pledged to set up Networking Academies in each of the country's 28 states and seven union territories.

Although the Academy has grown significantly, with a current total of more than 160 Academies, achieving this initial ambition of a country-wide presence has been challenging because of facility and infrastructure issues.

"So far we have Academies in 25 of the 35 regions of the country," says Lokesh. "In the other 10 there are no institutions that currently meet our criteria for setting up an Academy. Some of the regions have infrastructure issues such as no broadband connectivity or even commercial flights.

"John Chambers says the two great equalizers in life are education and the Internet, and it's the Internet that is still missing for us in some parts of India."

By adding learning centers run by NIOS and LABS into the fold, the Networking Academy stands a greater chance of penetrating these hard-to-get-to regions. In doing so, it will not only create opportunities for local people, but also help combat India's growing technology skills gap.

According to Lokesh, India currently has a shortfall of 87,000 people with technology skills and the gap is growing at a rate of 39 percent a year.

By 2009, more than 137,000 more people with IT knowledge will be needed to meet India's demand for skilled professionals in the sector.

Lokesh acknowledges that the Networking Academy's current output of 5,000-plus CCNA® 4 graduates a year is something of a drop in the ocean in relation to this shortfall.

But he remains hopeful that further collaborations with the Indian education and non-profit sectors can help turn the tide. "Are we open to other collaborations?" he says. "Yes, 100 percent."

Jason Deign is a freelance journalist located in Barcelona, Spain.

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