RTAP: The big bold idea to tackle youth unemployment

Under the Right to Apprenticeship (RTAP) proposal, any youth below the age of 25 with a diploma or above can legally ask for an apprenticeship and the government will be obligated under law to provide one, structured like the Right to (rural) Employment (MNREGA).

Praveen Chakravarty
March 18, 2024

RTAP: The big bold idea to tackle youth unemployment


Regardless of one’s political preferences, everyone will acknowledge that the biggest challenge confronting the nation is unemployment and lack of livelihood opportunities for hundreds of millions of our youth. An astounding 42% of our graduates are reportedly jobless. This is the official figure; the true number is likely higher. Think about it — nearly one in two graduates cannot find a job and earn a living. This impacts hundreds of millions of our youth, and when large numbers of youth feel despair, it can lead to social upheavals. The issue of joblessness is not a BJP or Congress or a political issue, it is a national emergency that calls for all minds and voices across all hues to find a solution.

It is in this context that a new idea has been proposed in the Congress manifesto – the Right to Apprenticeship (RTAP). Under this proposal, any youth below the age of 25 with a diploma or above can legally ask for an apprenticeship and the government will be obligated under law to provide one, structured like the Right to (rural) Employment (MNREGA). The apprenticeship can be with a private or a public sector company or a government organisation. It will be a one-year internship with an annual stipend of Rs 1 lakh.

The idea is for educated youth to acquire on-the-job training, learn important skills, become more employable and, most importantly, gain dignity. Any young diploma or graduate as they leave college today is under extreme stress to find a job that is often elusive. This futile search renders them hopeless and in despair. RTAP removes the immediate distress and agony for young graduates who can now demand and get a paid internship soon after they graduate. Just this relief alone can provide hope and optimism rather than stress and despair to millions of youth.

When these young graduates join the apprenticeship, they learn invaluable technical, social, and professional skills over the course of one year. It is for this reason that most elite universities across the world have internship programmes during the course of study. Such programmes make graduates more employable and also provide a window of career opportunities from which they can choose. This process provides them a sense of dignity and self-esteem rather than the frantic job search and ensuing disappointment upon graduation. The optimism and confidence of its youth are the most important social assets for any nation.

Unlike an MGNREGS programme, which is rural employment in the local village, the RTAP programme will necessarily have to be in the premises of the employer. RTAP will ease and smoothen graduate migration from places of study or stay to places of employment opportunities through a guaranteed stipend and a job. History teaches us that such migration is the bedrock of economic development of any nation.

The obvious question then is, if the apprenticeship is on demand, will there be enough opportunities for all that want it. First, it is important to know that there is already an Apprentices Act of 1961, which mandates private enterprises of a certain size to take apprentices in proportion to their workforce. The Modi government amended the Act’s rules in 2015 to expand its scope and, as of 2023-24, eight lakh youth received apprenticeships across nearly 45,000 organisations. This is a laudable reform and the RTAP idea will scale this multiple times. Our analysis suggests that there will be an estimated 20-40 lakh youth that may want apprenticeship every year under RTAP. The demand will, of course, scale gradually every year after introduction of the scheme and reach this peak demand many years later.

RTAP will change the Apprentices Act of 1961 to expand the scope of participating private sector firms from the current count of just 45,000. There are more than 10 lakh firms registered in GST that have reported an annual turnover of Rs 5 crore or more. If on average, each of these firms take even five interns, then there are opportunities for 50 lakh youth apprentices every year. Under RTAP, the annual stipend of Rs 1 lakh will be shared between the employer and the Union government. In our discussion with industry associations and businesses, there was a clamour from small and medium businesses to be included to participate in the apprenticeship programme. It helps them get an educated workforce and lowers labour costs since the government shares some of the wages. Industry is also welcoming of the RTAP proposal and believes it can be good for the overall economy.

Currently, when a young graduate is unable to find a job, the options for her are rural employment for minimum wages under NREGA or a monthly unemployment allowance given by many state governments. This is neither aspirational nor future-ready. RTAP provides a superb opportunity to such youth for skilling and enhancing employability with dignity. It is also fiscally more prudent for the government since employers share the wage burden and hence the costs of a RTAP programme will be significantly lower than the current youth unemployment allowance schemes.

RTAP was formulated after discussions with several experts, stakeholders, and industry associations in India and abroad. Similar apprenticeship programmes in Scandinavian countries and Germany were studied. If RTAP becomes law, India will be the first country in the world to make apprenticeship a legal right for youth. Daunting as it may sound, our rigorous research suggests that it is entirely feasible to implement. After all, when NREGA was mooted by the Manmohan Singh government in 2006, it was deemed impractical and unworkable but ironically, it is now the flagship of even the Modi government. Beyond the politics of policies, it is extremely critical for us as a nation to tackle the youth unemployment problem on a war-footing with big, bold and creative ideas. RTAP is one such idea.

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