March 2016 | Jai Madan

On the job

Tata Motors' skilling initiative has a striking target - training one million Indian youth in five years, the goal being to help them become employable in a range of industries

Ashwini Sandbhor's adolescence was interrupted by marriage. She was just 15. Further disruption was in store when, a year later, she gave birth to a child. Ms Sandbhor had been forced down the familiar and depressing road of early motherhood, household drudgery and steady loss of self-esteem.

The skills initiative is a key part of Tata Motors' CSR spread

It's the story of countless Indian women. Unlike most of them, Ms Sandbhor got a chance to make a better life for herself thanks to a skills initiative supported by Tata Motors. By chance, she spotted an advertisement for a driver training programme run by Ambika Motor Driving School, an organisation Tata Motors has partnered with to equip youth with professional driving skills.

A month of training set Ms Sandbhor on the way. She now works with a fleet cab company and pulls in Rs9,500 a month, making her the highest earning member of her family. Ms Sandbhor’s husband and son work in the unskilled sector and look up to her with respect. An inspiration for other poor and undermined women where she lives, Samrat Nagar in Pune, she has been motivating them to follow in her footsteps.

Something similar to what Ms Sandbhor experienced is happening in a corner of Mumbai, where a group of youngsters aged 18-20 years are learning to speak English. They hail from low-income homes and most have dropped out of the educational system due to family or financial problems. These men and women, barely into adulthood, have enrolled in a three-month training programme in the organised retail trade at the Pratham Arora Centre for Education (PACE) at Chembur. “We have changed the way we speak, the way we dress and groom ourselves,” says Shyam Lad, one of the students taking the course, as he explains the difference studying at the centre has made to his life.

Ms Sandbhor and Mr Lad are just a few of the thousands of beneficiaries of the skills-building and employability programme that Tata Motors has embarked on as part of its affirmative action (AA) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) commitment.

Skilling India
CSR has been a crucial component of the business way at Tata Motors ever since it was established back in 1945. The organisation has won many accolades for the work it has done in this sphere, the most recent of which was being ranked among the ‘10 Best Companies for CSR’ in an Economic Times survey. The skills initiative is a key part of the CSR spread that Tata Motors is currently concentrating on and its objectives are ambitious.

In 2014-15, the company put in place a five-year plan with the target of skilling 1 million people. Out of a total CSR spend of Rs186.2 million in the year, nearly Rs80 million was earmarked for the skill-building initiative. The thinking behind this is that India, poised to become the world’s ‘youngest country’ by 2020, with an average age of 29, will by then account for 28 percent of the world’s workforce.

The number of this workforce is enormous but its employability quotient is alarmingly low, and that explains the urgent need for education in job skills. The National Skill Development Council estimates that around 170 million Indians will require employment in the informal sector by 2022. Of this, 35 million are needed in the automotive sector — where Tata Motors is the largest enterprise in India — as mechanics, drivers and the like.

A network of partners
Tata Motors has allocated 70 percent of its resources for skills building to the automotive sector and the rest for other segments. It has adopted a multi-stakeholder approach for the initiative, tying up with 130 industrial training institutes (ITIs) and several nonprofit organisations, as well as using its pan-India dealer network.

A class in progress at the Pratham Arora Centre for Education in Mumbai

The skilling programme is structured as three verticals: training in automotive and technical trades (drivers, mechanics, fitters, plumbers, electricians, etc); training in agriculture and allied industries (organic farming, mushroom cultivation, dairy production, etc); and skills building in the services sector (beauticians, nursing assistants, tailors, etc).

The PACE training establishment in Mumbai is one of 11 centres backed by Tata Motors, which provides financial support and acts as a knowledge partner. PACE is run by Pratham, one of India’s largest non-government learning organisations, and the idea is to deliver high-quality, low-cost and replicable interventions that address gaps in the education system.

Partnering experienced organisations like Pratham has enabled the programme to gain impetus, allowing it to have a direct impact on more than 200,000 youth last year. “We have a policy that 40 per cent of beneficiaries should be from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes [SCs and STs],” says Vinod Kulkarni, CSR head at Tata Motors, elaborating on the AA imperative of the cause.

At PACE, besides conversational English and trade-related skills, students learn the soft stuff: personality development, hygiene and how to speak to customers. They get hands-on experience as interns in companies and many of them are placed in jobs. For example, some of the students have been hired by Trent for its Westside chain of stores.

Assisting apprentices
Additionally, Tata Motors runs an in-house apprenticeship programme where youth — more than a quarter of whom come from SCs and STs — undergo training in automotive and technical trades. Around 3,000 youth train every year as apprentices.

The company has also launched a flagship programme called LEAP (learn, earn and progress) that is conducted in partnership with skill development agencies and Tata Motors dealers. Here youngsters get on-the-job training at dealer workshops for a year; they attend classes, work at automobile centres, and earn a small stipend. At the end of the course the student is ready to find employment with Tata dealers.

LEAP is being implemented in 20 cities across India in partnership with 27 skill development agencies and 17 dealers. It has 600 students currently and its apprenticeship programmes instruct more than 20,000 youth annually.

Tough job
Although the skilling initiative has been successful, it is not without its share of challenges, says Mr Kulkarni. The project is deployed with help from nonprofits and other institutes and finding good skilling partners in these spaces is critical. Mobilising students to sign up for a driver or motor mechanic course is not easy, given that many of them have higher aspirations.

There are other difficulties. Often employers are not keen to hire youngsters with no formal training but this is an obstacle Tata Motors is trying to overcome through its LEAP programme. Since the students spend close to nine months at dealer workshops, prospective employers come to know the quality and mindset of the trainees and are more open to hiring them.

Tata Motors’ social uplift activities have been infused with added vigour through the guidance of renowned scientist and technocrat RA Mashelkar, who is on the company’s board and heads its CSR committee. ‘More from less for more’ — a term coined by Mr Mashelkar — translates into finding innovative ways to benefit more people with the allocated resources.

“Mr Mashelkar has brought a lot of value to the CSR initiative and is always encouraging the team to be creative, to use technology and to measure outcomes and impact,” adds Mr Kulkarni. It will take all of that and then some for Tata Motors to come out ahead in its skilling quest.

Helping hands
At the Pratham Arora Centre for Education (PACE), 19-year-old Priyanka Umesh is candid about what she gets from the course: “We gain much more from our teachers here than at college. We are less shy, more confident and have no problem in speaking in front of other people.”

The students at PACE come from a mix of backgrounds. The eligibility norms here are more about the applicant’s interests and inclinations than his or her scholastic achievements. Course fees range from Rs1,500 to Rs5,000 and are subsidised by Tata Motors. For those who cannot afford to pay even the subsidised fees, government schemes help bridge the gap.

Students from PACE have an edge over others seeking employment since PACE is registered under the central government’s India National Council for Vocational Training programme. PACE also has tie-ups with several corporate houses and hospitals.

“We help students get jobs after the course,” says Ajit Bansode, who is in charge at PACE Chembur. “Several of our ex-students are gainfully employed and earn salaries ranging from Rs6,000 to Rs12,000.” PACE also keeps in touch with ex-students and checks on their progress from time to time.