August 2016 | Cynthia Rodrigues

'Our vision inspires us every day'

Anita Rajan, chief operating officer of Tata Strive, talks about the challenges of setting up a pan-India skilling programme and the journey so far

It feels satisfying to reminisce about the long journey that Tata Strive has traversed since its inception. It was in early 2014 that the senior leadership of the Tata group began to consider ways in which to contribute more fully to the challenge of skilling young people, a challenge that confronted all of India.

A working group comprising several Tata leaders from different functions was set up to brainstorm on ways to achieve the Tata Strive objectives, the nature of the model, the scale of the ambition, etc. I was part of that working group. Our thoughts converged and the idea of Tata Strive began to take shape.

We decided to focus on the top 25 sectors which needed a skilled workforce in the country, areas in which our companies had domain expertise and our contributions would be more effective. In the period that followed, the model began to take shape, with help coming in from Tata Sustainability Group members.

The Tata Community Initiatives Trust was soon established and I came on board formally, joining as Tata Strive’s chief operating officer in January 2015. The rest of the leadership team was in place by the end of March.

In those early days, we did a tremendous amount of brainstorming as we sought to develop the model, to figure out our approach, and decide just what shape our commitment would take. The traditions and vision of the Tata group guided our path.

In early 2015, Tata Strive began to put its plans into action. There was a lot of developmental work to be done in the areas of content, processes and technology. It was also a time when we were trying to build credibility, hence it was necessary to demonstrate some of our early successes.

We began to work out ways in which Tata Strive could differentiate itself from other skill-building programmes. We analysed the challenges in the skilling ecosystem, such as lack of life skills, attrition rates, trainer quality and assessment. We developed ways to address them.

We realised the need to make a deeper investment in young people — by working to improve their life skills — and a deeper investment in the capacity building of trainers. Too often, young people receive training and acquire jobs but quit soon after. There was an urgent need to set the right expectations. It was also necessary to ensure that the certificates we awarded to our successful candidates were a true reflection of their competency.

Anita Rajan, COO, Tata Strive, speaks about the skilling initiative and its unique advantages

With a model in mind, we scouted around internally, and began discussions with Tata companies in the hope of finding partners with whom we could get the programme going. Our conversations with Tata Chemicals led to a breakthrough. The setting up of our first centre at the company’s facility in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, in July 2015 was the result of the coming together of two minds driven by a similar vision.

We launched two courses (for electricians and air-conditioning technicians). Tata Chemicals provided the centre infrastructure and Voltas the technical knowhow and the air-conditioning training plant for the courses. Our own input included soft skills training, the critical element that sets Tata Strive pedagogy apart, besides the processes, the technology and the format.

Mobilising and on-boarding the first batch from the surrounding villages was a great experience and the feedback from the centre was more than encouraging. The investment in a strong life skills programme and in coaching trainers, and our technology backbone enthused us to seek partners in other Tata companies and non-government organisations (NGO).

Our outreach exercise led us to Don Bosco Tech, our very first NGO partner. Don Bosco has a huge network across the country, having worked in the field of skill development for nearly 15 years. Like us, they had a legacy of serving the community, and the partnership with them helped us scale up our offerings.

With each passing month, we felt more confident about our model. The success of our efforts spurred us on. The cycle time it took to convert possibilities into partnerships began to get shorter.

Gathering momentum
It was in late 2015 that the needle really started moving for us. Today, we are in a phase where developmental work continues to happen. The skill development ecosystem demands that we stay on the learning curve.

Learning is inevitable, considering that we are forging some life-changing interventions for young people. There is, therefore, no one single path that is correct. Insight may be gained from any experience.

Having established credibility, we have now focused on growing through collaborations. We find that no two of our partners are alike. Each partner brings its own philosophy, vision, etc to the table. The flexibility with which we approach a partnership helps us.

Our goal is to ensure that while our value proposition is built into every one of our offerings, we keep trying to raise the bar, and introduce newer elements in an attempt to continue building standards and quality.

Some of the assets that we have created are new to the ecosystem. These include the ‘empowerment coaching for facilitators’ programme, the youth development modules and the life skills training for students. We have also innovated in processes that help match individual interest with job clusters and enable more informed decision making by students and their parents. And we are engaging with the National Skill Development Corporation to see how our innovations can be leveraged at the national level. 

We are fully aligned to national occupational standards. We are building a quality framework for skill development; the model is inspired by the Tata Education Excellence Programme and our affirmative action archetype.

Upholding quality and values among youth is the brand promise of Tata Strive. Our lofty vision inspires us every day to maximise our impact on youth.