A pathway to employment for young people in India: an interview with Tata Strive

Photo by Charanjeet Dhiman on Unsplash

In October 2019, the Global Business Coalition for Education and UNICEF South Asia organized the South Asia Youth Skills and Solution Forum. Almost two years later a lot has happened in the world, and as is the case for many other countries, young people in India have been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We recently asked Anita Rajan, the CEO of Tata Strive – one of the leading organizations providing learning opportunities to disadvantaged children in India – to tell us more about the skills and learning gap in India, the work she is carrying out, and whether she had any tips for other businesses and foundations to support education.

What is the skill gap today in India?

Over 90% of our working age group of the population is actually in the informal sector. They are in the informal sector because they don’t have the right skills to join the formal sector. The gap is still very large, but in the last ten years, there’s been a huge effort in India from the government, the industry, and the education sectors to bridge this gap. In the formal sector, the challenge is that while the number of students and gross enrollment ratio of people getting into education is increasing, the employability skills in education are still not up to the mark of what employers want. A graduate coming out of college will find it difficult to get a job because there is an employability gap in the skills that he or she has. In the informal sector there’s a skill gap in employability skills. For those who are already employed, with the increase in automation and the rapid use of technology in businesses – whether it’s the service sector the manufacturing sector – there is a need for a large amount of upskilling. People need to get acquired, new kinds of skills for the new nature of jobs. These are the three things that are happening and all of them actually can be addressed if education and vocational education gaps in India are brought closer together. The gap is too wide at the moment between the two separate streams that people take. This gap between the two types of education is closing, but it’s still the fundamental reason why we have the skill gap.

How has Covid 19 impacted young people learning in India?  

Nobody in India, or I think the rest of the world, really knew that this was going to be an impact of absolutely gigantic scale and that it would last for as long as it has. We didn’t know about that. Young people, like everywhere else in the world, were taken by surprise. Their learning journey was disrupted and just came to a stop because schools and our training centers had to be closed, because we had a national lockdown. That went on for a long time. In India we have over 50 million internet users, mostly through mobile phones. The large part of the young rural, or the economically challenged people, use the internet, but it’s through their mobiles. That mobile phone is perhaps shared by a family. Therefore, the young person doesn’t have a dedicated mobile to himself or herself. The mobile became the new school, or the new way to access learning, because everybody went digital. So did Tata Strive, the organization that I work with. Schools started quickly transitioning to online learning. Teachers had to be quickly acquiring skills on “How do I teach when I can’t see the person in front of my face and it’s through a screen? How do I make it interactive?”. These were all the struggles that they had. Very quickly people moved to online learning; so did we. I believe that the way forward will be a sort of midway blended learning and that process is still on. For students who had access to internet connectivity, they could continue their learning through digital means – but what this pandemic also did is highlight the very glaring gap between the haves and have-nots. Those who did not have a mobile phone themselves had to completely stall their education and many of them still do. I would say at least in our Tata Strive universe where we deal with 40,000 to 50,000 students per year, about 20% of them do not have a dedicated mobile which they can use to learn. We therefore had to find other means to reach to them, with actual delivery of papers and books. For those that did use their mobile, one of our surveys showed that they were willing to learn through the mobile, but they could spend about two – two and a half hours a day. And that was at odd hours because if the father took the mobile away to work – because it was more important for the father to have mobile – the student had to wait till the end of the day when the father returned from work. We had to adjust our learning capsules to suit the availability of the students. That was the first thing that happened in the learning journey. Students also struggled to adapt to this. Many learned it quickly but they did struggle. In our case, where we teach hands-on training, we teach them to work with equipment. An electrician needs to be training on circuits and it can’t be done digitally. It was a struggle and this is why we moved to blended learning. When there was an opening up, or the lockdown was discontinued, we opened our centers to do a little bit of training or we saw how we could give projects at home. Everybody was being very creative about how they could help students continue their learning journey. It is still a struggle. But I think this will bring an increased adoption of digitization and what would have taken us ten years will happen now. I guess the future will be better. The other thing that happened was a lot of migration. In India about 50% of workforce actually migrates to other locations, mostly from rural areas to urban areas. Because the urban cities were hit first with the pandemic, many of the workforce actually went back and then they were there without jobs. The unemployment has actually gone up to about six or seven percent according to some reports and it stands at six to seven percent today. In our survey, 50% of young people say that they will come back after six months when the pandemic is over, but about 30% may not come back. They may be disillusioned or prefer to look for rural jobs. Rural jobs have gained significance and also new kinds of jobs so there’s a shift in the kind of jobs that are going to come post-pandemic.

How does Tata Strive create a pathway between education and employment?  

At Tata Strive we believe that we are a partner of the youth in this country, especially those who are economically and socially challenged – those who are perhaps out of mainstream education and really struggle to find jobs. We are their partners to walk the journey with them from where they are to link them to a livelihood. By a livelihood I mean either a regular job which pays monthly salary, or a small enterprise of their own where they can employ a couple of people, or a community enterprise where several people get together to start something. That’s our definition of a livelihood. What do students need to get from point A to point B? They need knowledge, skills, and the right attitude. Education provides knowledge, at least in India. But often in India, there isn’t enough hands-on experience, or practical teaching or connecting with real life. It remains very academic – and therefore they lack the kind of skills that the industry needs. Many of our technical training institutes do not provide the right amount of exposure to students. This is where we come in with Tata Strive to provide that linkage. We provide hands-on training. We have very well-equipped labs where students get trained, whether it’s an AC technician, somebody doing a service in a hotel like a chef, a food and beverage person, or a beautician who wants to start her own parlor. We create these labs. We mimic the environment outside to create the labs here and give them the hands-on training. After the required training we have linkages with employers and we get them practical exposure through an on-the-job training or an in-plant exposure. The final step is of course we get them jobs or support them in their employment. That’s the entire value chain. While they are with us, we focus on hands-on training but we also focus on lack of employability skills. Having a regular job, being on time at nine-to-five job, having to dress in a certain way, having to speak in a certain way – these are skill sets that may not have been learned through the education system. There is almost a huge cultural change for them to move from where they are into this professional environment. This is what we call “employability”, some people call it “soft skills”, some people call it “life skills”. That whole package is part of what we train. We focus mainly on that because that is what builds their confidence. Our target audience is low on confidence because they know that there is a gap between what industry wants and what they have. We help build that resilience and fill up that gap. We have a slogan which we sort of propagate and we tell them that “you can and you will. I am, I can, I will”. That’s the journey that we hope to take them through; that’s what Tata Strive does. We also give them the right certification because in India certificates and that little piece of paper matters. Whatever courses we do, comes with the brand data certificate. It also comes with a national-level certificate. India has national agencies which provide the certification. So now they have the knowledge, skills, attitude, certificate, and a job that we provide. That’s the journey we want.

How can employers and businesses prepare the next generation? 

The way I see it is that if businesses and industry have a long-term view, then it isn’t illogical to assume that investment in the next generation will only serve them better. I am from the Tata Group. Tata and the Tata philosophy is that the business exists because of the community. It is a unique organization where 65% of Tata’s business entity actually resides with Tata Trusts, which is the community service. All the dividends of that 65% equity are flowing into the community through philanthropic projects. My own organization is a not for profit, and we are part of the beneficiaries of that money which goes into the community. It’s a very unique model and it is a shining example of how businesses can do well in business and do good in the community. Both can coexist, they are not two different things. There are three things specifically that businesses should do. One is help build closer partnerships with academia. If education knows what industry wants, through this kind of interaction and collaboration we will get work ready professionals once they step out of anything. There has to be those linkages and there are many pathways to do it: through collaboration, through adopting institutions, having faculty exchange. The second thing is that I think businesses can open up their doors to more internships and apprenticeships. In India we have a law on apprenticeship and internship but it isn’t sort of promulgated extensively across all sectors. Indians are very smart. I believe our kids, even from the economic social challenge, they’re very bright up there, they’re very quick learners and they can adapt very easily; they’re tough. I think if we open those doors, we will allow students to actually learn on the job, and that’s one great way of showing and investing. The third thing is the country provides a law, the CSR Act, which has been in operation now for a number of years. That is a legal way to invest some of your profits into community development projects which includes skilling education, amongst a host of other things. It is my belief that rather than give somebody a fish, as they say, you teach the person to fish, you’ve set them up for a lifetime. If you skill them and educate the young people, they will figure out, they’ll take care of their health, they will know before all the other challenges will be taken care of. I think this is very basic, empowering, and equitable skill to create an equitable society. For the CSR funds that companies have, the top priority should be on skilling and educating people.