"Rural Academies: Way to Go"?

The Economic Times - December 2006

This is an exciting strategy because it is both holistic and flexible, and because it is extendable with easy to make changes, for different employer requests and different community constraints, says Rama Bijapurkar

It's always nice to begin a new year with a note of real hope and inspiration, and here's the story I have to tell of the Rural Retail Academy, a vocational training initiative from Andhra Pradesh. The first batch of 700 rural youth have "graduated" from three academies, with 90% placement in large and well known retail companies like Future Group, McDonald, Food World, Spencer's and Reliance, at salaries of Rs 3,000 plus per month. What is even nicer is that this is a government initiative, which is built around the mantras of "being totally market driven" and "private sector partnership". And nicest of all is the gender ratio of the graduating class - 40% women!

Three things stand out for me in this initiative - one, the programme design is innovative and totally flexible depending on the needs of the market. Two, the private-public partnership model actually is a constructive, mutual respect partnership and not the usual case of reluctant bed fellows and struggle for power. Three, the entire eco-system has been worked on, and getting the youth and the community to buy in and see value in this programme has been given as much importance as getting the job providers to see value and get enthused.

Usually such programmes are either imperialistic in the way they transact with beneficiaries (we know what's good for you) or condescending in the way they transact with the private sector partners (you merely make money, we change the world - so your participation in shaping programmes is not useful) or stuck in the government's eternal bureaucratese (we are surprised that you don't know this is the way the government does things around here, and are even asking for a new set of processes!).

The strategy is exciting because it is both holistic and flexible, and because it is extendable with easy to make changes, for different employer requests and different community onstraints.

I have written several times in this column that the euphoric 'gen next' stories that the media proliferates, ignore the scary facts that the demographic data reveal. IRS data (Hansa Research, Media Research Users Council) shows that of the 122 million 20-to-25-year-olds in the country, 70 million are rural and poor, 35 million belong to the lowest socio-economic (SEC) class of R4 (i.e., kuchha houses and chief wage earner has not got past Std 9, mostly illiterate or literate but with no formal schooling). The remaining 35 million are SEC R3 (i.e., semi pucca houses, and about half the chief wage earners have finished SSC). Incomes and exposures are closely correlated to the SEC. The most high risk for social tension, Naxal movements, etc., would presumably be the 20% of the age group (25 million, 10 million urban and 15 million rural) who are HSC/SSC passed, and have been raised with the aspiration, but no access to economic opportunity.

Standard 10 pass, 18-to-25-year-old youth is who this programme targets. It has been run in three districts of the state in the first round and will move to another three in the next round. Appropriately named as "youth 4 jobs" initiative of the "employment generation and marketing mission", the philosophy of this programme is that the most sustainable livelihood option is to 'provide' jobs for youth, by giving them market relevant skills for markets where recruiting such youth as a value proposition makes sense; and by ensuring that 'buyers' from the market and involved in co-creation of these programmes to make them "value right".

This business case here is not built around CSR but around the demand supply gap that exists for appropriate quality - affordable price manpower. In this case, as retailing spreads into smaller towns, large town youth are not ready to go and are over-priced. A similar sort of things applies to labour-intensive manufacturing activity as well. In the absence of appropriate capability building initiatives, companies tend to hire over-engineered talent, causing problems not just of cost push but also of retention and of attitude. Meera Shenoy, the director, birth mother and nurturer of this programme already has employer cost savings data to show, and also enquiries from non-retail employers, asking for customised academies to be created. The life of an academy is flexible too - depending on the language needs and the geographic needs of potential employers and the needs and preferences for relocation of the local community, academies are set up and dismantled, or "moved around". Some could be short term ones or two-crop giving in a location, some could me permanent.

The curriculum is anchored around two generic modules of English skills, life and generic work/employability skills, and trade specific skills. In the case of retail academies, the trade specific skills include customer care and basic computer skills and are developed in partnership with the industry. Teachers' training is another equally well addressed element of this programme. Pedagogy is innovative, has lots of role play, etc., and also on-site training modules.

Since the community is an important stakeholder of this programme, building community conviction and active support is a critical leg of the strategy, and done in many interesting ways. For instance, a month after placement, taking parents to visit the recruits at their work place! Counseling youth gives them the "I can" confidence, and the window to another world so that they have informational resources to aspire to a better life. A facilitation period offering short-term dormitories for youth who relocate is part of the customer centricity of the programme, a little thing that builds staying power.

So what is the metric of success of such programmes? Meera convinces me that my 'for profit', educational entrepreneurs driven model is flawed. The only way to build scale she convinces me, is with the government, and the only way to build effectiveness and long-term sustainability is with partnerships from private sector, and with market relevance, which such partnerships build.

So, if the model works, embrace it no matter which side of the eco-system you are on, and experiment with it, and customise it, but definitely use it. That's a powerful new year message for all of us!