V Pattabhi Ram
Written for Saint-Gobain
Some 40 kilometers southwest of Chennai, on the National Highway 4, a silent revolution is going on.
Once a sleepy little village, this place is now a vibrant industrial hub, with global industrial giants descending on it. Car major Hyundai; computer king Dell, consumer-durable leader Samsung and glass giant Saint-Gobain are among a few big guns that have set up large manufacturing facilities here. While the stigma of being the scene of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination may never disappear, Sriperumbudur has in a way atoned for the sins of the past.
Remember: in 1991, it was almost a god-forsaken place. Twenty-five years on, in 2016, it’s a beehive of activity. On a typical day, the traffic is as bad as it can get. Industrial activity is frenetic, and the giant factory chimneys that are visible from a mile are an indication of the changing face of this town, located on the outskirts of Chennai. Not just that. Sriperumbudur’s vicinity is seeing massive construction activity, the natural corollary to industrialization anywhere in the world! India, which sat out of the industrial revolution, has in the last few years tried to catch up on lost time. In less than two decades Sriperumbudur evolved as the fastest growth center in India housing a gorgeous cluster of the automobile, electronics, and communication industries.
Also on that Sriperumbudur belt, spread over 177 acres of land sits Saint-Gobain India Private Ltd., (SGIPL). National pride, with a French connection, it is India’s largest float glass manufacturer. It is here, in this 100% subsidiary of the 350-year-old Saint-Gobain, France, that the revolution I referred to, is happening. If the revolution catches fire and spreads nationwide, it will change India rapidly. So powerful is the idea.
Recall: when India opened its economy in 1991, China was 14 years ahead in the race and Soviet Russia had just started to sing hosannas to the tunes of glasnost and perestroika. While Russia missed the bus, China emerged as the leader with India giving it a close run for the medal. While in the last quarter of a century, India basked in the glory of Bangalore emerging as India’s Silicon Valley, hordes of young Indians hit it big in the land of opportunities, the United States. While both the quality of life and living in India magically transformed the lives of a vast majority, there was another India, a large underbelly, where things didn’t change. It stayed static, rooted in the past- uneducated, unskilled, underfed, uncared and unemployable. If not properly handled, the situation could spin into a social war. That’s the space Saint-Gobain has sought to address; that’s the area that’s changing, revolution-like.
Every revolution was once an idea in one man’s mind.
Sometime in 2008, disappointed by the educational system that mass-produced diploma holders with less than relevant industrial skills, Saint-Gobain looked at altering the way it recruited technical force. Until then it picked apprentices from the polytechnics. This process of apprentice picking wasn’t turning out to be meaty. The boys had good academic inputs but no practical insights. To make them employable was a tough task. Also, the transition from a student to a worker wasn’t seamless. Policy-makers, employers, and employees were all tired of expectation gaps. Rather than mourn the hole, the alternative of private initiative stepping in to provide education and hands-on training made sense. If a new pool of manpower can regularly emerge with sustained input year on year, it would be the best thing to happen to industry and the working class as well.
So the idea of creating homegrown interns emerged. “Let’s admit school pass-outs who cannot afford higher education, train them in the factory, provide them in-house with tailor-made classroom inputs and give them a diploma,” thought the brain trust of Saint-Gobain. It was called Diploma in Manufacturing Technology. The course consisted of five days a week of training on the shop floor and one day a week of sitting in a classroom course. Call it a school inside a factory or a factory inside a school. Like medical college students having the hospitals as outposts, the interns would have the factory for an internship. It was a four-year program.
How would it help Saint-Gobain? At a practical level, there would be a constant flow of skilled, employable workforce with adequate strength. At a corporate social responsibility level if the candidates selected for education, training, and placement come from the marginalized strata of society – from the other India – it would be making a difference in their lives; it would skill him.
Remember: despite all the talk about India being a knowledge hub, many cannot read, write or do simple arithmetic exercises; they stay misfits for life. Socially, Skilling India would be the real reform.
With no strings attached, the diploma holder can choose his employer. The liberal scholarships offered also proved attractive for drawing in large numbers candidates from the poor and marginalized sections from the villages around.
Would the idea work? You wouldn’t know unless you tried out, isn’t it?
Luckily history was on Saint-Gobain’s side. For instance: in the automobile sector, companies had successfully run this model, albeit on a smaller scale. That parameter of ‘precedent’ taken care of, the next step for the glass major was to look for teachers to teach, and experts to identify which positions in the factory were amenable for an internship. Since offering classroom instruction is by itself an art and needs professionals who have both the aptitude for teaching and compassion for students, Saint-Gobain decided to look out.
Its hunt for a partner ended when it identified NTTF, an education outpost that was completing almost 50 years of existence. Thankfully, it had the experience of having worked on similar projects elsewhere, was on the same page as Saint-Gobain’s vision and understood the mechanics of the scheme. NTTF also had a simulated training center in Vellore, about 70 kilometers from the Saint-Gobain factory.
Here, a little bit of history is in order.
The Nettur Technical Training Foundation (best known by its brand name NTTF) is an educational foundation established in 1963 to promote meaningful technical education for India’s youth. An Indo-Swiss co-operative project, NTTF grew with generous funding and technical training support from the Government of Switzerland, HEKS (a Swiss NGO) and Swiss Development Co-operation (a Swiss development agency). The Indian government also pitched in with its support.
Structured around the Swiss model of simulating the factory environment in the learning process, the NTTF enjoyed industry recognition while its competitors, namely the polytechnics and the ITIs required licensing by the government’s All India Council of Technical Education.
Today, the Foundation implements its programs through more than 20 training centers in States across India, emerging as a major dispenser of technical education. By partnering with industry associations, it has been able to produce quality manpower. Typically, it costs a student a lac of rupees per annum to do a course at NTTF.
With NTTF on board, Saint-Gobain was ready to take off. There was still the issue of recruiting the candidates, identifying where in the factory they would work, and who would coach them. Saint-Gobain roped in the Center for Excellence in Organization (CEO) for this. The Bangalore-based organization specializing in executive search, it was given the mandate to go deep down rural India, make the program visible, recruit students who met well-set criteria and then run the Practice School. The Practice School was an omnibus term to denote candidates working under different coaches inside the factory to learn the practical needs of the trade. CEO was to identify the positions in the plant where the candidates would be trained for jobs needed with requisite skills. Care would be taken to design the courses, neither too mechanical nor monotonous.
NTTF, along with Saint-Gobain, stitched up the courseware, and with CEO, worked out the profiles and timelines. Together NTTF and CEO went into the hinterlands of Tamil Nadu to bring in youth from the marginal sections of society – the underprivileged – who were either in their late teens or early 20s. The pre-requisites: the boys should be economically backward, socially disadvantaged, and must hail from a rural background. It was an exercise in affirmative action.
The screening is based on multiple tests: aptitude, English, psychometric, group task and neuro-muscular. Importantly, before onboarding, there is an orientation session where the parents should also turn up. “We request them to be supportive. We get their buy-in.” The selected candidates then go through a one-month nurturing program at NTTF’s Vellore campus. Here they go through Soft skills, 5S, Discipline, Engineering, HR principles, and Safety.
Conceptually it was a win-win arrangement for both Saint-Gobain and the students. The company gets trained apprentices. The student gets hands-on experience even as he pursues his education and picks a diploma. With a scholarship (Earn), training on the job (Learn) and a Diploma (Certificate), he is equipped for life. Better still, there was no compulsion that he should work only at Saint-Gobain after his diploma. Like any free citizen, he could move to any industry of his choice. Yes, the relationship is that of student-institute and not employer-employee!
The collaboration began in mid-2011, and the first batch came on board in end 2011. Soon after that, the second and third batches trekked in. The recruitment was at multiple points in the year and not necessarily at one fixed point. The exits too will be at various times. The first three batches with a cumulative strength of 54 are graduating in July 2016 and are ready for industry absorption. In a sense, they are the pilot teams. The year ahead will tell how well they raise the bars for their successors. Eight other batches are at various stages of completion and will graduate between 2017 and 2020.
A team of 8 faculty members, all engineers and currently under deputation from NTTF handles the classes. They come with varied levels of experience. Some have been with NTTF from the start of their careers and others like Principal A B Chithra, have an industry background. She worked for seventeen long years, including as the head of operations at a couple of manufacturing units. The classroom instruction itself is for 1500 hours spread across four years and eight semesters. The students have a clearly defined syllabus, a well-documented process for tests and exams and a set passing grade.
Do students who join stay the full course? Frankly speaking, no. There are various reasons for this. Some find the rigors of the course too hot to handle. As they transit from one semester to another, there is a quantum jump in the scope of learning. Some are unable to come to terms with it. Then there is the possibility of their getting a government job in the interim. In India, a government job is always like manna from heaven and is not something the lower income group will miss.
Has the program impacted the students? Has it brought a smile to the faces of these young boys and their families? Read on.
Let’s talk about Santosh. A high performer in academics, he scored 975/1200 in his Class XII, got a seat to an engineering college but was compelled to let it slip, because there was no money in the granary. With his father working as a vendor in the Jollarpet railway platform and mother doing day wages in a rice mill, the granary cannot be expected to be full. Education was expensive. So what does the young lad do? He seems to have stumbled upon the saying, “if education is expensive, try ignorance.” He takes up masonry work for a year, before accidentally coming to know of the Saint-Gobain offering.
The eagerness to pursue higher education is visible. Ask Santosh what he is currently doing and he says: “I am studying at NTTF.” Notice: it’s not “I am working for Saint-Gobain!” This philosophy is the underlying thread amongst the interns; a clear indication that they are students in an educational institution with an overhang of a large practical laboratory called the factory. Now don’t get this wrong. He does not mean he owes nothing to Saint-Gobain. Ask him, “How has the program helped and he says that his scholarship has gone a long way in aiding his younger sister study nursing. These days money doesn’t talk; it goes without saying! Ask him about his experience in the factory and he says it’s been a great blessing as he gets to understand better the theories taught in the class.
Santosh is amongst the toppers in the graduating class of 2016. He has a 94% mark-score. In these four years, he’s made — hold your breath — 55 suggestions to the company on various aspects relating to the shop floor. That’s a little more than an idea a month. Not bad for a rookie. Of these 25 were implemented. The most attractive solution, the one over which he gushes even today, was the one that leads to a reduction in the time taken for re-installing a cleaning robot. His idea slashed the time from 15 minutes to just two minutes! Little wonder, he wishes to continue to work at Saint-Gobain. In his spare time, he watches the news on his mobile. And cricket matches!
Take another intern, E Vellai. He scored a decent 866/1200 in his XII class, studying accounts and auditing in the vocational stream. I didn’t have the heart to ask him why didn’t he want to pursue chartered accountancy. There must be something that propels an accounting student to turn to machines; I told myself. In a country like ours where a vast majority lives below the Lakshman Rekha, it’s money more than the passion that drives several decisions. When Vellai heard of the Saint-Gobain program through a newspaper, he immediately applied for it. They tested him, interviewed him and found him fit to recruit.
He could easily absorb the subjects as at the classroom he was “taught from the basics.” At the shop floor, 30 out of his 35 suggestions were accepted and 25 implemented. Son of a cycle rickshaw puller, he helped settle a family loan of Rs 2 lac and contributed Rs 50,000 to his elder brother’s wedding.
A third intern is S Vetrivel. His is a poignant saga. The only breadwinner in the family from the age of 15, he worked for the contractor of a construction major, drawing a meager salary of Rs 1000 a month. He worked the night shift and went to school during the daytime. How he found the time to sleep and do his homework is anybody’s guess. That was how life went by for four full years as he studied Mathematics, Botany, Zoology and Biology, a stream that should have ideally taken him to the medical field. He neither had the marks, the money nor the maturity for it. Someone told him “Saint-Gobain is offering work, plus the opportunity to study.” It was like a 2-in-1, and he grabbed that. From earning Rs 1000 a month to Rs 5000 was a quantum jump. Monetarily, he has done well for himself in the last four years, saving enough to support his younger brother’s education at a polytechnic in Chennai, and get a younger sister married off. At studies, the going has been good; he has scored 84% in his diploma. At work too, he has earned high recognition, both in the line and from German experts with whom he interacted for a couple of weeks. “They had nothing but high praise for him,” says the principal.
Vetrivel says he now has a diploma and can work anywhere as he has good technical knowledge. A product of Tamil medium he can now speak reasonably good English, learning it on the fly. He thanks his teacher at NTTF who would patiently and painstakingly correct his mistakes and tell him what was right, and what wasn’t. “We are treated as students,” he says, with justifiable pride.
Mahendran is another of those interns to whom life had been unfair. His father met with an accident in the early 1990s and had been bedridden these 25 years. His mother does not know whether she is 50 years or 60 years old. But of one thing she is sure, that Mahendran, one of her five children, will eventually take care of her during the evening of her life. She has no words to express her happiness. She feels her son has evolved as a well-rounded human being after joining the program. Turning emotional and close to tears, she visibly embarrasses Mahendran, until the teacher puts a hand around Mahendran and tells him to let her emote.
Chinna Kutti’s is a star turn. Education doesn’t run in his family’s veins: his elder brother stopped going to school after class 8. A niece, now ten years old, refuses to attend school. But he was made of sterner stuff.
A resident of Javadu Hills those houses 216 hamlets, he studied in a nearby government school, living in a hostel. Personally, the change was welcome because besides providing quality education it also ensured three meals a day and also meant living away from a shanty dwelling and squalor. There was also the difference: teachers at the school were conspicuous more by their absence.
The school had only up to 8th standard, which meant that once he completed it, he had to shift to another school. He wanted to study in a private school with hostel facilities, but that was out of the question in the context of the family’s economic condition. It was the school watchman who drilled into him the need to go for higher studies, come hell or high water. So for the next four years, he settled down to trekking six kilometers up and six kilometers down for further studies! He finished his class XII studying commerce proper; the stream that leads to a professional course like chartered accountancy.
Once he completed class XII, it was back to the same old story. He wanted to do graduation. His father was equally clear: no higher studies because there was no money at home. And then as divine intervention, it was the very same watchman who saw the ad and suggested NTTF’s Saint-Gobain program. It would mean coming down to Chennai to study. His father was all right with it since it did not involve spending from his minimal earnings. Once Chinna got the clearance, things happened fast. In the next couple of days, Chinna Kutti got enrolled. He put his heart and soul into his studies and is now graduating with 81% marks.
You get an idea of the lack of facilities in his village: recently Chinna’s father had a snakebite that proved fatal. The villagers carried him physically to the hospital that was miles away, and he passed away en route.
Today all the hard work of Chinna is beginning to pay off. He says, with a twinkle in his eyes, “I never knew what a mobile was. Today, I use touch mobile.” He adds: “Earlier people in the village wouldn’t even talk with me. Now they are keen to do.” Obviously, the success of becoming the first graduate from his village has impacted so forcefully! “Ours is the first family in our village that bought sweets and new clothes for Diwali and that only after I went for work!”
While for sure the interns are the poster boys in this game-changer played by Saint-Gobain, the coaches are the unsung heroes. They have a pivotal role to play, as the success of the internship program depends on how they assign work and oversee the wards.
“The first two batches of students,” says Pon Kamaraj D, “were highly matured boys. They had work experience even before joining Saint-Gobain and to that extent were both older and worldly wise.” That’s the batch, which is graduating now.
Some 152 students are now in this program. S Mahalingam, another coach says, “we explain to them how glass is made. We explain how a small damage can be catastrophic as these are high-value items.”
The days ahead will tell how well the experiment has worked. But to seek to change the dynamics of India and to take the initiative to skill the unskilled is a game-changer by itself. As more companies espouse corporate social responsibility with business motives, you could see more of such experiments happen across the country. If that happens, it would be a giant leap of faith. It would mean you would have made a difference to quite a few lives, and that is what is good citizenship.