Mumbai: They don’t teach the waltz at this finishing school. But with its $62 tuition, (about Rs2,554) this is not your typical finishing school.
Perched on the top floor of a dank building in the heart of India’s commercial capital, the school is busy teaching other lessons: Wear suits, not T-shirts, to interviews. Shake hands firmly and wipe them beforehand to avoid clamminess. Don’t slouch. Banish your parents’ accent from your speech. Never roll the letter “R.” These lessons may stray from the curricula of the famous Swiss finishing schools, which have taught generations of the international upper crust to bow and curtsy.
But this is not Switzerland, and these students are not upper crust. This is a new kind of finishing school with a starkly different mission: to groom Indians to take part in the global economy. With India’s economy thriving, software firms, hotels and call centers are desperate for skilled, well-groomed workers.
But an arthritic education system is churning out too few. And so hundreds of savvy entrepreneurs are stepping into the breach, opening street-corner finishing schools to satiate a spreading hunger to learn quickly the habits and mores necessary to get a job in India’s booming services industry. “The people of this country are sending a message that they’re losing hope with the public education system,” said T. V. Mohandas Pai, the director of human resources at Infosys Technologies Ltd, the outsourcing firm that hired more than 20,000 people last year.
India’s skilled-labour shortage thwarts its great-power ambitions. And because few believe the problem can be fixed quickly, the fate of the Indian economy, and of the global corporations that outsource here, may depend to a growing extent on how well the finishing schools teach.
Pai, who recruits from universities such as Harvard and Oxford, said India’s hole-in-the-wall finishing schools were improbably good and noted that Infosys hires many of their graduates—not to write software, but for tasks like data entry. “It is a very good phenomenon,” he said, “because it is meeting a gap in the marketplace.” The finishing schools are redrawing the cityscapes of Bangalore, Mumbai and other metropolizes, popping up by the day in neighbourhood markets and residential buildings. Some, like the $62 academy in Mumbai, Let’s Talk, target aspiring call-centre workers, promising to neutralize accents. Others hedge their bets, peddling any skill that could possibly raise your income. Most schools charge between $50 and $500 for a few weeks or months of part-time instruction. Many start with vocational skills, then use that platform to polish the rough edges of their students.
The schools reflect a surging movement among India’s poor to raise themselves through education. In the cities, for example, you find ever more chauffeurs and servants who live penny to penny but send their children to private, English language boarding schools.
According to data from Google, Indians, on a per capita basis, search for “finishing school,” “communication skills” and “English training” more than any other citizenry.
Some finishing schools are better than others. But interviews with students and employers suggest that even middling institutions can double or triple a student’s earning potential. Most students said that, without attending finishing school, they could expect to earn about $1,800 a year as a salesperson. The schools help students find jobs, and those who make it to call centres and technology firms can earn $3,600 to $6,000 a year to start, with hefty raises thereafter.
Such incomes make most students richer than their parents; many become the first in their families to join India’s 50 million-strong middle class. Economists typically define middle class here as $5,000 of annual household income.
In Mumbai, the midtown neighbourhood of Dadar has become a centre for finishing schools. A recent stroll found buildings full of them, teaching English, German, software, retailing, jewellery, animation, business, hotel management and childhood care. English training is especially brisk business. Across India, intelligent and well-educated graduates struggle to find work simply because they were raised speaking Indian languages.
On a recent afternoon, Stephen Rozario, Let’s Talk’s avuncular teacher, was effervescing with advice, paternal wisdom, aphorisms and anything else that might help students live the middle-class lives they seek. The students took out notebooks—many from the plastic bags they use as briefcases—and faithfully jotted down each flicker of wisdom.
“You may look very good,” the teacher thundered, “but if you have bad table manners, it all goes kaput!” “A person who does not have a sense of humour—there is something lacking,” he declared.
Rozario’s task is unenviable. Many students could barely speak when called upon. “I wouldn’t term them as socially handicapped,” Rozario said, “but they do lack social skills.”
The methods at the finishing schools can be unconventional. At Let’s Talk, teachers prescribe jaw exercises to help students overcome what the school calls the “MTI” —the “mother tongue influence.”
By and large, said Pai, the schools are better than their folksy methods suggest. But with thousands entering loosely regulated schools, more than a few could be swindled.
At Sheetal Academy the curriculum is English. But if the brochure is a guide, students are taught another language altogether.
“Gmrammar is the mother of any language,” the brochure proclaims. “We are in 21st century. In this era educations is must. Today criteria of education is English Speaking.” It adds: “We want our students to speak such hi-fi English too.”
To the outsider, such schools may seem quaint and their teachings trivial. Butin students’ eyes, the schoo-ls are revolutionary. Forthem, these skills are the difference between taking the swarming train or owning a car; between marrying theirfather’s choice of a husbandor earning enough to choose their own; between mustering the confidence to order ata nice restaurant or feelingtoo cowed even to enter.