Ahmedabad: Harshida, brought up in a slum in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, was the right type to help plug a manpower crunch in the service sector. Harshida, who uses only one name, had a high school education and people skills that could be easily moulded—good enough for Café Coffee Day to hire her as a customer relationship executive. For the 21-year-old, it meant a regular salary and a real, respectable career.
A city-based non-profit organization saw a mission in matching corporate and social needs, if it could get the service sector, in desperate search for capable employees, to hire school and college dropouts from Ahmedabad’s many slums. Not a tough task, if it could also arrange some basic training. “We found that there was an acute shortage of trained entry-level manpower in service sectors like retail, call centres, health and hospitality. There were many unemployed youngsters who were school or college dropouts living in slums and chawls.... We decided to bridge the gap,” says Rajendra Joshi, founder of non-profit Saath Livelihood Services.
A customer relations and sales workshop at the Ummeed training centre in Behrampura, Ahmedabad. Non-profit Saath’s three-month training module prepares unemployed youngsters, and school and college dropouts from slums to join the service sector
Saath began Project Ummeed (or hope) in 2005 with a market study to understand the needs of employers in the service sector. With help from the American Indian Foundation, a group of US-based non-resident Indians, and the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, Saath designed a three-month training module. Perhaps too basic, but convincing enough for the likes of Big Bazaar, Westside, Café Coffee Day, HDFC Bank Ltd, ICICI Bank Ltd and ABN Amro Bank NV to have employed more than 3,500 people trained under the project.
“They had talent, but the education level was low. So, we trained them for a year in Bangalore and are quite happy with them. The big advantage you have with them is that they have the skill sets, the right attitude and accuracy. And they are so raw you can mould them according to your needs,” says Jay Begani, managing director of Forever Precious Jewellery Ltd.
The company, which has an annual turnover of Rs400 crore, has hired more than 100 people from Saath’s Ummeed project.
Trainees at the Ummeed centre. The project has helped more than 3,500 people land jobs with Big Bazaar, Westside, Café Coffee Day, HDFC Bank, ICICI Bank and ABN Amro, among others
The other big advantage is the relatively low level of attrition. Once they have adjusted to the new corporate culture, most of them stay put. “We did face a big problem in the beginning. The biggest problem was of a cultural shock, primarily in BPO (business process outsourcing) and retail. Almost 10-15% dropped out. Over the next six months, another 15-20% youngsters drop out to pursue further education. But overall, about 70-80% continue with their new-found jobs,” says Hitesh Parikh, project director, Ummeed.
Nearly all of Ummeed’s trainees have been brought up in slums, facing daily struggles. Air-conditioned halls, fixed responsibilities and monthly salaries take them up the social rung and instil in them a steady hope and confidence. Santosh Khosti is a 20-year-old from a slum in Vadaj, about 3km from Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram. He is now a team leader in a swanky family paan shop—Yamu Panchayat—in the posh Prahladnagar area, and hopes to start one himself.
“I was more of a ruffian, but today I can deal with any situation, use technology, know about savings and time management. I am not afraid of anything now,” he says.
The fact that the training does not come free could have been a hitch. At Rs500, it is a sizeable sum for families that earn Rs2,000-2,500 a month, but the lure of fatter salaries helped Harshida and Khosti get through. Harshida, for example, earns Rs5,000-6,000 a month at the coffee chain, and Khosti gets Rs3,000-3,500.
P.K. Sinha, who teaches retail at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, suggested that a detailed study of the project be carried out so it can be implemented across the country. “This way we can gainfully employ our youth from economically weaker sections successfully into the mainstream service sector.”
There have been small moves towards this. The Gujarat government has taken the project across the state; the Rajasthan government has invited Saath to implement the project in six districts.