New Delhi: This is a story that Abhinanda Shukla, 25, is fond of telling at job interviews, so perfectly honed that it has the ring of an overdrawn fairy tale. As a child, she had flown only once, and was so riveted by the flight attendant that she determined to become one. Her father, a gas station owner in Indore, was dead set against it. “He thought it was like being a waitress,” she said.
After months of needling, he relented. He said he would pay for the tuition at a flight-attendant training school. Not only that, he would allow her to do what would have been considered radical not long ago—she could move from their home in Indore to Pune, where the opportunities would be greater, and then, she could fly across the world.
Until recently, many families would have frowned on the idea of a young woman dressing in a short skirt and serving strangers on a plane. But a rapidly expanding economy has helped to transform the ambitions, habits and incomes of the middle class in ways that would have been unimaginable just a generation ago, not least for young women.
One consequence of the new prosperity is a hunger among the young to pursue careers that were simply unavailable to their parents, for wages that would have been beyond their elders’ comprehension.
A new crop of private airlines has provided one of the broadest avenues of opportunity, and their proliferation is among the earliest and most tangible fruits of economic growth.
Once entirely dependent on the railways, people are travelling by air more than ever before, so much so that last year, according to government figures, passenger traffic grew by 50%. The civil aviation ministry projects growth of at least 20% a year for the next 10 years.
Four private carriers have started flying in just the past two years, doubling the number of private airlines. One head-hunting firm estimated that India would need 40,000 cabin crew staff in the next three-four years to meet the demand. Starting salaries are in the range of Rs23,000 a month, an astounding amount for a high-school graduate, which is generally the educational prerequisite for a cabin crew position.
Even so, finding suitable workers is proving to be difficult in this industry and many others. Increasingly, that skills gap is being filled by a new crop of vocational schools, like the flight-attendant training school Shukla had chosen.
She and her fellow students all had college degrees—Shukla had earned a Bachelor’s in computer science—but they all felt they needed this extra reinforcement to enter the workforce.
On a recent afternoon, her hair pulled back in a French roll, sitting as straight as a librarian, her lips trying to embrace the English language, which is plainly not her native tongue, Shukla sat in a small windowless office, undergoing a mock-interview at the Frankfinn Institute of Air Hostess Training. She recalled admiring the flight attendant as a child. She had herself weighed on a scale. She stumbled when asked what she would do in the event of a passenger having a heart attack. She said she would “give very good first aid”.Her fellow students came one by one to the mock interview and gave their own best shots. “I am Amruta Patil, 20. I want to fly high,” a young woman in low-slung jeans said by way of introduction.
Asked why he was there, Pradeep Shukla, 22, no relation to Abhinanda, gave a reply at his session that came closest to having the ring of truth. “To be very honest, pay is very good,” he said. “I can go around almost every corner of the world. This is a very good industry.”
He later said in an aside that he had been on an airplane only once, and that it had been singularly unpleasant. He said he felt his stomach rising to his throat and could not stand the noise of the roaring engine. Still, at considerable expense, he had enrolled at this training school, and he was looking forward to a lucrative career in aviation.
The proliferation of these training schools, as private ventures which are entirely unregulated by the government, are a window on the dearth of skilled workers in every part of the economy, whether retail or finance or even the country's legendary call centres.
No one keeps track of how many they enrol, nor how successful they are at preparing young strivers. But judging by the sheer number of billboards even in small towns, schools like this one have surfaced everywhere, pitching training for a vast array of careers—would-be pedicurists, nurses’ aides, bartenders, technology workers and, most of all, flight attendants.
Frankfinn, which opened its first training centre in 2003 in Mumbai, has 65 centres today, with nearly 15,000 students in all. At around Rs9,000 per month, the roughly 12-month-long course at Frankfinn is costly by Indian standards. There is no guarantee of a job at the end of the course.
Training includes grooming and communication skills, along with swimming, first aid, and serving cocktails. It also includes a week of sitting in a hulk of an ancient Airbus, built sometime in the early 1970s, long before most of Frankfinn’s students were born.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the plane was packed full. This is how you check the water level, the students were instructed. This is how you make an announcement. This is how you open and close the airplane door. What’s that button for, someone yelled out? And that one? A flustered instructor, Sheetal Chauhan, finally confessed that this was an old plane. The equipment inside the new planes, in which they might find themselves working, she said, would be considerably different.
No matter. Shukla said it was invaluable practice just being inside a plane.
She said she had gained confidence since her very first interview a few months ago with Kingfisher Airlines, which calls its flight attendants “flying models,” during which, she recalled, her whole body shivered.
She had now set her eyes on a job with Qatar Airways. For an interview the next morning, she would dress in her best skirt and blazer. She had been taught in school to wear “glossy makeup”. She had not been taught what to do in the event of sexual harassment on the job. It is not part of the coursework.
Asked about marriage and family, Shukla said she would one day want to be a wife and a mother, but never by giving up her career. She was deeply aware that her life would be very much unlike that of her mother, a homemaker.
“I want to make my own identification,” is how she put it. “I want to enhance my personality. I want to famous my own name in my family and in my friends’ circle.”
She had already dismissed the prospects of working for a domestic airline. “I want to see the whole world,” she said. The foreign carriers, she admitted, also paid better.
By early February, Shukla had cleared the interviews for Qatar Airways. Soon, she said, she expected to hear about a job.