Ahmedabad: My parents-in-law don’t know I come here,” says Meena, smiling at her own nerve. “They say I shouldn’t because I’m a married woman, but I hide it from them and come anyway.” The 22-year-old is sitting in the computer lab of the Umeed training centre in Vasna, Ahmedabad, where Meena and her friends, Vimla Makwana, 24, and Ruksar Pathan, 19, are attending a three-month course in information technology (IT) skills. For a fee of Rs500, the course boasts a 75% success rate with placing students in entry-level jobs in the city that pay an average salary of Rs3,500 per month.
The girls are from neighbouring slums in the south-east of the city. Every day, they take a 15-minute auto ride to the Umeed centre, four to a vehicle, to learn basic spoken English, computer skills and so-called “soft skills” (how to dress for the job, be punctual and courteous, speak and stand with confidence).
Lasting effect: Vimla Makwana (left) with classmates at the Umeed training centre at Vasna, Ahmedabad. Sachin Soni /American India Foundation
Although they didn’t know one another before starting the course, Vimla and Ruksar now regularly visit each other at home. Their fathers, a tailor and a driver, respectively, are proud to have daughters enrolled in the Umeed programme, which is well known in the slum districts. Their mothers are pleased too, and a little envious of the opportunities they’ve been offered. “My mother and sister say to me, ‘You’re doing what we weren’t able to do’,” says Vimla, as she straightens the black dupatta and white kurta that both she and Ruksar wear to class.
Meena does not wear the uniform; she has been at the local hospital getting a vaccination. “I’m pregnant too,” she explains. “So that makes it even harder. But it’s worth it. I feel I’ve wasted three years just sitting at home and doing nothing.” Meena is currently staying with her parents, for her godh bharai ceremony and so is able to keep her training a secret from her disapproving in-laws,?and even?her husband.
The Umeed centre in Vasna is one of 47 now operating in Gujarat under the auspices of a local non-governmental organization, Saath, and the market-aligned skills training (MAST) programme of the American India Foundation (AIF). Since 2007, AIF centres such as this one have been training 18-35-year-olds from the poorest backgrounds in practical skills for specific jobs in retail, hospitality, IT, data entry and nursing. AIF aims to train 100,000 youths across India by 2012, and with nearly 46,000 placed in jobs in the first three years, this seems an attainable goal.
Vocational training programmes already exist in the form of Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs), Industrial Training Centres (ITCs) and private technical skills courses, but Umeed takes a different approach.
For one thing, the three-month MAST course is a shorter option than the one or two years offered by an ITI. The Rs500 fee is affordable for even the lowest-income earners (the actual cost of the training is Rs5,000 per student, the rest is paid for by AIF and the Ahmedabad Municipal Board). But the most original feature of the Umeed scheme is the direct contact that the coordinators have with prospective employers. After interviewing local recruiters about the type of employees they are looking for, asking which skills they require and which positions need filling, Umeed tailors a course that equips students for specific jobs they know are already available.
The need to extend vocational training to those living in urban slums is becoming pressing. The number of under-25s in India is surging relative to the country’s population creating a “demographic dividend” of potential workers, which ought to be a boon to the economy. At the same time, the country is rapidly urbanizing; by 2050, it is expected that India will be 50% urban from just over 30% now. A 2010 United Nations Habitat report found that 28% of Indians now reside in “slum conditions”.
As a result, the residents of urban slums will be key players in India’s future economic growth, or decline, says an AIF report. “Left on the margins due to poor education and lack of capital, they can be a source of discontent and unrest and a drain on the economy.”
Rajendra Joshi is the director of Saath which is acting as the implementing partner for the AIF scheme. Saath has been involved in successful slum integration projects in the city since 1989. Rather than giving poorly maintained services to slum dwellers for free, Joshi feels the urban poor should be seen as a market like any other, willing to pay for services if they are of good quality.
“We realized that the fastest growing sector is the service sector, and that requires a lot of people employed in entry-level jobs,” Joshi says. AIF did a “market scan” of companies that might hire workers with basic training and found that Ahmedabad’s new malls, call centres, hospitals and coffee franchises were badly in need of trainable young people on starter wages. Umeed trainees have since been employed at organizations such as ICICI Bank Ltd, Café Coffee Day, the Tata group and Reliance Industries Ltd.
Umeed used local community leaders such as Kanji Chauhan, a resident of Behrampur, a slum area in southern Ahmedabad, to spread the word among the residents. “Before I joined Umeed, I was working as a delivery boy,” says Chauhan, whose two nieces have both attended courses and now work in retail, earning salaries of Rs4,000-5,000 per month. “When Umeed started, we used to have a presentation about it, but now it’s a brand name, so we don’t need to.”
The three-month course consists of 300 hours of training, devoted equally to technical and soft skills. Individuals often need as much help learning to be open and self-confident as they do in operating a computer or learning first aid. Fatima Chhipa, 31, is an ex-student now employed at retail chain Big Bazaar as a counter representative. Chhipa was married “too young” at 16, and, after having a son, she got a divorce and moved back home. “I was very lonely at that time,” she says. “I was in a dark place. After Umeed, I came out of myself and started learning how to live in this world and how to deal with people. Now I’m working and standing on my own feet.”
One of Fatima’s old teachers, Roopali Srivastava, is the centre coordinator for Behrampur. She’s in charge of enrolment and teaches soft skills and basic spoken English. “I find that the change in participants is very strong,” she says. “Initially, the men have this Hindi movie-style persona, paan-chewing, slouching, speaking in slang. I teach them how to stand properly and how to talk to people they might not have addressed before.” But, she admits, “sometimes it’s very tough to change the traditions. Some of the families don’t like the uniforms we provide, so we let the girls come here to get changed for work. You can be a good bride for your family and at the same time, you can be a good employee for your boss”.
Chirag Desai, human resources director at consumer durables retailer Tata Croma in Ahmedabad, has recruited from Umeed both at Tata and in his previous job at Big Bazaar. In both the cases, he presented the idea to his bosses as “an experiment”, knowing they might not be keen to hire employees from the slums. In February, Desai hired a group of 25 graduates from Umeed and, on Day 1, he gave them a tour of the swanky premises, explaining the work load: from dusting the appliances and shelf-stacking to interacting with customers. Only 12 came back on the second day.
After his last batch of recruits had finished their six-month training, Desai asked their families to visit. “When I asked what they knew about the store, they said they’d seen the board but had never dared to step inside,” he says. Now, however, Desai feels the recruits have assimilated well. He likes Umeed graduates because he knows they are serious about the job. At the end of six months, he says, some of the Umeed graduates were performing better than people he’d had for three years.
AIF now faces the challenge of working out how to replicate the Umeed model around the country. MAST programmes exist in eight states and the government of Bihar has expressed an interest in implementing the scheme there. Consequently, AIF is looking into ways to make programmes such as Umeed self-financed and thus sustainable. One idea is to reposition Umeed as a staffing service, to which companies will pay the Rs4,500 surcharge per employee hired, with a guarantee that it will replace any dropout with a new trainee.
It remains to be seen whether these attempts will be successful, but, for now, Umeed is having a lasting effect on the societies it engages with. Almost all of the graduates and current students interviewed have friends or siblings enrolled in an Umeed course. Nineteen-year-old Ruksar, the youngest and most serious of the three IT students at Vasna, will make sure her younger sisters train with Umeed. And Meena is also thinking of the future. She only has another month to go before her covert training comes to an end. “I don’t know what will happen then,” she says. “But I’m pleased to think the baby is also absorbing some of this teaching—just like in the Mahabharata,” she laughs.