The word ‘apprentice’ is traced back to c.1300, with origin in Old French aprentiz, ‘someone learning,’ as www.etymonline.com explains. “The apprenticeship of difficulty is one which the greatest of men have had to serve,” reads a quote of Samuel Smiles. And, reminds Edward Everett Hale, that war is the hard apprenticeship of freedom.
Interestingly, apprenticeship was the topic of my recent conversation with G. P. Chandra Kumar, Chairman and CEO, SkillSonics. In this interaction with YourStory, over phone and email, he talks about the business opportunity in the field of apprenticeship. Read on.
First, the story of SkillSonics.
In 2005, after being part of the IT industry for over 25 years, I moved out and took a sabbatical to decide my future course of action. I identified three areas to focus on – training and education of workers/ technicians where I perceived a huge gap in skills compared to global standards, assisting young entrepreneurs (through investing and mentoring), and involvement in socially-relevant projects.
In 2006, I had the opportunity to advise Labournet, a social enterprise that creates sustainable benefits for workers in the informal sector. In 2008, I also worked on a Swiss pilot initiative which attempted to bring the Swiss Vocational Education and Training (VET) model to India to address the skills gap in India. This proved successful with over 9 companies participating in the initiative and more than 150 students being trained. This led to us forming SkillSonics in 2011 with the aim of creating a sustainable industry-driven skilling ecosystem in India with technicians skilled to global standards.
On the business opportunity in the field of apprenticeship.
India is in a very unique situation. If we study the demography of the rest of the world, we can see a definite reduction in the workforce numbers. Some studies have revealed that almost 40 million people would be out of the workforce age group in the next 10-15 years.
At the same time, inIndia, there is a huge young population in need of jobs. This would mean that there is a great demand in the world and there is a huge supply in India which is a good business opportunity. There are different models of training. What we propagate is the apprenticeship model for organised sector. We are focusing on engineering technicians, mechanical and electronic. We want to make the workers industry-ready without any skill gaps. Our primary aim is up-skilling and upgrading the existing technicians.
Do you foresee India as a leader in the manufacturing sector, where China has its strengths?
It is a known fact that the manufacturing sector creates more jobs, in addition to the service industry. Although we have developed much in the services industry, the scope for improvement in the manufacturing sector is huge. Foreign players do see India a major attraction especially because of the democratic bureaucracy. However, there is scope for improvement in areas like infrastructure, facility and people. Infrastructure and facility would be areas for the Government to improve upon. The lack of skilled talent, however, is something which should be solved internally.
Although India today can boast of having the largest talent pool, the number of skilled workers is very low. Most successful companies today run their own in-house training as they cannot depend on the training that the candidates have got from their institutions. In the next 10 years, at least 20 sectors in our country will be doubling, which means there would be a demand for double the manpower also in this period. If we overcome these challenges, there is definitely scope for India to be the next manufacturing hub.
There are many sectors under manufacturing, such as engineering, capital goods, life sciences, pharma, and food processing, which could see definite growth in India. Also, the reduction of workforce in other countries would mean an opportunity for them to come to India and set up their manufacturing plants in India. This would be possible if we can raise the level of skilled labour in India to global standards. We can build our economy on this and stand for not low-cost manufacturing but high-quality and reasonable cost manufacturing base which could be attractive to the world.
How do you see SkillSonics making a difference? And, the challenges you face.
We realised at the outset that we cannot replicate the Swiss model, and that it has to be adapted to the Indian context due to the differences in culture and ecosystem. Although we have the course content information coming from our Swiss partner, we have redesigned the course, restructured it, and retimed it for the Indian environment. The SkillSonics approach to skill development is to create a skilling ecosystem where all stakeholders including companies, government, students, academia and sector associations come together to develop a sustainable ecosystem. We follow the stringent assessment method of the Swiss for the technician to get the Swiss certificate. We are trying to make the courses more suitable for each sector depending upon the needs.
Other than the challenge of adapting a Swiss programme for Indian industries, we are also conscious of the fact that there are many challenges we face within India. Due to various factors we are also aware that there would be a need to adapt our courses to different states while keeping the core of the courses uniform throughout the country. In our expansion plans, we would be going in for a decentralised model, wherein each state would have a unit which could perform almost independently.
We have exclusive partnership in India with the Swiss Mechanical and Electrical Manufacturing Industries (SwissMEM) organisation, and the Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (SFIVET). Also, from the Indian side, we have recently been endorsed by the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC). The SkillSonics experience, so far, has been a positive one. We have trained 70-80 ITI teachers to Swiss standards of training both as teachers and examiners. This has helped these teachers in their regular work-hours as well. From the industry perspective, we have been able to train a production workforce into an instructor.
We have also been able to train an ITI student who has come from a rural background to a global workforce standard. We have seen the difference this training has brought to the fresher; they are more confident, can communicate better, and are more knowledgeable. We have seen that companies that have completed the training programme for their apprentices through SkillSonics have not only retained the trained talent, but also retained them with higher pays and designated them differently.
What is your outlook for small enterprises?
Many medium and large enterprises have consciously moved to high automation or high outsourcing. Due to this, their vendor list has become huge. These vendors are small enterprises. Small enterprises with sustainable customer base have to think about the skilled labour and the cost factors. Any company has to start as a small enterprise and grow into medium and large enterprise. We are also talking to the larger companies for the vendor management to improve the quality of the vendors. We are working on a cluster-based approach towards vocational training for SMEs wherein standardised content could be created for the companies belonging to the cluster. Here, the apprentices will be trained at a single location with the practical aspects of the course being conducted in the respective companies.
About G. P. Chandra Kumar G. P. Chandra Kumar was the Founder, Chairman and MD of Linc software from 1988-2005, after which he was Executive Vice President at MindTree. In the domain of skill development, he was an advisor to Labournet (bringing unorganised sector labour under an organised umbrella), and led the Swiss Vocational Education and Training Initiative (SVETI) as its Project Director inIndia. A graduate in Electronics and Communications Engineering from theCollegeofEngineering, Guindy, he is an alumnus of IIM,Bangalore, where he did his certificate course on entrepreneurship.
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