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VISHAL KOUL

24 Good Businesses 2012

Where will meets skill
Empower Pragati, with governments and corporates, is training young Indians for jobs

Shabana Hussain

Less than 2% of the workforce in the country is fit for employment,"

—RaJiv Sharma,MD, Empower Pragati

Nineteen-year-old Jyoti Kumar trudges three kms from her home in a crowded transit camp at Govindpuri to a training centre in south Delhi’s Tughlakabad every day. It’s a long walk but the muggy monsoon afternoons don’t dampen her enthusiasm a whit. Jyoti is one of 15 students attending a skills training course conducted by Empower Pragati, a private sector social enterprise started in 2010 to provide vocational training to economically disadvantaged young Indians. Today’s class is on Spoken English.

Soon enough, the trainer’s eyes land on Jyoti and he asks her to introduce herself in English. The whole class turns to look at the young woman in the bright pink and black salwar kameez. She looks nervous. A lifetime of aspirations weighs down that infinitesimal pause. Then, almost imperceptibly, the Class 12 government school pass-out straightens her slight frame, and speaks with near-perfect diction in a language that was largely alien during her growing-up years. It’s a carefully constructed transformation in which Jyoti has found an unexpected and reliable ally in Empower Pragati. The company, which has combined social awareness with labour market realities teaches skills that will help Jyoti and many others like her in the real world. 

Empower’s five founders — Rajendra Joshi, Rajiv Sharma, Arun Bhardwaj, Jagannath Rao Dasigi, and Paul S Lalvani — are unified by a strong background in corporate India and the conviction that high-school dropouts need vocational training. “There is a vast employability gap and less than 2% of the workforce is fit for employment,” says Rajiv Sharma, managing director of Empower Pragati and former CEO of Bharti Airtel. “We are trying to bridge this gap by giving job skills training to urban and rural youth from the economically weaker sections.” Jyoti’s 45-day course covers subjects like Spoken English, Basic Computers, training in Tally (the accounting software) and personality development. Students like her have been placed in BPOs, large retail stores, banks and other service industries. Empower Pragati boasts a placement record of almost 70% for some courses, courtesy — Big Bazaar, Lifestyle, ICICI Bank, Airtel and McDonalds.  

 Connecting the dots

Empower claims to have trained over 10,000 people in the past year or so. But as with most start-ups, Empower is struggling to make ends meet — the company earned ₹4 crore in FY12 and hopes to break-even this fiscal. Students are charged between₹500 and ₹2,000 as training fees, although it’s waived in select cases. That’s not nearly enough to cover the cost of training, so the government and companies are tapped as well.

At the government end of the business, Empower is a portfolio company of the National Skills Development Corporation of India (NSDC), a ministry of finance initiative set up to fulfil the growing demand for a skilled workforce. NSDC’s partnership with Empower began in December 2010 — the plan is to train over 2 million people in 56 towns and cities over the next 10 years. It works like this: NSDC has committed to lend ₹18.91 crore to a joint NSDC-Empower project, which focuses on training youth for the BPO, tourism, hospitality and retail sectors. The plan is to set up nearly 600 training centres across the country for this purpose. Till date, NSDC has shelled out around ₹5 crore and has a 10% stake in Empower with an option to increase it to 25%. 

At the corporate end, companies step in to sponsor various training centres. Jyoti’s training centre, for instance, is funded by DLF as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda. “Two purposes are served this way,” Sharma says. “The company achieves its CSR goal and it gets brand traction — we put up a board with the company’s name at the training centre.” “We have been working with Empower for almost two years now. We have set up 14 training centres across the country in partnership with them,” points out Brinda Malhotra, CSR head, Aircel.

While the telecom company funds the entire cost of vocational training for underprivileged youngsters at these centres, they go on to jobs in various industries. Empower charges a placement fee from companies that hire its trainees, either as a 10-15% annuity fee every month or a fixed fee per student. The amount charged ranges from ₹1,500 to ₹4,000 per student.  

Putting in place

Not everybody gets placed in the organised sector, though. Empower is also working with some state governments to train disadvantaged and poor youth as chauffeurs and domestic help. That may well be the way of the future, Sharma believes. “This is a sector no corporate has entered,” he points out. “There is a huge demand for skilled workforce in the unorganised sector.” In the next couple of years, it will set up skill-building centres in Odisha and Jharkhand, focusing on training young men and women as security guards, domestic help, chauffeurs etc.

Currently, the company is running programmes where it trains people from slums in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Kolkata in household activities such as caring for babies, elderly and invalids, cooking and overall house management. Roadshows, street plays, meetings with the panchayats and the parents help bring in potential employees and while the training is provided free to the slumdwellers, the tab is picked up by the state governments or corporates. 

When Empower works with state governments (Andhra Pradesh and Odisha currently), training is mostly residential, and hostel facilities are provided to students. “We have seen that many state governments prefer residential training because students who stay at the training centre are certain to stick to the programme,” said Arun Bhardwaj, co-founder of Empower Pragati. The government incurs the cost of training and boarding for students. 

The trained workforce is then taken on Empower’s rolls. The maids and ayahs remain Empower employees even when they’re placed in households: their salaries (around ₹6,500 a month) are paid by the company, they are provided benefits such as ESIC accounts and 21 days paid leave a year. 

At the Tughlakabad training centre, 19-year-old Gourango Paik, a former student, has brought along his friend for admission. Paik got placed within a week of finishing his course — he now works at Digicall, a local BPO. “I came here to introduce my friend, so he too can get a job,” he says with a grin. Meanwhile, Jyoti tells us that she is now an undergrad pursuing a correspondence course in Commerce from Delhi University. She says she loves accountancy. “I don’t care where I work,” she adds with a slight smile on her face. “I just want to do something in accounts.” And she no longer doubts that she will get there.

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