ON World Youth Skills Day, I reflect on my decade-long journey in skilling youth, especially our young underprivileged boys and girls, and placing them in jobs. I have done this in several avatars – in senior government positions, with multilateral funders, and now as a changemaker. It started with the rural and tribal youth, and I now focus on the even more vulnerable – youth with disabilities.
How it all started
In 2004, the state government of Andhra Pradesh (united Andhra Pradesh) set up the Employment Generation & Marketing Mission (EGMM) to skill and provide jobs to rural and tribal youth. It was the country’s first skilling mission. Skilling youth from rural India was not fashionable then – a demographic dividend that had not yet been identified.
The vision was simple and futuristic. Young boys and girls in villages have aspirations different from their parents who could be marginal farmers, weavers, etc. Influenced by television, they aspired for jobs just like their urban counterparts and they needed opportunities.
I was chosen as the first Executive Director to build strategy, networks, and scale. To ensure the work was outcome-oriented, we decided all skilling should result in “placements” (Until then, skilling programme budgets of the government were “training for training’s sake” in schemes like Training of Rural Youth for Self-Employment (TRYSEM).
In six years, the Mission had skilled 180,000 youth and placed 70% in jobs. A transaction-based IT architecture picked data up from the skilling centres, so funders, the chief minister and the government could track youth placements in different districts. Above all, it showed to everyone that if skilled to the needs of the market, rural youth could be placed in organised sector jobs. Influenced by the scale of the Mission, placement of the skilled also became a norm for all Government of India schemes.
Lessons learnt during the Mission
Hardwire processes in building the template for scale: Mobilisation, building an industry-linked curriculum, placement and post-placement processes should be put in place systematically. The pilot has to be tested over a year, during which complexities should be removed to smoothen scaling.
Keep one eye on the community, the other on markets: We set up India’s first Rural Retail Academy in the district of Warangal where 12th grade rural youth were trained to become customer service associates in the up-and-coming retail industry. Teachers were introduced to methods of hiring by industry. When retail hiring slowed, we set up new English and Work Readiness Academies (EWRC), which are still in place, strengthening English communication and linking them to different service sector jobs.
Mothers are powerful ambassadors of change: There were hardly any girls enrolling, so we introduced it as an agenda point in the self-help group meetings. Mothers discussed the need for a better life for their girls. This resulted in an upswing in girl enrolments!
Identify a progressive government officer and make him/her the face of the programme: Our new academy was set up in the tribal hamlet of Seethampeta in Srikakulam district where a progressive officer gave us some space and supported us. When all tribal youth got jobs, he encouraged the media to interview the youth and their parents on the impact of employment. Soon every district collector was requesting us to set up the training centre in their district.
The Youth4Jobs Story
When I set up Youth4Jobs, the focus was to skill and place in jobs a neglected but growing section of the population – youth with disabilities. In nine years we have grown to be the largest in this space in South Asia, skilling 26,000 youth with disabilities and placing most of them in jobs in the organised sector.
After the arrival of COVID, in a pioneering manner, we launched Y4J Online, which resulted in the differently abled enrolling from across India, including Jammu and Kashmir. Skilling youth with disabilities and placing them was far more complex than those without disabilities, and it involved working at multiple levels with different stakeholders.
The way we do it
The need for being a ‘system changer’: We had to go beyond skilling and placements to work on the system and eco-sphere. Changing the mindsets of the village households, companies and colleges was our biggest challenge.
For example, we have now touched 7.2 million households with the message of “ability in disability” which ensures villagers understand that the differently abled can be productive. This helps seamless enrolment in our training programmes. Likewise, we do sensitisation workshops at different levels for companies to remove unconscious bias and help them begin or strengthen the journey of inclusion.
Invest in 21st century portable skills: We provide the differently abled youth with what the job demands and what they do not have – English communication, soft skills, digital skills and orientation. This gives them the confidence and allows them to move to better opportunities, over the years, with their own effort.
Ensure hiring makes business sense: Once companies experience the business case and see the results, their senior executives become champions for the programmes. For example, after measuring the productivity of the first batch of 15 girls with disabilities in the mobile assembling unit of an MNC, the company decided to hire 400 more girls.
Use assistive technology for improving learning outcomes: Assistive technology supports the visual impaired and people with other disabilities to have equal access to learning opportunities. We equip educators and youth with these technological skills.
Skilling youth and linking them to jobs is far beyond economic empowerment – the young man’s or woman’s life is transformed.They save and send money back home uplifting the family. The differently abled move from being perceived as “useless” to becoming consistent breadwinners.
Recently, I met an alumna of ours, working in a television channel. She thanked me for the training and, more importantly, “the job”. This job helped her to get married to a banking professional, something unthinkable before for a girl with disabilities!
A job for a young person with disability takes the entire family out of poverty in a sustained manner. I see it every day. This is a win-win for the country. It will also help the country attain Sustainable Development Goals. It ensures that companies benefit from the inclusion process.
This work of bringing a smile on the faces of vulnerable youth and getting blessings from their parents, does not leave us untouched. We walk the path of compassion transformed from the inside.
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Meera Shenoy is an award-winning pioneer. Compassion and a belief in the potential of the poor drives her work. She has built from scratch and taken two job-linked skilling programmes for rural, tribal and now youth with disabilities, to scale. She has spoken at national and international forums, and her work has been featured in Knowledge@Wharton, The Wall Street Journal and others.