This latest edition of the CSR Dialogues highlights the inspiring achievements of the HCL Foundation in tapping India’s unique demographic dividend - by using tech skills to help Gen Z break the cycle of generational poverty. Neeti Sharma, President & Co-Founder, TeamLease EdTech, and Gaurav Majumdar, Technical lead, Skills Development & Livelihood, HCL Foundation share their viewpoints on where Indian youth are currently poised, in terms of employability, and how tech skills can accelerate change.
The conversation began with Neeti Sharma inviting Gaurav Majumdar to tell listeners more about the HCL Foundation, its goals, achievements and focus areas. Being the CSR wing of HCL Technology, it is natural that tech would be the focus of most CSR endeavors. Majumdar spoke of how HCL Foundation plans to disrupt the skilling ecosystem from the ground up.
His analogy was ‘working on the source code’, i.e., to change things at the foundational level. By partnering with stakeholders like civil society groups, the government and other companies, HCL Foundation has achieved better results.
For instance, the Foundation works at 15 ITIs across the country, providing skills required for Industry 4.0. These include training and curriculum on EVs, 3D printing, AI, robotics, VR and even a power tools equipped advanced lab. By offering extremely current, or even futuristic training modules, HCL Foundation has been able to achieve 85% placements for those trained.
Majummdar also discussed the Yuva Kendras HCL Foundation runs for youth from extremely poor backgrounds; so poor that they have not even been able to access basic formal education. The Yuva Kendras take in such youth when they’re very young and provide them with tech skill sets like coding in Java or Python, that help them leap-frog over the education they lost out on, and possibly do better than their well-off peers. Many who have completed the 6-9 month training at such Yuva Kendras, have been placed in companies like Cognizant, Tech Mahindra, etc (with an average starting salary of Rs 18,000 to 25,000) and hence, after just one intense training program can break the cycle of generational poverty their families had been trapped in.
Given HCL Foundation’s ear on the ground, Neeti Sharma wanted to know how tech-savvy Indian youth are today, or rather, how useful their tech prowess is when it comes to getting a job. Majumdar went on to lament the unfortunate lack of basic skills. While acknowledging that Gen Z’s social media skills were excellent; basics like Microsoft Office, data entry skills like Excel, or presentation skills using PowerPoint were all lacking and required immediate training as the foundation of their 6-9 month modules.
The discussion went on to look at options of including basics like office suites and data management skills in school curriculum as early as Standard 7. And the ways of overcoming the digital divide between urban and rural India were also explored.
Also Read: Rebuilding The Youth of Rural India with CSR
Mujumdar did stress that helping set up digital infra across rural India required a collaborative effort from all tech companies, in partnership with the state. He shared one example of HCL Foundation’s rural interventions called Samudai, which was implemented in Hardoi, UP. This involved introducing students in ill-equipped government schools to STEM concepts and the latest developments in robotics. The lack of local infra to support such a lab, such as internet connectivity, uninterrupted power, etc was tackled by providing this ‘lab’ in a van, which could travel from one school to another, impacting many more students. These vans also have a teacher and trainer onboard and could be a good way to bring rural youth on par with their urban counterparts.
The next topic was on ensuring that students who begin their tech-upskilling journeys when quite young can continually upskill to stay abreast with fast-changing tech developments. Majumdar presented one interesting example from HCL Foundation, which is the Tech B program. This involves inviting undergrad students in urban and Tier-1, 2 or 3 cities onto the HCL campus and giving them on-the-job training while they pursue their degrees. This ‘earning while learning’ approach has led to a high number of industry-ready students that are easy to place.
Mazumdar believes that the private sector has a big role to play in partnering with the government to improve employability. Examples he shared was of Tatas setting up labs in all ITIs to gear students for the technology of the future; Jaguar setting up labs in ITIs to train students in the latest plumbing technology, etc. HCL too has tied up with another private partner, Black & Decker (a maker of power tools) to set up a power tools lab in ITIs, ensuring students train on the latest tools. In the apparel sector, HCL Foundation has tied up with global brand Gap, to ensure tailoring training given to students is exactly what the fast-changing fashion industry requires.
This mirrored the apprenticeship-embedded degree program that over 700 companies have partnered with TeamLease for.
The conversation continued about the challenges faced in keeping the youth continuously upskilled. Training modules developed just a few years back and which were successful in getting good placement records, were irrelevant today. Constantly updating training modules was a challenge, and NGOs partners/implementers often were resistant to such changes, Majumdar felt online certification was one method to ensure that students that had entered the formal workforce didn’t drop out on account of obsolete skills, negating the immense progress they’d made on their first jobs. Data science, block chain and cyber security are the fields that offer new opportunities so training modules need to address this.
The HCL Foundation’s academy, with direct access to world leaders in the field, is able to develop curriculum and training on the latest tech developments.
Further exploring different aspects of the integrated model of ‘practice-based learning’ Majumdar shared a key point - not only should training be up-to-date, it should also be relevant to the local geography. He illustrated this with examples. In Bangalore, HCL Tech offers training to youth in G technology, since those skills are required in the city. Similarly, with the rampant spread of high-rises, HCL Tech offers skilling in green tech - to address the shortage of talent for STP operators. On the other hand, in Madurai, where the profile of employers is vastly different, HCL offers training for jobs in the automobile sector. In Nagpur, skilling is focussed on logistics. Noida being a big cluster for garment exporters, HCL offers both a 6-m0nth and 1-year certification course aimed at this sector (for swing machine operators). Hence, by being flexible in what skills each geography demands, HCL’s CSR is able to ensure placements are high. And job-driven migration is low.
The next important aspect covered was certification. Regarding the courses developed for the 70-odd trades that HCL Foundation focuses on, it has got approval from the National Skills Development Corporation. Regarding offices suites, HCL Foundation offers Microsoft certification, as well as certification from LinkedIn.
An inspiring new addition is the ITI course in drone technology. Apart from offering youth a chance to learn skills and earn credits on one of the latest technologies, HCL Foundation has ear-marked 50% of the seats to women, to balance out the very low female enrolment in ITIs.
The conversation wound up on the other sectors that the HCL Foundation works with. Primary health centres in slums, early childhood development through initiatives focused at anganwadis, afforestation efforts and saving water bodies…. HCL Foundation had broadened its impact way beyond skilling. Another example whereby it used tech to disrupt a sector was its e-commerce platform developed exclusively for artisans, which has been a huge success.
All in all, this conversation offers countless guidelines to anyone navigating the CSR ecosystem.