Talent gets wings

Odisha has taken huge strides in creating a skill development ecosystem that trains and nurtures youth in a way that is at once innovative and effective

Odisha’s skilling story began when, at the behest of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, the Odisha Skill Development Authority (OSDA) was created in 2016. The one-line charter for the newly-constituted authority was to build an aspirational brand called Skilled-in-Odisha. The intended brand promise was to make future employers ask their would-be employees, “Are you skilled or are you Skilled-in-Odisha?”

The overarching goal had three parts to it. In the short term, high-quality employers would make a beeline to lock in talent from the state’s skills training institutions. In the midterm, that would shift to attracting global employers to hire local talent. In the long term, the intent was to make Odisha an active lab, a sandbox for innovation. The task ahead was clear: we needed to think and go beyond skill development. We needed to look at skills to deliver human transformation.

Subroto Bagchi

Subroto Bagchi is chairman of the Odisha Skill Development Authority

A three-fold strategy was cemented. First, fix the industrial training institute (ITI) system. Second, significantly improve the quality and scale of short-duration training programmes operating under the central as well as the state government. Third, accelerate the setting up of eight state-of-the-art ‘advanced skill training institutions’ (ASTIs) with a loan of nearly $200 million from the Asian Development Bank.

We were hugely successful with our first two objectives but ran into roadblocks with the ASTIs. This had to be course corrected midway, and the idea morphed into something more substantial and potentially more impactful. But first, the ITIs needed fixing.

The ITIs as institutions have receded in stature in India over the decades, and they have become synonymous with failed aspirations and blocked dreams. If a high school student had all doors slammed shut, he or she came to an ITI. Our job was to start here and find the role models to prop them up.

Winning formula

We used a 10-6-4-2 formula where every ITI had to prominently hold up the alumni they were truly proud of, so that young people looked up to them and felt inspired to consider joining the skill bandwagon. The formula was simple: each ITI had to name 10 students it was delighted with. Teachers needed to know the socioeconomic story of these students: where they came from, how their transformation at the institute happened, how they overcame odds and where they were placed.

Of these 10, six had to be those who had made a mark outside Odisha. Importantly, four of the 10 had to be women (historically, ITIs have not been a place for women; we needed to break that mould). Finally, two of the 10 had to be small entrepreneurs, people who had got a business off the ground.

The formula caught everyone’s fancy because everybody loves a great story. Today, every ITI in Odisha can showcase role models who inspire others to follow their examples. The first was Muni Tigga, an Adivasi girl who lost her father very early in her life. She came to an ITI to train for two years and then became a loco-engine pilot with the Indian Railways, where she hauls trains between Bhubaneswar and Palasa.

Making an entrepreneur

Nunaram Hansda, another tribal, came to ITI Rourkela, where he always ran short of his mess dues of 30 a month. His teachers pooled money to cover the deficit and let him study. Hansda now runs the insulin manufacturing line at Biocon. Similarly, Soumnedra Das finished at ITI Puri and became a trainee at Tata Motors before quitting his job to start a garage where he employs 80 people and clocks annual revenues of 80 million.

Making the ITI students self-confident was critical. The state roped in the National Institute of Fashion Design to craft a new set of uniforms for them and paid `140 million for this. Sportswear was introduced as weekend attire. Students were encouraged to be sporty, to compete at state-level ITI fests where debating, acting and other artistic talents are celebrated. These students now look forward to going to class because there are other cool things to do there as well.

Among the many interventions, one was the concept of a change agent to work with young students towards enhancing their life skills. This was done by drawing inspiration from the ‘Teach for India’ initiative, whereby good trainers could be deployed on two-year fellowships to augment technical training with life skills.

A pilot project was implemented with philanthropic funding and, once the idea was proven viable, the state took over the large-scale adoption of the programme in partnership with Tata Strive, a skill development initiative operating under the aegis of the Tata Trusts. Today, 90 change leaders are part of a process that impacts 27,000 students every year. These students learn about leadership, teamwork, problem solving, sustainability and design thinking.

In 2016, Odisha’s ITIs had less than 6% of female enrolment. Fast forward to now and many ITIs have crossed 20% in female student strength. But there’s much more to these ITIs: they have skill museums, art installations that showcase their technical and design prowess, and they take pride in their social outreach in times of natural disasters.

The programme led to teachers themselves getting a sense of direction and ambition. For the first time in India, we sent 215 ITI teachers and administrators to ITE Singapore, one of the best skilling institutions in the world. These teachers, 90% of whom did not have a passport before the Singapore trip, crafted the mission, vision and values for what became the ‘new ITI’.

Beyond the ITI and polytechnics, the state imparts short-term, employment-linked skills training for those who have dropped out of school. These youth train to become retail sales assistants, drivers, janitors, healthcare assistants, electricians, etc. The flagship programme for such training is the DDU-GKY scheme of the Indian government, and Odisha has been adjudged the best performing state for the scheme’s implementation for three years in a row.

Apart from DDU-GKY, there are other programmes seeded by the central and state governments that are pushing the agenda for employment-linked, short-term skilling. Among the thousands of beneficiaries is Sumati Nayak from Bhadrak, a Class X pass who couldn’t speak any language other than Odia. Sumati is now a department manager at Westside’s Coimbatore outlet.

Outside to inside

While Odisha has done exceedingly well in terms of fixing its ITIs and scaling up programmes such as DDU-GKY, the plan to set up eight ASTIs ran into problems. These were to be supported by the government with land, buildings and machinery but were to be operated by the private sector. When the bidding process took place, there was little interest from the private sector. Sensing that outsourcing was probably the wrong strategy, the state government decided to ‘in-source’ the effort, but with a big difference.

Instead of ASTIs, a ‘world skill centre’ was established in Bhubaneswar at an outlay of nearly $185 million and with expert help from Singapore. Housed in an 18-storey, state-of-the-art building spanning 500,000 sq ft, this centre will roll out one-year courses in manufacturing and offer other courses too. Additionally, through several other programmes, it will directly and indirectly impact 150,000 youth by 2024.

The Odisha skills story wouldn’t be complete without talking about the way the state has broken through the clouds to arrive at the global stage in skill competitions. For that, we need to talk about the World Skills Competition, which is the Olympics of the skilling world. The last one was held in Kazan, Russia, in 2019 and in preparation for that, Odisha set up ‘Mission 123’. It meant Odisha would strive to get India one gold, two silvers and three bronze medals in Kazan.

The skills 2018 competition conducted in Bhubaneswar was the precursor for the Russia contest and it had some 5,000 youth competing. Odisha had the largest contingent among the eight states in the fray and it came out on top. At the national level, the state surprised all with the second-largest medals tally in the country. More importantly, three participants from Odisha represented India at Kazan and one of them, Aswatha Narayan, won India its very first gold medal.

Based on the original charter to make Odisha a sandbox for innovation, many breakthrough ideas have been created. One such is the Nano Unicorn programme, wherein small enterprises set up by skilled youth can generate jobs at the village or small-town level. At the core of the Nano Unicorn effort, are skill-trained youth. We scout them for their entrepreneurial aptitude. We listen to their dreams and, if we like their story, we send them to a two-week mini-MBA programme where they can hone their business ideas.

With the help of Tata Strive, a pilot has been rolled out with 433 Nano Unicorns and this will be scaled up to 3,000. The larger goal is to harvest the story of entrepreneurship and package it into school-level curriculums so that more young people look at skills as a means to setting up their own businesses.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Tata Trusts.

An instructor and students at an ITI that is part of the skilling programme