In 2009, I moved to Vadodara, Gujarat (India), from Mumbai. One of my long-time customers, offered me an opportunity to head, technical services division (to be formed). I was supposed to offer design services to various units of the company and any other services that might be required for those units. It was more like an ancillary unit. Having spent 20 years in IT industry, it was all together a new career path for me. It took couple of months to understand the laser cutting & fabrication value chain, engineering business dynamics, their strengths and pain points.
In few months, I setup a design centre with three CAD designers and started offering services. This unit was a profit centre, where we would bill the units for the services offered. The company’s another pain point was getting good fabricators. In fact, all the companies across India were shouting from roof tops, about lack of skilled manpower. Hence, while we offered the design services, we were talking about setting up a welding institute. Welding, I only knew spelling of this, when I was first asked to start a vocational training centre. All what I had, was my entrepreneurial skills, which were to be tested in totally new field. When I look back at those 10 years, I take home some satisfaction that my entrepreneurial skills became reasons for livelihoods for few thousand youths.
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In that institute, we not just wanted to groom welders for that company’s fabrication units, but also for the industry, as a whole. But, to start with we had to experiment with the captive requirement. We started a small welding institute, using machines of that company. Initially, there were two possible scenarios, one either we train locals from Gujarat and send them to various units and second to hire local youths from the vicinity of those units, train them in Vadodara and send back. Accordingly, we went in for the first experiment of sending the trained youth from Gujarat to other geographies. However, it didn’t work well, because of inability of the youth to get adjusted with work culture and food of other geographies. However, on the hindsight, I believe that these were not the only factors, why those youth came back. There was lack of motivation or a strong sense of urgency to migrate for livelihood. The root cause could be prosperity and ample opportunities within Gujarat. The experiment with second scenario was much easier. The units used to send new recruits. We would train and send them back to join the units.
I surveyed almost all welding institutes in nearby geography, barring one, all were in unorganized sector. The giant was catering to Gulf demand and he had a huge setup. It was a tricky situation. We started working on market penetration strategy. We came across an idea of Welding Simulator. With Welding simulator, we could have got an edge over all the unorganized operators and also the big one. It could be a great USP. However, economically, it was a bad idea, as cost of the welding simulator was 20 times best in class welding machines. Hence, to reduce the burden on the company, I on boarded Govt of Gujarat organization (which promotes skill development) to share 50 % cost of the simulator, as subsidy. We got the simulator and then it was no looking back. With business development background, I got lot of students, through innovative schemes. We opened multiple skill development centres. We also worked with few CSR missions of large organization. Trained candidates, sponsored by them.
We marketed the welding simulator online well, with website. We used to have candidates from almost all the states in North India. The experiment of simulator worked really well. When, I look back at that decision, I realize that I had created a “Blue Ocean” for us.
Retired workmen as trainers
Typically, in technical institutes the trainers are academicians, either diploma or degree engineers, who opted training as profession. They also have some supplementary qualification related to training/ education activity. I had my own reservations about it !
I always believed that the vocational trades are all about practical exposure. Hence, the candidates will get the best knowledge/ skills, when they are trained by the people, who worked in those respective trades for decades and gained substantial expertise. They are more knowledgeable than some of the finest minds of engineering.
The aging workforce, with their knowledge exactly knows the requirements on the ground, challenges and resolution to those challenges. Hence, all through my ten years, I always had aging workmen as technical trainers, in the institutes opened and managed by me. Only thing, they needed initial orientation about offering theory lectures. Agreed, they couldn’t prepare training reports or send me mails, but I was ok with that, given other substantial benefits. But, all of them managed well.
When, I look back to those ten years, I take home the satisfaction of having placed right people for practice oriented technical training to youth. There were two benefits, first the candidates got the best, they could have got in those times. Second, the vertical mobility & the respect these aging workmen received in the industry and in the training fraternity. I am proud to say that the training team, which I had were best in class, in their respective field, be it welding, fitment, electrical, chemical, etc. I must say this experiment of having aging workforce as trainers worked well.
eLearning for Blue Collar Workmen
We all have read Dr. Pralhad’s “Fortune at the bottom of pyramid”. I am sure many in skilling industry, especially working with blue collar job skills, would agree that this fortune was illusion. However, everyone tries. One such idea crossed our mind, was that of developing eLearning portal for blue collar people. I used to give one example to many. An expert welder is walking by his workshop with his son. Welding process intrigues his son and he asks the welder “Father, how does this welding happen?” “ Is this mechanical or chemical process?”.
Many of the better welders, may not have answer to those questions. Actually, there is nothing to be ashamed at that because, we may know the answer to those questions, but we can’t weld.
We developed an eLearning portal for blue collar workmen. It had as many as 60 courses, right from welding, fitment, punching, laser cutting, 5 S, soft skills, etc. We had a dedicated team of 5-6 graphics designers to develop those programs. With my experience of IT, I could lead the team in developing those beautiful courses. We also added a payment gateway. But, kept a very low subscription fees for initial traction. We marketed those courses on social media, direct marketing. We used every mean at our disposal, to generate traction. But, it didn’t work. This experiment had failed. When, I look back, especially in the backdrop of the success of these “Edtech Companies”, I believe we should have hung in there, for few more years, but we couldn’t, as the funding had dried.
Notwithstanding your knowledge, abilities, efforts & skills, the results of the world facing experiments are best left to the external factors, which decide fate. For me, the best part about these experiments was that I lived through them and stood there.