In the first decade of this century, Andhra Pradesh had several self-help groups (SHGs)—women who were saving, borrowing, and generating livelihood opportunities for themselves as well as their communities.
As these groups grew, the government began to notice that the aspirations of children were different from their SHG-member mothers, who were mostly marginal farmers or weavers. The state felt that they needed to do something to fulfil these aspirations, and from this was born the Employment Generation and Marketing Mission (EGMM)—a skilling mission under the Department of Rural Development in undivided Andhra Pradesh.
EGMM started in 2004 with a pilot—a Rural Retail Academy was set up in Warangal for youth who were 10th and 12th standard dropouts; local school teachers were taught to train them on customer-facing skills, and after six months, they were ready to be placed.
Kishore Biyani of the Future Group was the first one to hire these young people, and him doing so changed the way India looked at rural youth. It made people realise that: a) you didn’t need graduates with degrees for customer service, and b) rural youth, if skilled right, could get formal private sector jobs.
Prior to the establishment of the EGMM, government skilling programmes didn’t think of job placement as something they were responsible for. All of them did skilling for skilling’s sake. Now placement has become the norm in every skilling programme offered by either the government or the private sector.
EGMM was also able to demonstrate innovation at scale. However, it’s relatively easy to achieve scale when you are sitting inside the government. When I thought of what to focus on after rural youth, it was important for me to enter a space where there wasn’t an existing model for scale, and to prove that it could be done outside of the government as well. Disability was that space.
The statistics around disability are alarming—80% of the world’s disability population is in developing countries like India. Despite this, a decade ago, little was being done about it.
Cities with a booming IT industry like Bangalore and Delhi had organisations training and placing people with disability in jobs, but this was limited to 30 people a year at best. And most of them were urban and educated. However, 69% of youth with disability in India live in the villages, and at the time, in 2012, nobody was focusing on less-educated rural youth with disability.
When we went to the villages, we faced several obstacles:
As we started working with the corporates, some multinational companies started asking us, “Where are the youth with English, the ones who are educated?” The perception is that if the youth with disability are educated, they will perhaps get jobs on their own.
However, in most cases, educated youth with disability have low skill levels. They qualify as engineers, have an engineering certificate and so they aspire to get into the well-known global and Indian tech companies. However, their technical knowledge is poor since colleges don’t have special educators to guide them.
We are hearing companies talk about focusing on disability. So, while the timing is right, we need to shape how companies think and act on their interest.
Here are a few approaches that skilling organisations that work with youth with disability can adopt to ensure that larger numbers of corporates hire and retain these young people and that they do it in the right manner.
When they have to interact with customers, awareness about the issue of disability goes up automatically; you don’t have to work on that separately. We piloted this hypothesis by placing a speech- and hearing-impaired individual in a cashier’s job, with some simple workplace adaptations.
Three months later, the retailer ran a survey to ask their customers for feedback, and 95% of the respondents said that having a “silent” cashier had led to faster service. This insight—higher efficiencies, near-zero errors in an industry where margins are small—opened up almost 50,000 cashiering jobs for youth with disability in the retail sector.
Hiring youth with disabilities is not just about matching profiles to jobs. We do sensitisation workshops, low-cost adaptations, accessibility audits, going as far as to sync companies’ existing software to ensure that hired youth are productive. Otherwise, it merely reiterates the myth that youth with disabilities cannot work.
We did this with the automotive industry. We started with one company, Valeo, and hardwired all our best practices over there. More importantly, their HR director and I started talking about these innovations and the value provided by these youth at conferences and forums. As a result, 15 more auto companies started hiring youth with disability.
Typically, skilling organisations give youth job-specific training—like say a three-day training in folding clothes. However, the danger with this approach is that if the folding clothes process stops, so does their job. It is important, therefore, irrespective of the sector, to teach English, communications, and life skills—skills that they can take across jobs. This allows them to be mobile across jobs and capitalise on the opportunities available.
An executive from a multinational company that we at Youth4Jobs work with said that our alumni manage 75 forms a day versus their average of 45-50. Once companies experience the business case and see the results, their senior executives become champions for the programmes.
It is likely that one day, a particular state might suddenly decide to make the hiring of youth with disability mandatory in sync with the Right to PwD Act 2016 which speaks to the right of disabled to education and employment. And if that happens, other states will follow. It is important that companies are ready for it when it happens.
About the author: Meera Shenoy is the founder of Youth4Jobs, where she works on skilling young people with disabilities. She has been at the forefront of job-linked skilling for rural youth, tribal youth, and now youth with disabilities, at a scalable level. She was previously Executive Director, Employment Generation and Marketing Mission (EGMM), the first state government skilling mission. Meera has also consulted with the World Bank and the UNDP.