LiveMint-and-The-Wall-Street-Journal-in-IndiaEnabling access to vocational training content on cellphones

Ganesh at his office in Tharamani, Chennai. Photo: Sharp Image

 OCTOBER 21, 2013 : CHENNAI: Ganesh B, who was heading a vocational training centre for the Kohinoor group in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan in 2009, had to grapple with the chronic problem of student dropouts.
Most of his students would not turn up three to four days in a week, so Ganesh set out to find the reason.
While the students did not find the course fee of Rs.500 burdensome, the cost of travelling from their village to the training centre in a week burnt a deeper hole in their pockets.
It is estimated that about 15 million Indian students drop out of school every year. The gross enrollment ratio in higher education in India is at 17.9%, much below the the global average of 27%.
The government has set an ambitious target to train 500 million people by 2022 to help them acquire vocational skills and provide an efficient workforce for industry. There is a shortage of trained manpower and even the available talent does not match the requirements of industry.
School dropouts fail to go for mainstream education for several reasons, including ineligibility, the family’s financial conditions, academic pressures and regulatory requirements, said 34-year-old Ganesh.
Ganesh observed that most people in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar enjoyed watching videos of Hindi film songs on their Chinese mobile phones.
“When you travel in the hinterland of these states, you hardly come across a Nokia or a Samsung mobile phone, and movie song downloads for Rs.10 is very popular,” said Ganesh, who finished his Fulbright-Nehru-Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) fellowship in management from Carnegie Mellon University in 2012.
He was wrestling with the idea for a few years but took the plunge in August 2012 and officially started SkillTrain in March in Jabalapur, Madhya Pradesh. The company records videos of the module that students can download on their mobile phones for free and learn from it.
SkillTrain offers four courses—mobile repairing, electronics, computer science and computer hardware—that extend from 12 to 20 modules. It plans to extend it to wider subjects such as welding, two-wheeler and automobile mechanic, electrician, plumbing and tailoring next year.
The students can access the course content through their phones and also online.
The advantage for students is that they can access the course content whenever they want and at their convenience. Most students work in unskilled jobs but would like to improve their earning ability by getting trained as an electrician or plumber, said Ganesh, who was earlier the head of content in Everonn Education Ltd. when it started out as a sat ellite-based education provider.
A student can take up one course and try it for a week or two, and if he feels it does not suit his capabilities then he can move on to something which interests him.
“We want to reach as many students as we can. That’s why we have kept it free. Finally, only those who are really interested in bettering their lives will join,” said Ganesh.
Of the more than 500 students who had shown interest, only 145 students in the age group of 15 to 25 have enrolled.
The model has better acceptability as it can be scaled to any regional language as well as a dialect for better understanding on learning the nuances of vocational skills. After each module, which would involve a couple of lessons, a telephonic evaluation for the students is conducted.
Since the courses offered require practical training, SkillTrain has tied up with workshops in and around Jabalpur. So students can spend an hour at the mobile workshop by paying Rs.10 or Rs.20 for practical learning; this is the only cost to be incurred by the students, said Ganesh.
The Chennai-based start-up also helps students get government certification for their skills for a fee between Rs.300 and Rs.800. Once they secure the certificate, the fee is returned to the students.
It is the student’s choice whether he or she wants to continue as a skilled technician or seek the help of SkillTrain.
How does SkillTrain, which started with a seed capital of Rs.6 lakh, plan to make money?
“We will create a verified database of certified candidates for employment purposes, and organizations who want to tap them can pay and subscribe to this database,” said Ganesh. He admits that this would be a challenge, but there is immense potential if SkillTrain is able to build the required scale. The firm is in talks with a couple of investors for funding to expand its operations to other places.