Odisha makeover

The skill story: Odisha shows the way under CM Naveen Patnaik

Print edition : May 20, 2022

ITI students in their new uniforms. Photo: Odisha Skill Development Authority

Aswatha Narayan, who won India’s first gold at the World Skill Competition in Kazan, Russia. Photo: photographs: Odisha Skill Development Authority

Muni Tiga, a tribal girl who works as a loco pilot with the Railways in Odisha. Photo: Odisha Skill Development Authority

Sumati Nayak of Bhadrak, who is currently employed as department manager at Westside, Coimbatore. Photo: Odisha Skill Development Authority

The State’s Skilled-in-Odisha initiative is transforming lives with Industrial Training Institutes as the springboard, with substantial investment in all-round personality development and focus on employability.

2016: The Beginning

Odisha’s skill story begins in the year 2016. This is when the Odisha Skill Development Authority was formed at the behest of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. The one-line charter for the newly constituted Authority was to build an aspirational brand called ‘Skilled-in-Odisha’. According to him, the authority should look beyond skill development as an end-goal and aim at creating recognition for our youth at the global level. He said that a day must come when future employers ask their potential employees: “Are you skilled or are you Skilled-in-Odisha?”

This overarching aspiration meant three things: in the short term, high-quality employers should make a beeline for lock-in talent from Odisha’s skill training institutions. In the mid term, global employers must come to Odisha in search of extraordinary talent. And finally, in the long term, Odisha must be known as a sandbox for innovation in the world of skill development. Great ideas, worthy of being replicated elsewhere, must be tried in Odisha first. Towards this, we created a three-fold strategy to “Fix, Scale, Accelerate”.

What it meant was that first, we had to fix the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) system. In India, ITIs and IITs [Indian Institutes of Technology] were set up around the same time. Both were critical for India to make true progress as an industrial economy right after Independence. Unfortunately, in successive decades, the ITI as an institution receded in stature even as IITs lunged forward. ITIs became synonymous with failed aspirations and blocked dreams. Any high school student who had all the doors slammed on him went to an ITI. The ITI was seen by many people as a failed institution. Our job was to make it aspirational.

10-6-4-2: Getting the Role Models

For starters, we changed the report card for the ITI Principals. For this, we used the 10-6-4-2 formula. Every ITI had to tell us about their successful alumni, ahead of everything else. It had to name 10 students of whom it was truly proud. Every teacher needed to know the personal story of each of these students to present them as role models to be emulated by skill trainees. For example, they needed to know what family circumstances these 10 students came from, what their transformation was at the ITI, how they overcame the odds and where they were placed after finishing training. Of the 10 names, six had to be students who had made a mark outside the State. Also, of the ten, four had to be women. Finally, two had to be stories of entrepreneurship.

The 10-6-4-2 formula caught everyone’s fancy because everyone loves a delightful story. Today, every ITI can highlight its role models who inspire others to follow their examples. The first such role model was Muni Tiga, an Adivasi girl who lost her father early in life. She came to an ITI to train for two years. After her training, today she has become a loco-engine pilot with the Indian Railways where she hauls trains between Bhubaneswar and Palasa every day.

Nunaram Hansda, another tribal student, came to ITI Rourkela where he always ran short of his mess dues by Rs.30 a month. His teachers pooled together the deficit and let him study. Today, he runs the insulin manufacturing line at Biocon. Similarly, Soumendra Das, who trained at ITI Puri, became a trainee at Tata Motors and then quit his job to start an auto body repair garage, where today he employs 80 people and clocks revenues of Rs.8 crore.

Building self-confidence first

The next thing was to make ITI students self-confident. Over the years, they looked like a ragtag bunch. The State roped in the National Institute of Fashion Design to suggest a new set of uniforms for them. The smart-looking outfits with the ‘Skilled-in-Odisha’ logo monogrammed on them were introduced for the boys and girls so that they felt proud of going to an ITI. For weekends, the students were given sportswear. The onetime switch to the new set of uniforms cost the State Rs.14 crore.

Unlike the past, today ITI students play contact sports and compete at State-level ITI fests that celebrate their debating, acting and artistic talents. They look forward to going to class because there are other cool things to do as well.

Among the many other interventions at the ITI level, a significant one was the concept of a change agent to work with young students for enhancing their life skills. For this, we decided to send bright skill trainers from outside to every ITI on a two-year fellowship to augment technical training with life skills. Today, 93 Change Leaders and Project Managers 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, girls accounted for less than 6 per cent in ITIs. Today that figure has crossed 20 per cent and the eventual goal is to cross 33 per cent.

Odisha’s ITIs boast of skill museums and open-air art installations that display their technical and design prowess. They take pride in their social outreach in times of natural disasters, from fixing household gadgets in flood-hit Kerala to helping restore power after Cyclone Fani battered Odisha in 2019.

The next step was to create a new sense of direction and ambition among the teachers themselves. For the first time in India, the State sent 215 ITI teachers and administrators to ITE Singapore, considered one of the best skill institutions in the world. Some 90 per cent of these teachers did not even have a passport until then, which indicated their own personal lack of outlook and ambition. These teachers, upon their return from Singapore, crafted the Mission, Vision and Values for what we call the ‘New ITI’.

Short-term job-linked training

Beyond ITIs and polytechnics that provide two- and three-year programmes, the State implements many short-term, employment-linked skill training for those who have dropped out of school after classes 5, 8, or 10, and who do not want to go back to formal education either because they cannot cope or because of socioeconomic compulsions. Such youths train to become retail sales assistants, drivers, janitors, health-care assistants, domestic electricians, industrial sewing machine operators and so on.

The flagship programme for such training is the DDU-GKY scheme of the Government of India that provides 75-day residential training in many domains. Odisha has been adjudged by the Government of India as the best performing State for DDU-GKY implementation for the last three years in a row. The famed Tirupur textile belt of Tamil Nadu critically depends on skilled Odia workers, mostly from DDU-GKY, whose deft fingers produce international labels from Diesel, Guess, and H&M to Mark & Spencer’s and Tommy Hilfiger.

Among the thousands of beneficiaries is Sumati Nayak, a class 10 passout from Bhadrak who could not speak any language other than Odia. Today, she is a department manager at Westside, Coimbatore. Another success story is that of Damayanti Swain, a girl from Kendrapada who was selected by Tata Advance Systems, Hyderabad, where she currently builds aircraft bodies for Boeing and Pilatus.

World Skill Centre

In line with the ambition to create a globally employable workforce, the State decided to set up the World Skill Centre at an outlay of nearly $193 million, something that would be “too large to ignore”. Today, it has come up in Bhubaneswar and is housed in an 18-storey, state-of-the-art building, spanning half a million square feet. It has rolled out one-year courses designed with the help of ITEES, the education consulting arm of ITE Singapore, in areas such as precision engineering, vertical transportation, air-conditioning and refrigeration, apart from certain creative economy courses such as beauty and hair care. Through several other programmes, the World Skill Centre will directly and indirectly impact 1.5 lakh youth by 2024.

The Centre will be run with expert guidance of an expatriate leadership team from ITEES which will eventually transfer the ability to a local leadership team. It is part of a larger skill ecosystem in the State that is being strengthened further.

Competing in Kazan

A key part of the ‘Fix, Scale, Accelerate’ strategy was using the spirit of competition among youth for making skills aspirational. Towards this, in 2017, the State decided to participate in the India Skills Competition 2018, which was a precursor to the World Skill Competition at Kazan, Russia, in 2019.

In preparation for Kazan, Odisha set up ‘Mission: 123’, which meant that Odisha would strive to get India one gold, two silvers and three bronzes. Towards this, Skills 2018 was conducted in Bhubaneswar for the very first time, with over 5,000 youth competing in different trades. At the national level, Odisha surprised everyone with the second largest medal tally in the country, slightly behind Maharashtra.

More importantly, three participants from Odisha represented India at World Skills 2019 and one of them, Aswatha Narayan, brought India her very first gold medal. After the World Skill Competition in Kazan, the next one will be held in Shanghai in October 2022. Towards preparing for this, the Government of India held the India Skills Competition 2021 in Delhi. This heralded Odisha’s moment of crowning glory. Odisha ranked first among all States with the highest medal tally in all three categories. A large contingent is now getting ready under ‘Mission: 234’: this time, the goal is to get India two golds, three silvers and four bronzes at the World Skill Competition in Shanghai.

Sandbox for Innovation

Based on the original charter to make Odisha a sandbox for innovation, many breakthrough ideas have been created out of Odisha. One of them is the Nano-Unicorn programme. Nano-Unicorns are tiny enterprises set up by skilled youth that may generate just one or two jobs at the village or small town level. To find a potential Nano-Unicorn, we scout for talent at the ITI level as well as among trainees in short-term skill programmes for their entrepreneurial aptitude. We listen to their dreams and if we like their story, we send them to attend a two-week, mini-MBA programme where the person can further hone the business idea.

At the end of the program, we bring in Rs.1 lakh from philanthropic funds and get the Nano-Unicorn off the ground. If the individual repays the money in a year, there is no interest charged, and after that, it is less than the bank interest rates. A pilot initiative has been rolled out with 433 Nano-Unicorns and the government aims to step this up to 3,000.

Skill Vision 2030

Odisha’s skill efforts are in the middle of a rejig. The State is working on Skill Vision 2030. The idea is to create a blueprint for the future. It has chosen 2030 as a milestone because it coincides with the sunset of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations for 2030.

The exercise begins with an analysis of global trends that would have discontinuous impact on the future of work, employment, and entrepreneurship. In tune with the trends, the study would look at the “As-Is” condition of skill preparedness of the State and then look at the “Could-Be” and the “Should-Be” scenarios. The government wants to plan for a differentiated position for the State to make it a global benchmark for skill development and human transformation in the decade ahead.

The government plans to take a sectoral view of the opportunities ahead, relook at the skill infrastructure that is available today and create district-level playbooks for each of the State’s 30 districts. The visioning process would entail drawing from the insights from a multi-disciplinary team of design thinkers, economists, sociologists, market analysts, technology and development sector specialists, and domain experts with thought leadership and experience in large-scale transformation and change management.

In Odisha, the journey of the last six years has raised the idea of skill development to a very different level. As the goalpost for human development moves in the coming decade, the State is confident of executing a new script.

Subroto Bagchi is Chairman, Odisha Skill Development Authority, and author of Go Kiss the World.