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The Million Jobs Mission

One of the large gaps in the skilling space is in connecting skills to the right job

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Some years ago, i spent  several days traversing villages in Gadag district of Karnataka meeting rural youth to understand their aspirations. On that trip, I spent a day at Abbigere, a village around 30 kilometres from Gadag town. I vividly remember my conversations with Manjunath, a 12th grade dropout who ran a carpentry shop making furniture for his customers.

We discussed his business and the challenges he faced in terms of finding customers, hiring contract labour for larger orders, working capital, etc. For customer acquisition he had tried all tested methods like word of mouth, distributing pamphlets at local fairs, etc. None of them seemed to have helped. Just a couple of months before my meeting with him, he had hit upon a novel idea that had begun generating good leads. The customer would normally pay anywhere between  
Rs 200–300 to get a new piece of furniture delivered at home. Manjunath would hire a tractor and pay the driver an extra Rs 200 to take a circuitous route to the customer’s home. He would have his nephew on this tractor and had instructed the driver to stop at every important square of the village. Manjunath had armed his nephew with a handwritten pamphlet which mentioned the price of the furniture, to whom it was being delivered and his own contact number. Photocopies of this pamphlet were distributed at every stop to a handful of people.

The prospective customers not only got the details but also got to see the real finished ‘product’ being delivered to a real customer! Every delivery now generated 5–6 inquiries and he converted 1–2 of them into orders!! As I heard this, I was dumbstruck by the ingenuity of the approach and the entrepreneurial thinking!

He also told me that his was one of the few businesses that had a 3-phase power supply in the village. To keep the cash registers ringing, he ran a flour mill that fetched him between Rs 50–100 per day. I also witnessed his customer centricity. Every time a customer walked in, he would cut short our conversation to serve the customer before returning to continue where we had left off.

If a school dropout like Manjunath living in a remote village, with absolutely no enabling ecosystem, could display this kind of an entrepreneurial spirit, imagine what he could have done if he was empowered to dream big, and was supported, in his journey. He could be a job creator for his community, generating incomes for many others! Now imagine if we could identify youth like Manjunath in every village, inspire them to be entrepreneurs and slowly morph them to be job creators in their communities!

Could this be the solution for the looming job crisis that we have in our country? Of the 500 million plus work-force in India, only 50 million have jobs that pay a monthly salary and cover basic social security. Around 220 million workers depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, 100 million are in a variety of trades and services that can be loosely classified as microenterprises and around 100 million are casual workers in construction, mining and manufacturing. Twenty million is roughly the number of unemployed individuals. sIn the next decade, approximately 120 million are expected to enter the workforce. With better enrolments in education, this youth will be more qualified and hence, have higher aspirations.

As per the Ministry of Labour data, only 4,00,000 jobs were created in the formal sector in 2016–17. Assuming a high rate of GDP growth, let’s say another 20 million organised sector jobs would be created in the next decade. We are assuming that these 20 million jobs are created after battling the headwinds of automation, productivity increases, and artificial intelligence among others. This would leave us with 100 million youth whose aspirations for a sustainable income is unmet! India indeed has a huge upcoming job crisis in its hands!

The last 18 years of my journey has given me a view from the trenches of skill development, employability and employment. At MeritTrac, a company that I co-founded, we had assessed millions of graduates and youth on employability skills; at the Head Held High Foundation, we have enabled the total transformation of thousands of illiterate or poorly educated village youth into confident, English-speaking, computer-literate knowledge professionals through a 1,000-hour programme spread across 6 months. Through this, I have learnt that there is immense potential in everyone, and we just need to create an environment that unleashes capabilities. As a partner at Social Venture Partners (SVP) and a co-convener of the Million Jobs Mission, we have worked closely with some of the largest skills/livelihoods organisations in the country in enabling a network that can help these organisations scale their impact.

Ravi Venkatesan (former Chairman, Microsoft, and the Founder-Chairman of SVP India) has been a friend, philosopher and guide since I joined Social Venture Partners (SVP) as a Partner in 2014. Ravi and I have been trying to understand the linkages between skills and jobs, the issues and challenges, and exploring models that can create jobs at scale.

Through all these experiences and discussions, we have begun to understand that one of the large gaps in the skilling space is in connecting skills to the right job – where the job is aspirational, the job has long-term career prospects, and the job is local, without forcing youth to migrate to larger cities in search of jobs. Over the last few years, Skill India has been a rallying cry both at the central and state governments. While effort and money has been expended, we may not have great outcomes to show. The learning seems to be that skill development is not an answer to job creation unless it is tightly coupled with aspirational jobs and sustainable incomes.

We have also learnt that there is no single silver bullet for job creation, and therefore there is a need to localise job creation at a district level. Also, the formal sector can only create a small fraction of the jobs and a large part of job creation must happen in the informal and the SME sectors.

As my own thoughts on entrepreneurship were taking shape, I was fortunate to get an opportunity to work with Arun Maira (former Chairman Boston Consulting Group India and a former Member of the Planning Commission) on the ‘Future of Jobs’ report by CII and BCG. Through a series of consultations and workshops involving over 200 experts, we tried to construct various scenarios of growth and job creation in our country. Of the many scenarios that we created, the one that looked likely to spur widespread growth was a scenario where we have a large number of small enterprises supported by a strong network – and where humans are treated as appreciating assets unleashing their entrepreneurial energies, creativity and innovation. Various conversations with Arun also helped me to understand the ‘systems’ view of job creation and the perspectives of complex, self-adaptive systems.

Based on these learnings, we have arrived at a model termed ‘Rubanomics’. It defines the spirit of the new and emerging rural India. Rubanomics is a combination of:

• Unlimited potential of youth which is largely untapped, as evidenced in our work at the Head Held High Foundation

• Entrepreneurial energy that thrives in people like Manjunath across villages
• Rising aspirations of rural citizens for better products, services and incomes
• Rising onslaught of exponential technologies where the penetration of internet and smartphone is just the beginning.

Applying the Rubanomics lens to view job creation leads to the learning that ‘jobs’ do not mean just livelihoods that enable subsistence, but it is about sustainable incomes with predictability.

It is also about covering basic financial and social security with prospects of growth and a pride of being in that profession. I took these learnings into our social enterprise – 1Bridge – where we are creating a network of rural youth as entrepreneurs to deliver a variety of services in their villages. More on this later in this chapter.

As President Roosevelt said, ‘Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money. It lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work must not be forgotten.’

As Ravi and I discussed and debated these learnings, Ravi was referred to a fascinating book by Edmund Phelps, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, titled Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change. In this book, Phelps argues that most innovation, unlike what conventional wisdom has taught us, is not driven by a few isolated visionaries like Henry Ford or Steve Jobs; rather, it is driven by millions of people empowered to design, develop and market innumerable new products, and make improvements to existing ones.

Think of James Watt, Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer building the steam engine; George Stephenson, an illiterate imagining the locomotive; Thomas Edison from a poor family becoming one of the world’s greatest inventors; Isaac Singer, an illiterate machinist built the sewing machine and John Deere, an illiterate ironsmith created the steel plough.The economies of these countries enabled their grassroots inventors to flourish and thereby triggered the Industrial Revolution. Edmund Phelps argues that American and European societies had ordinary people doing extraordinary things. To quote from his book: ‘These economies brought the experience of engagement, personal growth and fulfillment to ordinary people of varying talents. Even people with few and modest (un-hirable) skills were given the experience of using their minds, to seize the opportunity, to solve a problem, and innovate processes and products. As the number of pioneering entrepreneurs multiplies ultimately overshadowing merchants, as more and more people begin tinkering with methods or products or dreaming up new ones; the experience of work changes radically for more and more people. This revolution results in economies taking off…’

Edmund Phelps was invited by the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang as an advisor, and this resulted in China announcing ‘Mass Entrepreneurship and Innovation’ as a national mission in 2014. In a recent address, Premier Li Keqiang announced: ‘We have launched a mass entrepreneurship and innovation initiative across the country, which greatly unleashed market vitality and social creativity. Since 2014, 14,000 new businesses have been registered daily and the number has topped 16,000 since the start of this year.’

Reports also mention that in the first three quarters of 2016, more than 10 million jobs were created! Therefore, we asked ourselves the question, ‘Is mass entrepreneurship one of the answers for creating large-scale jobs and prosperity in India?’

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