Abhinav Madan is the Co-founder & CEO of Lernern, an EdTech company providing apprenticeship, upskilling & further education opportunities to blue collar workers. Having spent a better part of his career in grassroot level skilling of youth, especially from remote and marginalized communities of East and North East India, he co-founded and led one of India’s leading skill development companies, Gram Tarang for over 12 years after giving up a lucrative corporate career with GE in Europe and returning to India in 2008. Abhinav began his career in the field of analytics, financial planning & business strategy with General Electric & Hewlett Packard based out of Bangalore, Manchester & Amsterdam where he spent the better part of a decade. He partnered with two of his fellow directors at Gram Tarang, to co-found Lernern in September 2020, to focus their efforts on offering affordable and 24x7 accessible, technology-enabled learning to the youth at the bottom of the pyramid.
In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Abhinav Madan shares incredible insights on the significance of industry-academia collaboration, the rising importance of the gig economy and how organisations can leverage skilling opportunities for the frontline workers. Here are some excerpts.
In the last one year, what are some of the key lessons you learned in building up your EdTech start-up, Lernern?
We chose to focus our energies on solving problems of the youth at the bottom of the pyramid through skills, education, and employment. These are social issues that normally take decades to solve, but one thing that the last one year has taught us is that the rate of technology adoption can seriously shorten the learning curves.
From a learner perspective, we found that the fundamental driver for migration into city or industry cluster-based jobs is economics, but they aspire beyond entry-level blue-collar jobs. While the older generation’s aspirations were influenced by cable TV and Bollywood, the influence for youth today comes from social media – Facebook, Instagram & YouTube. Our challenge remains to convert the entertainment time spent on YouTube into learning time on zoom. Learner engagement is the key.
The other thing we learnt was that Universities are keen and eager to engage with youth who cannot afford traditional higher education with INR 1.5 lakh BBA or BSc degrees. Vocational or embedded degrees linked with apprenticeships have come into mainstream vocabulary at governing bodies like UGC, AICTE, DGT etc., but most Universities are struggling with the program design and, more importantly, do not fully understand the target segment for these degrees.
From an industry perspective, we get a consistent message of the need for skilled workers and problems of attrition & productivity. However, it has mostly been absent from the skill development ecosystem that was created in the past decade through NSDC and its network of training partners and government schemes like DDU GKY, PMKVY etc.
While they have been unwilling to spend significant sums of money in skilling the youth, they do become more active and willing participants when the government incentivizes them through schemes like National Apprenticeship Promotion Scheme (NAPS). So, the time is right for us to take these learnings from industry, academia and the learner perspective and design further education programs enabling the youth who are excluded from the higher education ecosystem and create a flexible, affordable & inclusive model enabling them to grow their skills, acquire educational qualifications and build successful careers.
Given how non-traditional hiring has become a significant talent trend this year, what is the impact you wish to deliver to this change?
The industry is making a marked shift towards gig employment. This works well for us as it gives flexibility to the youth to pursue higher education programs and allocate time between earning and learning. We believe that the Lernern model, much like Community Colleges in the United States, will allow people to move seamlessly between work and education.
Technology is an integral part of your business and you have skilfully leveraged it to empower and encourage the growth of blue-collar workers. What do you think will be the role digital solutions will play in the upskilling agenda?
The problem with hands on skills e.g., that of a welder or a house wiring technician is that it still needs touch and feel. No matter how much theory you read or simulations one goes through, nothing can replace the real-world experiential learning, and technology can only be an enhancer or supplement to the process. However, when we partner with the industry, we are able to substitute the requirement of practical workshop training with on-the-job learning and that’s when we can really unlock the advantages of technology enabled blended programs to scale while keeping delivery costs low.
What are some of the top priorities of your organisations this new year? How does it plan to reinvent its business strategy to deliver more?
Lernern was incubated as a start up to pivot from the traditional brick and mortar skilling models that have been tried and tested over the past 12 years in our work in East & North-East India. The entire model adopted by Lernern involves an academia – industry integration which is now being strongly supported by changes in regulation being announced by UGC. The BVoc & Apprenticeship Embedded Degree guidelines are two examples where the regulatory bodies are encouraging industry integration and allowing flexibility in delivery models. We plan to leverage these to help scale and replicate the several pilots on the ground.
In collaborating with industries to ensure employment opportunities, what are some of the challenges that you have encountered?
The key challenge faced in employment of the blue-collar segment is not lack of opportunities but mapping the right skills, qualifications, and demographic profile to the available jobs. The industrial clusters as they have emerged requires youth to migrate from rural areas. As of today, we can easily place 25,000 youth provided they are willing to migrate. Facilitating and handholding this migration and providing the right environment for migrant workers to re-settle and be able to have personal life is the key challenge. For example, China has developed mega scaled low-cost workman hostels and living facilities for migrant workers in industrial belts which has happened in a very unplanned way in India. Here, we rely on the entrepreneurial instincts of the land-sellers in and around Pune, Manesar, Bhiwadi etc. who sold some land for industrial development and built-up hostels for the workers in the nearby areas. The hostels are ill equipped, poorly maintained and do not have proper waste management & water management practices. We feel more support is required in these areas.
From your experience, what is the talent market likely to look like this year?
My answer will be restricted to the blue-collar jobs market. Notwithstanding the ongoing Omicron wave, we see industrial production continue to fuel demand for skilled workers. Automotive may take a bit of a hit as the full-scale impact of semiconductor shortages hits our economy but overall, we haven’t seen a dip in recruitment or demand for workers yet. Of course, hospitality & retail continue to be badly affected and another series of lockdowns is not going to help the cause.
This means, we have those many migrants returning back to the villages who will be open to re-skilling or upskilling for new jobs. One of the major recruiters has been the supply chain & logistics sector as the online delivery market has really grown. This will be another sector that continues to see growth but tends to be a more gig-economy job, which is a higher risk for migrant workers from a village who does not own a bike in the city for delivery and depends on a fixed income to pay his or her rent and manage the migration.
What are some words of advice that you would like to share with fellow leaders working in the talent and upskilling landscape?
As cliche it may sound, it is true that every crisis presents an opportunity. Organizations have had no option but to pivot their business models in response to the ongoing pandemic. If Airbnb, which is a business entirely based on travel and hospitality could have a successful IPO in the middle of a pandemic, there is no reason why companies in the talent and skills ecosystem cannot reinvent themselves and find innovative models by either entering new markets or launching new products. Industry 4.0 was already posing this question to our industry and will continue to present opportunities for reskilling, upskilling and fresh skilling. The pandemic has given us a chance to introspect and reposition ourselves for the future. However, I believe it is important to hold onto one’s raison d’etre during these difficult times, stay true to one’s own mission and operate from one’s position of strength.