Priya Agrawal
Ashoka Fellow since 2015   |   India

Priya Agrawal

Antarang Foundation
Priya Agrawal’s initiative, Antarang, is challenging the paradigms in career linkages for children from low income backgrounds who are at a high risk of dropping out of the education stream and…
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This description of Priya Agrawal's work was prepared when Priya Agrawal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


Priya Agrawal’s initiative, Antarang, is challenging the paradigms in career linkages for children from low income backgrounds who are at a high risk of dropping out of the education stream and falling into the informal exploitative sector. She is striving to break the stereotypes around job opportunities deemed fit for these children and looking at equipping them with soft skills as well as social wherewithal to pursue a career, not just job, of their choice. She is working with an empowering process of reflection and marriage of strengths and reality with dreams to give a path to each child to stay the course and make good of a life at a high risk of falling through the cracks.

The New Idea

Priya is taking at risk children - school dropouts/potential dropouts in urban slum communities, juveniles in conflict with the law and those engaged in the informal, exploitative sector - through a transformative journey which enables them to articulate their desired career paths, set goals and chart a realistic course of action to achieve them. Her work is ensuring that children from this underprepared space who would otherwise not even be able to consider formal employment options get an opportunity to do so. By enabling them to become actors, film producers, scuba divers, accountants, or entrepreneurs who start small enterprises, she is breaking stereotypes around job opportunities for children from low income backgrounds, moving them from exploitative work spaces and preparing them for the growing organized sector in India. The projected demand of 500 million people with skills for the organised sector bears testimony to the need in the sector.

Priya is repurposing ‘employability’ programs for these youth from ones that focus on the most easily available low skill requirement jobs to ones that can empower youth with the social wherewithal and deliberate long term plan to pursue a ‘career’ of their choice. She enables the most vulnerable children to align their reality and aspiration while simultaneously becoming more confident. Her ‘career ready’ program is designed to ensure that they have support to not only ‘get placed’ but also have the skills and backing to navigate and adapt to new environments post placement. For example, seeing social and cultural gaps being critical in many youth dropping out of jobs, she conducts sessions to expose them to settings that may typically cause discomfort to children from low income backgrounds, such as restaurants or office conference rooms or western toilets. She has also built a strong community of professionals who come on board as mentors to guide the youth until they successfully complete the first year on their final placements. This has helped ensure that dropout rate of her graduates in the first year of placement is only 20% (as against national average of 80%).

Priya has identified missing pieces that are the cause of failure of traditional career linkage programs (particularly for at risk youth) and has designed a sequence of interventions that can be plugged into existing models to help them reach their full potential. She demonstrates the entire chain of the interventions through her work at Antarang and sees opportunity in tapping Government schemes that focus on training the youth toward employment and other citizen sector organisations in that aim to reinstate at risk youth to scale her impact.

The Problem

Increase in the share of youth population due to demographic ‘dividend’ seems to be one of the sources of future economic growth in India. However, despite increase in school and college enrolment rates, the proportion of youth in the labour force has been declining (labour force participation rate for ages 15-24 was 37.5% as of 2011; a marked decline from 51.1% in 1990). Their low proportions in the labour force indicate that the problem of youth unemployment and underemployment would remain a serious policy / social issue for many more years to come in India.

This is because the growing numbers of youth do not have the skills needed to pursue a viable livelihood. A majority of such youth does not have elementary school education –more than 40% of children drop out of schools every year. Such children specifically do not have the opportunity to acquire skills and build careers outside of schools.

Existing vocational training courses run by the Government through ITIs (Industrial Training institutes), are heavily biased toward the manufacturing and technical trades and only target students who have cleared 10th grade. Further, even three years after graduation, over 60% of all ITI graduates remain unemployed, close to two-thirds are not employed in the trade for which they were trained – a third of these having been trained in obsolete trades. As a result, ITI graduates often feed into the unorganised sector working as instrument mechanics, electricians, plumbers, welders etc. CSOs working with at risk youth also typically limit their interventions to ‘skills’ training that usually lands the beneficiaries in unorganised enterprises ranging from pushcart vendors to home-based diamond and gem polishing operations to carpenters or drivers.

Further the goals of all these programs are limited to securing any available job for minimum financial security. The youth often get stuck in the rut of jobs that keep them in a state of “working poverty”. Designed to instil specific technical skills in large number of youth, they fail to build careers for youth based on the interests and aspirations of each child or address the skill needs of the industry. Also with key metrics limited to ‘placement’ numbers, they fail to engage youth/ employers to improve retention rates post placement. There is evidence of dropout rates as high as 80% within the first year of placement in most vocational centers. The complete disregard of the basic human propensity to continue to engage in a vocation that is enjoyable and of interest contributes highly to such dropout rates. Also many youth, from marginalized backgrounds, face social and cultural issues in their jobs such as awkwardness in requesting for leave or under confidence in conducting themselves in the office environment. Soft skills, such as punctuality, work ethic, social etiquette and skills that are critical to a smooth transition into a work environment are scarcely factored into programs.

As a result, most such children who drop out of schools fall to the side-lines and often into delinquency- arrests made under the Juvenile Justice Act have risen from 30,985 in 2003 to 41,639 in 2013. Considerable proportions find themselves in informal work arrangements. They work in low-paid, low-skilled jobs that may be part-time, temporary or seasonal; frequently under precarious conditions, moving from one employer to another at the prospect of a few hundred rupees more.

There is therefore a need for a renewed, nuanced perspective on possibilities for them.

The Strategy

To ensure effective career linkages within the organised sector for at risk youth, Priya Agrawal set up Antarang in 2012. Antarang works in partnership with CSOs with strong community mobilisation skills in 11 slum communities in Mumbai and two in Varanasi to identify at risk children in their communities. Each group has around 22-25 children between age 17 - 25 years. Typically, 60% of each group may have dropped out already or are at high risk of doing so, 20% may have very little or no schooling and the remaining 20% may have been enrolled in undergraduate courses.

Priya’s uniqueness lies in her unflinching belief that these children need to be given the legitimacy to dream and the tools to assist and motivate them to stay the course. She achieves this through a 42 session (close to 100 hours) “Career Ready” program delivered by facilitators armed with skill sets and mind-sets to translate the adolescent’s dreams into a lucid career path/life path with tangible milestones. The curriculum works on concepts and frameworks that many of the children think about for the very first time in their lives. Starting from what strengths look like, to identifying some of their own to working with Rosenberg’s scale of self-esteem; the children explore critical questions such as “What is the link between regularity, punctuality, initiative and how people perceive me at my job?”

Besides working on these softer aspects, the curriculum also necessitates taking a pragmatic look at the skill sets required for the career in question, be it a minimum qualification, eloquent English or computer literacy. The children are taken through a powerful process of reflection – none of them is dissuaded from dreaming, instead they are persuaded to plot the milestones in the journey from their current reality to their dream. Drawing from their strengths and aspirations, children create goals for a range of careers. For example children from one of the communities in Mumbai that is situated next to the docks are looking at being yachting instructors given their comfort with the sea, swimming skill and practical knowledge.

Then; be it returning to night school to make minimum qualification requirements, being a pizza delivery boy to understand customer satisfaction (as an aspiring retail store manager) or notching up skills, training and the confidence to interact in English while serving at Starbucks; the children are able to clearly articulate the value they need to be deriving out of a seemingly menial job and how it will help them advance along their chosen career path. This helps the children stay motivated and persist through challenging situations.

Antarang does robust back integration to build their repertoire of career linkages and understand the exact skills (in terms of physical attributes and personality dispositions) needed for a range of careers such as bouncers, scuba diving instructors, and film production assistants, fitness trainers, marketing professionals or social workers.

Antarang spends considerable time working on mind-sets and enlisting the support of parents and the larger community for these children so that they are geared for success. Priya has carefully dismembered the layers of issues that negatively impact the ability to secure and retain jobs for this demographic. She therefore also addresses bringing down the social awkwardness quotient among these children. Through sessions on how to use a western toilet to etiquette at a lunch table to professional conversational protocol; Antarang ensures that their mind space is free from anxieties related to social embarrassment. Exposure visits to large corporations and interaction with employees further fuels motivations to stick to career plans and not fall prey to the short term temptation of the informal sector.

Antarang aspires to create water tight processes to ensure that the children do not fall through the cracks at any stage. Therefore , Antarang integrates a one-on –one mentoring plan to support them through weekly phone calls and monthly in person meetings after the 42 hour classroom module and until they successfully complete the first year on final placements. Mentors (professionals who volunteer to support a child) help with handling everyday situations at the workplace that may prove challenging and simple literacy points such as who to address an e-mail chain to and who to place on “cc”. The fact that Antarang has had only 20% job drop outs in the first year of placement bears testimony to the efficacy of the process. The dropouts are also tracked after a reflective cooling off period to help them process the experience and articulate the root cause behind not having persisted. With a positive reputation taking hold in the market, prospective employers have begun taking the initiative of contacting Antarang e.g. when Burger King was opening a branch in Mumbai.Of the 200 students that have graduated from the “career ready” program (400 enrolled) 44% have gone back to education, 22% have been placed after meeting the minimum educational requirements and the remaining are self-employed.Besides scaling the program from 32 to 55 groups in the upcoming year, Priya seeks to broaden the definition of “at risk” youth to encompass the most disregarded children in society. Antarang is therefore piloting their program with juveniles in conflict with the law at two sites in Varanasi and attempting to begin working with the “CNCP” (Children in Need of Care and Protection) who are often left to their own devices at 18 when they exit government homes. In order to further avert younger dropouts from enrolling in exploitative jobs or taking to lives of crime, Antarang aspires to activate the Amendment to the Apprenticeship Act (passed in November 2014) that mandates companies in 45 sectors to take on paid interns within the age group of 14 – 18 years, giving them valid work experience certificates while ensuring that they are simultaneously provided with educational opportunities as the directive mandates interns to work for a maximum of six hours. Antarang is currently linking up with organisations that need to hire apprentices as per law.To be able to tackle the problem at scale Priya has been earnestly looking at Government programs to find avenues for partnerships/pilots. She sees opportunity with the recently announced Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) which has a budget of Rs. 1500 crore. PMKVY hopes to cover 24 lakh youth providing training in soft skills, personal grooming, behavioural change for cleanliness and good work ethics. A monetary reward will be given to trainees on assessment and certification by third party assessment bodies. The average monetary reward would be around Rs 8,000 per trainee. The scheme will also provide mentorship support and placement facilitation. Priya is now committed to initiate conversations with the Government to exponentially increase her target community.

The Person

Priya made a switch into the social sector in 2002 after an 11 year long career in advertising and market research and has never looked back since. Deeply shaken by a severe incident of child abuse that she witnessed at a busy traffic junction in Mumbai, in a leap of faith, Priya found herself writing a cold e-mail to Shaheen Mistry (Ashoka fellow and founder of Akanksha) expressing her desire to do something more valuable. The conversation with Shaheen, three days after writing the e-mail, led her to join Akanksha in 2012 as General Manager.

During her six years at Akanksha while many stories of personal change inspired her, there were a few annotations that began to play on her mind. She noticed that despite going through the robust after school Akanksha program, transition to a work life is always particularly challenging for children from the low income demographic; the grey zone between education and employment is not merely a function of English speaking skills (as was largely perceived) and that this gap is critical because if education does not translate into life improving opportunities it results in disillusionment/ loss of faith in education across communities. Another aspect that bothered her was the number of children just “hanging around” in communities. As she would later find out, these were early dropouts who thought they could begin working after 14, however usually failed to find employment before 18 and led psychologically, socially and physically damaging lives in the interim.While these thoughts played at the back of her mind, Priya transitioned to SNEHA (another Ashoka fellow led organisation working with low income communities across a spectrum of health and life skills issues) as Operations Director. The thought threads from Akanksha continued to develop and as she deeply pondered the question of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty, the Antarang idea was born.

Post SNEHA a year long stint at AANGAN Trust (community organisation lead by Ashoka Fellow Suparna Gupta) as Senior Advisor saw the layers in the Antarang idea develop simultaneously. Priya finally founded Antarang in the year 2012 to systemically address the gaps between education and productive employment for high risk youth.

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