Chris is bringing a career readiness program to students of Government Colleges in India, thus preparing a large percentage of the population to be career ready, resilient, and successful for the job market.
The New Idea
The skill development sector in India has been one of the major focus areas for the government. With millions of jobs needing to be filled to continue to spur the country’s economic growth, it has become increasingly important to ensure that a trained cadre of the workforce is ready to take up these jobs. The aggressive push towards technical skill development and placement, however, has ignored the fact that human beings also strive depending on whether or not they have confidence, self-belief and the soft skills required to navigate the challenges they face.
Chris believes that if career mentoring, employment exposure and skill development are institutionalized into colleges while students are still studying, then there is a much greater chance of an engaged, productive, and employable workforce. Through his organization, Medha Foundation, Chris is working with government and low-income colleges across India to normalize career counselling and early internship exposure within these institutions. In doing so, Chris is creating an ecosystem where each stakeholder is empowered with the tools, resources, and skills they need to contribute to developing the supply of India’s workforce.
Playing the role of an ‘architect’, Chris identifies and works with various stakeholders within the system by either creating new roles for them to play or reinventing what their existing roles are. By working with employers in sectors that are responsible for the majority of employment in the country, he not only understands the needs of the industry but also co-creates curriculum that enables employees to thrive in these contexts beyond technical capacities. By working with a spectrum of low-income government colleges, Chris is enabling schools to develop the capacity of their teaching faculty as well as their systems to take career counselling forward and integrate it as a core and essential part of a student’s journey. Finally, by setting up an internship marketplace for students while they are still in school, Chris is creating early exposure to contexts and workplaces that the youth will have to navigate in the future.
By engaging the school administration and larger community in the process, Chris is ensuring that there is a buy-in outside of his organization. By concretely showing evidence of the model’s impact, community colleges and stakeholders around them become champions for this to be taken to many other students. At the crux of Chris’s vision is ensuring that the aspirations, skillsets and needs of young people are understood and tailored for while they are about to enter the workforce. By empowering these youths through the tools and resources needed to choose the right career at the right time, he is creating a complete shift in them from seeing a job as just a means towards something, to seeing their futures as careers they need to invest in.
India today has the world’s youngest population, with an average age of 29. This means the country has a high demographic dividend where a large percentage is of working age and can actively contribute to the economy. As per a report released by Team Lease Pvt Ltd, apprenticeships or internships for students before they formally enter the workforce is the most effective skilling and employment tool to ensure gainful employment. India today needs to fill close to 120 million jobs across 24 key sectors, including logistics, retail, and automobiles, thus highlighting the need of a ready workforce. To meet this growing need however, the required skills and attitude to enter the workplace needs to be developed.
Skill development is an important functionary for any economy to meet its demand and achieve growth. The paradigm with skill development however has been restricted to only looking at meeting the growing needs of the economy by simply skilling and facilitating employment opportunities. This restrictive approach does not cater to the fact that the majority of youth who go through these skill development programs are first generation job seekers in their families and need much more holistic support for them to succeed. The skills they require go beyond technical expertise; what they need is the ability to be able to assimilate into new environments and navigate the complexities of the workplaces that they have never experienced before.
Given there is an accelerated growth rate of first-generation job seekers entering the workplace, without proper exposure, these youths tend to drop out within the first few months of starting a job. This level of job preparedness and a career mind set is not something that can be developed through skill development but is actually acquired through exposure in the workplace. The skill development programs of the country today have mastered the ability to create linkages and ensure employment, but what they have not been able to do is help students transition into new cities, environments and worlds that are much different from the ones they have grown up in.
The US Department of Labor estimates that 65% of today’s school children will end up working in jobs that do not currently exist. This data points at the need of career counselling and need of constant change of curriculum to match the needs of the market. Studies from the developed part of the world has shown the impact of career counselling at the right time leads to satisfaction at work related factors like salary but also non-economic factors like career crystallization and achievement. In India, this problem is further exacerbated by the fact that students, especially from government schools, have no opportunities for internships and apprenticeships that are institutionalized and offered to them at an early stage in their career, especially while they’re still at school. Where there are career readiness programs and counselling, it is usually exclusive to expensive private colleges, away from the access and purview of the majority of students who are at government colleges.
Disproportionately the burden of unemployment falls on young women, who also because of cultural reasons are perpetuated into family restrictions of their own movement. Young women are merely put through educational institutions because it is a badge for them to get married to a good groom, as opposed to being seen as legitimate force for economic contribution to their households. Without the absence of a support ecosystem that enables vulnerable groups such as young women to be career minded from a young age as well as secure work experience, there is a danger that they become unemployed for long periods of time and are embedded into this narrative.
Purposefully working with low-income colleges like ITIs, polytechnics and government run colleges, Chris through his organization Medha Foundation is, for the first time, bringing career readiness programs to a large cadre of students who have previously been excluded.
Structured in a four-part model: learn, deliver, build, and partner, Chris’s first point of intervention is to work with employers to study and understand the needs of that particular industry. By gathering data on sectors where students are most interested in as well as where there is greatest potential for employment in the economy, Chris then goes on to co-create curriculum with these employers that cater to the types of skills that are needed to be successful. The focus of this curriculum goes beyond technical capabilities, by also focusing on interpersonal and soft skill development. This curriculum, which is also designed in a student-centric manner, is constantly updated given the changing environment that industries operate in. To be able to update the curriculum, Medha has active partnerships with over 750 employers and a team that takes constant feedback and changes the curriculum as needed. Along with this, students are exposed to work as part of internship placements which enables students to give active feedback on the curriculum and the course. Over the years, Medha Foundation through intervention has seen a 38% increase in income growth of students in the first two years of their job placements.
Secondly, Chris works to integrate this curriculum within the timetables of the college, which unlike other vocational courses, is inside of the school timetable. This is imperative because for many females in India, they are not able to avail anything that might be valuable to them outside of the college timetable as a result of social pressure to be home. This ensures that full availability and inclusivity is there for all students. As well as this, by ensuring that this course is made available to all students, the legitimacy of it becomes more apparent for important stakeholders such as parents. To ensure the sustainability of the entire delivery of the course, Chris works with teachers through a trainer’s model to both be able to deliver the career readiness programs but also upskill teachers into new roles as ‘career counselors’. Through Chris’s intervention, there has been 27% increase in female labor force participation when a baseline and end line was done with students from participating colleges.
Career Counselors, which have been around in many countries across the globe, have been shown to be an effective medium for the long-term career readiness of students. Understanding that there is a need to ingrain this process of getting students to think about how their aspirations and skillsets match with the economic needs of their country, these career counselors play an integral role in providing direction and purpose. A typical session with a career counselor, for example, could range from a discussion that digs deeper into a student’s interest to even undertaking a match-making process to see what careers best align to their aspirations.
Chris is also building a network of local and national organizations that facilitates a marketplace for internships for students while they are still in colleges. Aimed at reducing the risk of underexposure to the workplace and giving an insight into the type of work as well as environment they will be working in, the internship process becomes imperative for students. Chris works with the school administration to be the facilitators of these relationships with employers and the successful completion of the internships.
So far, Medha Foundation has been able to work with 100 educational institutions and over 1000 employers who are in the network. Internships have been offered to 61% of students, of which 90% are with formal sector employers. The evident increase in self-confidence, soft skill development, career readiness and ultimately income of these students, is also being widely attributed to girls and young women who are participating as well.
Realizing the challenges faced by the female labor force, with participation rates in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar at 10-12%, Chris is also actively working with his alumni community of close to 20,000 people through a specific gender lens. As young women are not encouraged to pursue what they are interested in, with the pressure of getting married or to pursue only certain kind of jobs, Chris is designing a program to take a more specific gender approach with the women alumni community to increase engagement, participation and placement of the young women in their communities.
In order to make this entire process sustainable, Chris is involving the school administration, non-teaching staff and teaching staff to be the core tenants of the model. Chris simply sees his role as ensuring that relevant frameworks are given that can empower the system to take this up. Moving forward, Chris aims to work with state governments to take up the framework and ensure that the implementation is done across all colleges. This includes training the government trainers to be the facilitators of the train-the-trainers model in the schools. Ultimately, Chris envisions that there will be increased investment, including financially, to see career counselling as important to a student’s learning journey as other subjects such as Maths and English. Chris has so far signed partnerships with the Haryana and Uttar Pradesh state governments to scale this model.
Chris was born in Massachusetts, Boston and identifies as being a “less studious” child growing up. His parents are second generation immigrants to USA and always believed in a holistic education, so Chris never felt the pressure of getting into the best school or college. He studied in monastery schools which influenced his thinking to take up a different path which is based more on experiential and self-led learning. His parents gave him enough space to do what he wanted to do, which encouraged him to study and then work in India.
Chris had the opportunity to take part in a study abroad program in the year 1999, which first brought him to India. His first trip to India gave him a determination that he wanted to live in the country for the rest of his life and he has been there ever since. With a specific interest in micro-finance as a result of exposure to this model during his time in Dharamshala, Chris went on to do the America-India Fellowship in 2004 where he worked with SKS Micro-Finance.
While in Hyderabad during the Fellowship period, Chris was working with young people, communities, and other stakeholders to facilitate small loans to support localized entrepreneurship ventures. Chris realized during this time that while most young people had an interest in getting formally engaged in the workplace as opposed to venturing into entrepreneurship, many were not able to strive and adapt due to a lack of early exposure and the skills required to navigate the culture, environment and structures in place.
Chris spent the next few years after his graduation from his MBA program doing on-the-ground research to understand this situation further. Working across India through various organizations, Chris’s understanding of the implications of the current model of employment readiness made him realize that it was set up for long term failure. Understanding that a large percentage of the population, who either studied at government colleges or low-income institutions, did not get access to career readiness programs and early job exposure, Chris realized where he needed to intervene. He set up Medha Foundation in Lucknow with the vision of creating a paradigm shift in the aforementioned institutions in India, ultimately solving India’s employability problem.