October 2013 | Sangeeta Menon

'The Tata group has always believed in nation building'

Dr Mukund Rajan, chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives, speaks to Sangeeta Menon on why Tata companies are joining hands to address the skills-building priority

Tata companies have been involved in skills-development initiatives of their own. Why did the group feel the need to take up this initiative collectively?
One reason is the economic landscape that we have in India today. We estimate that some 140 million young people will enter the workforce over the next decade. The biggest concern is whether these young people are going to have the right skills. The industry finds that the people coming into the workforce currently are not always appropriately skilled; companies have to invest a fair amount in retraining them.

If we don’t provide the right skill sets and render people employable, then huge numbers of unemployed young people could be on the streets in an environment where a fair amount of affluence exists. So we run the risk of society witnessing tensions. While it is a national issue, it is also a need of the companies. One of the most serious shortages faced by companies is that of the right labour force, with the right skills to deliver projects on time, even in basic trades such as plumbing, welding and carpentry.

Mr Ramadorai has been a huge inspiration. He is the advisor to the prime minister on skills development and a lot of our focus on why this is important for our country has come from him. This group-wide activity was really triggered by a presentation he made to Group Chairman Cyrus Mistry. The Chairman immediately felt this resonated strongly with all that our group stands for, and it leverages very well the capabilities and expertise of our group companies.

We are approaching this collectively because we want to make sure that in corporate social responsibility [CSR], we embrace a few initiatives where the collective is greater than the sum of the parts. We must create a national impact. Most of our companies will have something to contribute and it is not something removed from our core competency or belief system. Many of our companies are already doing these things, but the impact is often only local. The scale that the companies can create if they work together is larger than what any industrial house can achieve in India.

How will the group reconcile the nation-building intent with business benefit?
From our perspective there is no profit motive. But what will certainly help the companies is that they can meet their own requirement for skilled labour. They can also share their training facilities with other corporate entities and the government, involve their employees in this initiative including as volunteers, and achieve a sense of satisfaction for giving back to society.

With skills development becoming a major agenda, what impact do you anticipate on the group’s CSR efforts?
I don’t see any significant realignment of activities. What we would probably see is a closer and more transparent link between the CSR activity and the company’s core business capability.

What challenges do you anticipate with this initiative?
As we research the space, we are discovering new things. For instance, it is not enough to put up the necessary infrastructure for training; driving traffic into those training centres could be a challenge. Part of the problem lies in poor communication and awareness. The government needs to create awareness about these programmes, that they could lead to potential employment. That could encourage people to get enrolled, even travel long distances to get skilled. There are several incentives provided by the government to make these programmes attractive, but tapping them in the right way is important.

This programme will be a huge learning for us because we are trying to significantly multiply the capability we have created so far. But this is something we are committed to doing. It speaks for the ethos of the group, which has always believed in nation building.

This article is a part of a special report on a skills-building initiative by the Tata group, published in the October 2013 issue of Tata Review
Overview
Where the collective strengthens the idea
‘If anyone can pull this off, it is the Tata group’
Indian Hotels: A hospitable future
Tata Advanced Systems: Giving wings to aspirations
Tata Chemicals: Crafted to provide hope
Tata Consultancy Services: Enabling a better future
Tata Motors: Driven by commitment
Tata Power: Independence is the elixir
Tata Projects: The approach is integrated
Titan Company: Timed to seize the day