Seventeen-year-old Suresh has just finished his 2nd PUC. He lives in Chandapura on the south-eastern outskirts of Bangalore. He travels more than 20 kilometres everyday to attend classes on hospitality industry at the Livelihood Advancement Business School (LABS) run by Dr.Reddy's Foundation, pharma major Dr.Reddy's social arm. Suresh has big dreams of starting his own hotel business. This course he says his stepping stone.

There are a significant number of institutions that conduct courses in hotel management in Bangalore. But Suresh cannot afford the fees in any of these colleges. At LABS, these courses are conducted free of cost. The other big reason is that at LABS, the courses are conducted in both Kannada and English language. In particular, if the students do not understand some concepts while it is taught in English, it will be explained in Kannada also. For Suresh who did his entire schooling in Kannada medium this is a big boon. "When I first joined here I do not understand any English. Today I can understand. Talking is a problem. I will improve," (sic) he says in his halting English.

Premnath, coordinator of the programme says, "All our students come from below poverty line (BPL) families. They do not have access to better education which includes English medium schools. That is why we do not charge any fees and ensure that they are trained in every aspect of the job including communication."

LABS conducts three month courses in retail sales management (RSM), hospitality industry and ITES. They also train students in basic computers and spoken English. The students are selected based on their performance in an entrance test. The seats in respective courses are allocated based on it too. One interesting aspect of the admission process is that the parents are also involved. Premnath says, "The parents themselves do not have any idea on the future prospects for their children. So we try to explain the significance of the course and the opportunities thereafter."

The students however are quick to catch on to the importance of such training especially because LABS also ensures placements for successful candidates. 21-year-old Mansoor has just finished his BSc exams and has enrolled for the ITES course. He says "Today there are plenty of opportunities in BPOs but I wanted to make sure I do well in interviews which is why I joined here."

Today’s youth, especially in Bangalore, are drawn towards the IT industry. Kishore dropped out of college after failing the 2nd PUC exams. But today he earns Rs.20,000 a month working at a call centre. Whatever the fallouts of such jobs, success stories like Kishore's are making candidates line up for jobs in the ITES sector. This sector is growing at a phenomenal rate. ITES employed 216,000 people in 2004 and by the year 2006 the number grew to 409,000 (NASSCOM figures). This growth rate is expected to continue till the year 2010.

While for Mansoor vocational education is an opportunity to fair better in interviews, for Suresh, vocational education is perhaps his only shot at getting a good job and ensuring growth thereafter. It is this understanding that has led a number of individuals and organisations to set up Vocational Education Training (VET) for the students from the low income groups.

Abhyudaya is one such organisation. Though it is a federation of resident’s welfare associations of Padmanabhnagar in south Bangalore, over the years the federation has widened its activities beyond the scope of civic issues. Usually resident’s welfare associations are restricted to middle class and upper class families and strictly attend to the civic issues in the locality or an apartment complex. But members of Abhyudaya chose to look beyond and include the poorer families of the locality.

N S Mukunda, founder secretary of Abhyudaya says, "We worked with them over the years and found out that civic amenities were the least of their problems. Their problem was that the children were not getting jobs after completing schooling. Or the jobs were not paying enough. The resident’s specifically asked for job training and guidance for women." The reason for this, he says, was the fact that the men folk never spent all the money earned on the families but instead spent it on liquor and tobacco.

Abhyudaya plans to start training women in retail management in the slum areas of Padmanabhnagar ward in the month of August. The training however will be open to anyone interested; only the fees will be lower for students from poorer families (Rs. 1000/- as compared to the Rs.3500/- for the general category.) The 75 hour course will include theory, practicals and field visits. The only operational issue they anticipate other than cost factor is the language barrier. The women from the slum areas do not have a command over English language. For now Abhyudaya plans to conduct classes in both English and Kannada besides conducting few hours of English speaking classes. "Mainstreaming of the urban poor" is the tenet behind this initiative. Abhyudaya also has plans to introduce dress making and candle making courses in the future.

Still, despite the well recognised fact that employment opportunity in this segment is immense, there is a lack of enthusiasm in some parents to send their children to train in RSM. Sumana R is one such parent. She feels that there is no future in just selling things across the counter. This myth is what needs to be broken says Rama Bharatha Varma, Head of Kerala-based DC School of Management and Technology. Varma teaches marketing for post-graduate students and was in Bangalore on an official visit. Varma says that people must understand the significance of this retail boom and nothing short of a paradigm shift is needed. "It is not just plain old selling and buying as we know it. There is scope for everybody from 10th pass to an MBA graduate to make a career in this field. The industry needs people. All one has to do is train candidates and fill the vacancies," he says.

There is a shortage of skilled employees at the moment. And furthermore, be it retail, hospitality or the ITES segment, the one aspect HR professionals all say is very essential is the communication skills in the candidate. Aishwarya R V, an accent trainer at a call centre of an MNC in Bangalore says "it is very difficult to get the right candidates. We went for campus recruitment recently and over two days more than 700 students attended the interview. At the end of it we recruited just two candidates." The problem she says was that none of the students could string a sentence together in English - a story that is often repeated by the employers.

Employers feel that while it is important that the candidates come in with a certain skillset for respective jobs, it is also imperative that they know to communicate well in English. In the retail outlets for example over the counter sales is almost impossible without the knowledge of English. This is especially the case in cities like Bangalore where a large population is from other states and has little or no knowledge of regional language. Most students this reporter met during the course of writing this article lacked this skill. And the students are aware of it. The parents say schooling in English medium is out of reach for the lower class and the regional language medium schools never give enough importance to English language. They worry that their children will get left behind in the race, they say.

The opening up of the economy has no doubt brought in opportunities galore for businesses. It has also brought in opportunities to people like Suresh to move one step higher in the economic ladder, an opportunity that his parents lacked. However, this is meaningful only if people from all strata of the society have access, than just a privileged few. And this can be achieved by creating a level playing field with right impetus given to English language at the primary and secondary school level in all the schools. In the meantime, bilingual teaching at VET institutes may be the students' best bet.