There is need for holistic training, in both technical aspects and managerial skills
At our technical institute, students are trained on specific skills required for plant operation, maintenance, generation and synchronisation of captive power, repairing heavy equipments used in mining, and engineering of diesel equipment used specifically in the cement industry. It is this specific cement industry related engineering knowledge that is lacking in the curricula of other institutes. Students must be given hands-on training on all critical machinery, says Behram Sherdiwala, President - Human Resources ACC. Excerpts from the interview.
What is the extent of the skill shortage faced by the industry?
Cement is one of the fastest growing sectors and it is a very important contributor to the growth of any country. The cement sector contributes significantly to the GDP of our nation and the share is rapidly growing. Today we are at around 300 mtpa and the industry is expected to add 30 - 40 mtpa capacity per year. As we grow in terms of capacity, our skill requirement will also grow in parallel fashion. Roughly speaking, each million capacity increase will create a demand for 500 trained workers and engineers.
If you look at the history of ACC, we have been doubling our capacity every ten years and our requirement too, has been growing as a consequence of this accelerated growth. Skill shortage has always been a challenge for the industry. Now as the industry is growing at an even faster pace, the shortage for a skilled force is becoming critical.
What is causing the shortage? How are we coping with it?
When we talk about skilled labour, we do not mean just technically aware personnel. We want people who are industry- ready, people who are well aware of the safety aspects, people who understand and follow good manufacturing practices. These are the skills and attitudes that have to be a part of the basic training given to engineers and should be imbibed in the core behaviour of engineers. Unfortunately, new recruits are not up to the mark and our education system is failing to impart these skills to the students. It then becomes the responsibility of the industry to build up these skills. As you will understand, this takes time and we have to put considerable efforts in getting them industry ready. One way to deal with this is to train your own manpower.
Are Chinese technicians really better than ours in terms of productivity. Is it so and why?
This is an important question. You see, labour productivity is the outcome of several factors which include mental make-up, unemployment pressures, appreciation of company's efforts for labour benefits, a sense of concern in the workforce about the company output. There (in China), workers and personnel are actively aware about the company's actual progress and are enthusiastically and positively geared towards improving productivity. Unfortunately, that is not the case in all the companies in India.
As the quantum of permanent labour in the Indian cement industry is reducing, people are feeling insecure about their employability. It is this insecurity that gives way to unnecessary political interventions in company matters. This affects the morale of the force and ultimately, the productivity of the organisation. To tackle this, we have a maintained healthy communications with our workforce, making them realise that they are an important part of the company. Good relations with our workforce has helped us maintain high productivity levels. Though skill levels play an important role in productivity, it is not the sole factor.
Skilled workers are moving overseas. Do you see this as a challenge for the industry?
No, not really. It is only a small portion of our available force that is moving out. At the most, it is one to two per cent and the outflow is not large enough for the industry to be concerned.
What is your take on industry-academia efforts to bridge the skill shortage gap?
Public- private partnership has been helping the industry. The interaction is there and is growing, but yes, we believe that more can be done. ACC has adopted several institutes where we offer financial and technical support. We have tie-ups with several ITIs across the country and we do have a fair amount of control in the teaching methodology at these institutes. We also support them by conducting technical workshops and giving on-site plant exposure to the students.
What is the actual nature of the skill shortage?
While the number of degree- holders is rising, the quality of students graduating from various streams is deteriorating. The quality of their technical competence is going down, year after year. Besides that, they seem to lack the general knowhow of what is happening in the industry or around them. We have been conducting campus recruitment for more than 30 years and have refined our hiring process over time to ensure that only those who are trainable and have a professional attitude towards work will get through.
The shortage of skill is not just from the engineering streams but from other streams, too. Apart from engineers, we also absorb a good number of B.Sc and M.Sc students. They have a technical base and can be absorbed for various functions such as analyst, sales, customer support, etc.
How are you dealing with the skill shortage?
We have our own training institute, the Sumant Moolgaokar Technical Institute, established in 1957, in Madhya Pradesh, to meet our internal requirements. The institute has a rigorous two year fulltime training programme, which is followed by one year of on- the- job experience.The company has grown rapidly in the last ten years and the SMTI has supported the growth with high quality students. The institute imparts holistic training not just in technical aspects but also on managerial skills. Students are well trained in matters of safety, ERP and automation tools, SAP, etc.
Tell us more about this institute.
We have a structured orientation module for our new recruits. Here we focus on training diploma holders as well as maintenance people on several management related aspects. Technical people in general, need support to develop managerial skills. They are at the frontline of operations and it is their managerial skills, along with their technical knowledge, that ensures the smooth functioning of the plant. They must know how their productivity and output impacts the overall output of the plant.
Similarly, even the non-technical staff must be given some technical background training on plant operation in order to help them prioritise their tasks. At our training centre at the plant, we educate them about various aspects of cement manufacturing process, make them aware of critical equipment, operation and maintenance costs of those equipment and the impact on the company in case of equipment failure. Overall, there is the need for holistic training for students, not just in technical aspects but also in managerial skills.
What are other challenges in building a talent pool?
One of the challenges is the higher retention rates. Other glamorous sectors are always vying for the attention of engineers, with higher packages and higher posts. This creates an outward draw of people from the technical side. To counter this, we have put in more efforts in employee management, in training them and ensuring that their growth is not hindered in any way. It is all the more important for an industry such as ours to identify good talent internally and to ensure that their career growth does not stagnate. Constant attention to employee needs and directed efforts, have helped us to provide valuable internal growth to our employees. In fact, we have won several talent management awards, which is proof that careful attention to employees helps in dealing with the skill shortage issues on different levels.