You are 18, done with school and staring at a bizarre set of options before you in terms of possible careers.
For those who have educated parents, teachers, peers and a support system, the gamut of possibilities may seem less intimidating but for someone who is a first-generation learner or lacks a support system, the choices and the path ahead can look quite daunting.
It was with this in mind that Mumbai-based Priya Agrawal set up Antarang, an organisation that helps youth from lower-income groups find the best suited path, be aware of their options and then choose what may be best for them.
In 2001, Agrawal switched from advertising research to Akanksha, an NGO set up by Teach for India’s Shaheen Mistry that provides high quality support to low-income children through after-school programmes and Akanksha schools.
Antarang recently started a post-college employment programme. The idea is to work with youngsters from low-income communities and help them figure their next best career move. It covers around 1,600-1,800 adults in a yearAfter working there for six years, she noticed a gap. You could educate children well till the age of 18 but that after-school transition was a very difficult one for many. “After school, what? This is something even our children struggle with but for those from lower income segments, this was a huge hill to climb and one with which they had almost no assistance,” she explains. Hand-holding ended with school but a lot of the children needed support well after.
She also looked at the macro number of enrolments and how many students actually complete school and found that while enrolment was almost 100 per cent, about 40 per cent of the students did not finish school.
The age 14-18 years, she found, was vulnerable when many students tended to drop out of the system, never to return. To get them to stay, one needs to convince both the children and parents that many more doors open to them after completion of their school degree and there is hope for career progression. “It’s a matter of four years, keeping them engaged,” she adds.
One day in 2012, two of her brighter students at Akanksha came to meet her. Both were pursuing a graduation but said they were struggling to do it and were unsure whether their prospects would really change after the degree.
One of the young boys Chandrakant was working as a Barista at Lavassaon in the night shift, sleeping for barely a few hours before waking up at 7 am every day to reach college. Managing his work and studies was taking a toll on him and he didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. Agrawal guided these two and used her network to help Chandrakant find a better job with Edelweiss. He went onto finish college and now works with JP Morgan.
For a long time, he couldn’t see what use his college degree would be but now in retrospect he realises it helped. “Guidance at that stage helped me achieve what I have today,” Chandrakant, now 27, says, adding that he’s recently bought a tiny flat in Mumbai from his own savings where he now lives with his wife.
The duo she started with soon brought in 6-7 friends of theirs who wanted similar advise. An SP Jain alumni, Agrawal roped in her friends and peers to come on Sundays and help the first group of 15 students that turned up for guidance. These 15 were guided and placed in jobs through their own networks.
That’s when she decided to explore whether she could set up something more structured that would answer this “what next” question for young adults. The idea of Antarang (inner voice or calling) began to take shape in her mind.
The problem was the drop-outs, those who hadn’t finished school and dropped out between Class 9 and 12 for one reason or the other. Placing them was harder. Counselling them was harder too. So, she felt that they needed to do three things: keep kids in education till 18 years, expose them and build aspirations in them to pursue mainstream careers and help provide access to jobs.
Antarang goes into government schools — at present in Mumbai, Pune and Udaipur — at the Class 9 stage with an intensive career guidance module and gets 13-14 year-olds to start thinking about their strengths, weaknesses and future possibilities and prospects. The total number of schools they currently work with is 400 and that covers around 25,000 students. Initially, government schools were resistant, arguing they run an aptitude test in Class 10 and that should suffice. “We had to convince the authorities that one it was too late as the results come almost at the end of Class 10 and that an aptitude test cannot replace career guidance,” she adds. In the process, Antarang has created a cadre of career counsellors focused on lower income groups.
Antarang has more recently started a post college employment programme — spread over 20 centres in Mumbai — which provides the last mile connectivity. The idea is to work with youngsters from low income communities and help them figure their next best career move. This programme now covers around 1600-1800 young adults in a year. The third group that Antarang works with is institutionalised men and women, typically those who have no family backing whatsoever and may have grown up in orphanages or juvenile homes.
She cites the example of the Wadala Antop Hill community near Sewri in central Mumbai where they started working. When they began, none of the young adults there were working or had any hope for the future. It was an uphill struggle to get the youngsters to even attend their workshops. Now, Yamini — the first girl ever from the community to work outside the home — earns a living as an “eyelash” expert. Akash, another boy from the same community is a podcast editor. When her team goes there, they are surrounded by youngsters asking why they were not interviewed for a particular assignment or job and they get advise on how they can make it.
The organisation now has a total of 140 employees and is largely funded through CSR, donations and foundations. In addition, the career counsellors are now around 200 (150 in Mumbai, 25 each in Pune and Udaipur) although they work part time with Antarang.
Meanwhile, Agrawal has the unparalleled pleasure of seeing lives altered forever around her. She keeps in touch with dozens of students like Akash, Yamini and Chandrakant and follows their lives with glee. Every small success of theirs feels like a tiny personal triumph to her.