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How one engineer is transforming the lives of thousands in Mumbai

An apprenticeship and years of night classes made Ashok Rane the engineer he is today. Forty years on, he’s teaching India’s next generation of makers what he knows

It’s a time of huge change in India. New ways of working are constantly emerging and disrupting traditional models. India’s microfinance sector – services for small businesses and entrepreneurs unable to access conventional banking – is the biggest in the world, and social enterprises have become a transformational force over the past decade. Along with the rest of the world, India’s sharing economy (where owners rent out something they’re not using – such as a car, house, or bicycle) is booming, with the Bangalore-based on-demand transport service, Ola, challenging Uber where so many others have failed.


Given this new energy, it’s not surprising that so many people are looking to enter the Indian market. The immense size of the country – with its population of 1.3 billion – and the speed of its development is understandably appealing to tech moguls and entrepreneurs. India’s rapid growth also means there’s a huge need for skilled talent, but with many people in the country still struggling to escape poverty, there aren’t always enough qualified people to fill the roles.

Tackling youth unemployment

It’s a problem that Ashok Rane is well aware of. Based in India’s most populated city, Mumbai, he’s spent 40 years working through the ranks. He grew up in a small village in the western state of Maharashtra where his family were rice farmers and he became an engineer apprentice at the age of 16 after seeing an advert in a newspaper. While training in what was then Bombay, he took night classes towards an electrical diploma. Now, aged 56, he’s revolutionizing Indian engineering.

In 2006, Rane created the Aikya Foundation, a community outreach program that trains Mumbai’s underprivileged youth as electricians. Apprentices receive 100 hours of training over two months, learning how to repair household appliances such as toasters, irons, mixers and radios. The course runs five times each year and is completely free  –  the only requirement is that prospective apprentices have cleared their tenth grade exams. At the end of the course, they are qualified as trade-ready freelance engineers, empowered to earn their own money, pay their own way, and carve out a future in engineering.

While the literacy rate in India now hovers around 74%, computer literacy is much lower at 10%. That means that even if a child completes their school education – a challenge in itself – they’ll remain unemployable if they don’t possess the right computer skills

We can find the best minds by training people of all backgrounds. It doesn’t matter where they’re from. What’s important is that we encourage every young mind to apply their thinking in a technical way
Ashok Rane

The next generation

Rane started sowing the seeds for the Aikya Foundation in 1995 when – with other members of his Workers’ Union at Siemens – he opened a computer education center for the children of employees. Rane and the union raised the money for the center by pooling their salaries, creating a fund that gave children a 50% subsidy in computer training. In 2000, they began taking the program to underprivileged children in government schools, where students need to achieve certain grades to progress to secondary school after finishing their primary education. With the two hours of weekly teaching that the program provided over three years, it radically improved students chances of admission to high school.

Using the skills he learned during his apprenticeship back in 1976, he’s now enabling disadvantaged young people to fill the gap in the job market. And by expanding the talent pool to those with the practical skills to do the job, he’s making it easier for organizations within the industry  to hire great talent.

After 40 years spent in different roles at Siemens , including a technician, maintenance engineer, and now a manager at the Siemens R&D facility,  Rane is well placed to see the successes his work is generating. He’s increasingly aware of the growing need for young people of all backgrounds in India to have a computing and technical education. And with the work of the Aikya Foundation, it’s becoming far easier for people of all walks of life to enjoy these opportunities.

Since the project started it has provided computers for 26 schools and trained 50,000 children in IT skills, with 3,500 students receiving free tuition each year. Right now, there’s a huge need for people to work on the water lines in residential areas, so Rane’s next priority is teaching plumbing, as well as extending the foundation’s reach into rural villages, like the one he came from.

He wants to give those in remote areas of the country the same opportunities as those in India’s bustling cities. When the course is offered in rural villages, apprentices will attend full time, with the 100 hours of training condensed into 16 days, meaning young apprentices will be skilled enough to enter the job market after only three weeks of education.

Rane’s methods are unconventional, but these are unconventional and exciting times – a disruption of the past and old ways of doing things. Over the past 20 years, his work hasn’t simply tackled poverty :  he’s empowered the underprivileged and raised a new generation of electrical engineers. Now, he wants to shape  –  and create  –  inspired human beings.

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