NGO targets India’s soft skills gap

Meet the NGO helping young people in India to stay in education, and get their peers do the same

Ruby Yadav is career-oriented and confident. For an 18-year-old woman from Bhalaswa JJ Colony, north Delhi, this is an incredible feat.

Focus, self-confidence and – crucially – sticking with education are lessons she has learned and is passing on to the next generation. For some five years she has volunteered with Indian NGO, Magic Bus, mentoring other youth in her community to do the same.

“Before joining Magic Bus, I wasn’t focused. I was not serious about studying. My parents wanted me to clear 10th grade and quit studying and probably just get married. That’s what generally happens to girls in my village,” said Yadav. “But now, things have changed for good… My parents have understood the value of education as well, and have started supporting me. They make sure I don’t miss my weekly sessions with the children.”

Yadav is one of 8,000 youth volunteers across India with the Mumbai-based charity. Magic Bus works with children from the age of seven up to young adults, to equip them with the basic soft skills to stay in education, keep a job and – ultimately – escape poverty.

Getting young people into jobs, and keeping them there, is crucial for the world’s second most populous country, where two-thirds of the population is under the age of 35. Youth unemployment was 10.5 per cent in 2013, compared to an overall jobless rate of 3.6 per cent, according to World Bank figures.

Part of the problem is that many youth drop out of work within the first six months; the rate of job retention for young people can be as low as 30 per cent in India, according to Pratik Kumar, Magic Bus India’s CEO. Yet, the issue of India’s “soft skills gap” has been widely ignored until now, he said.

“Until about one year ago, when we went to the [Indian] state systems and asked them to look at our model, nobody was interested. Everybody cared about quick fix vocational skills and then set [the children] off to fend for themselves,” said Kumar.

Thankfully, that attitude is starting to change, he added. The NGO uses sport as a hook to attract, and teach, such skills, which it says have a real payoff when it comes to lower attrition rates, quality of manpower and productivity. The job retention rate for Magic Bus’ participants is around 60 to 70 per cent, according to Kumar.

Set up in 1999, Magic Bus runs weekly programmes with poor children to provide skills and information, such as on health, sanitation and gender issues. The NGO’s livelihood centres help 16 and 17-year-olds make informed decisions about the next step, be it higher education, vocational training or work.

Magic Bus is a stable source of support for its youth usually over the course of a year, something that is crucial to building life-long soft skills, according to Kumar. By using local youth as role models, the NGO hopes to tackle some of India’s ingrained hurdles to stamping out poverty, such as high drop out rates from schools – something Kumar says is a “huge problem” for girls particularly. The impact for women and girls is something Yadav points out, too.

“I live in a Muslim community where girls are generally not allowed to get out of the house, let alone go out and play,” explained Yadav. “After the [Magic Bus] sessions, their parents have started allowing girls to go out and play.”

Almost 100 per cent (98 per cent) of adolescent girls in Magic Bus programmes attend secondary school, compared to 48 per cent of females nationally.

When it comes to funding, India’s new corporate social responsibility (CSR) law, which came into force last year, has had a profound impact for Magic Bus. The law stipulates all corporations in India over a certain size must dedicate at least 2 per cent of pre-tax profits to CSR causes. Now, corporate backing is the mainstay of the NGO’s funding, including from Nestle, BMW and Barclays. It costs $25 per child per year for Magic Bus’ programmes.

To date, the charity has reached 360,000 children in India. Magic Bus aims to reach the 1 million mark by 2019, a target it pushed back from this year due to the challenges of scaling up.

Like its own growth, behaviour change requires time and patience, said Kumar: “We believe if you can stick around with a young person for a long period of time they are in a much better position to come out of poverty and come out shining at the end of this journey.”