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How Toyota trains India's teens

February 07, 2008 13:04 IST

When Harish Hanumantharayappa returned to his native village of Buraganahalli, India, a few months ago, his old schoolmates thought he was weird. Harish, 17, came wearing a Toyota uniform: beige T-shirt neatly tucked into his gray pants, gleaming black shoes, and a red cap.

His friends in the village 65 miles from Bangalore also found him full of odd habits - crossing the muddy village roads, for example, Harish would stop, point his fore and middle fingers, look right and left, and then cross. He told his amused friends that he was practicing what he was taught at the Toyota Technical Training Institute at Bidadi on the outskirts of Bangalore.

Harish, who comes from a family that lives below the poverty line of $177 in annual income, was a good student but had no particular ambition. Then, last April, his schoolteacher alerted him to an advertisement by Toyota in the local paper. The automaker was inviting applications from 17-year-old, poor and needy students for factory training.

It was offering free board, lodging, and education, plus a monthly stipend of $38. There were 5,000 applicants, and Harish was one of 64 boys from the southern state of Karnataka who made it to Toyota Tech, the training institute that opened last August as Toyota's first outside of Japan.

He now wants to be an automotive engineer. "I am so happy and can't believe," says Harish in his broken English about how his life and dreams have changed. They sure have. His mother and grandmother earn 65c daily as farm laborers, a brother is a bus cleaner, and a sister is training to be a nurse.

But Harish is determined to change his life thanks to Toyota. In the three months he has been at the institute, he has saved $8 to give to his mother. "I want to make her proud," he says, outlining his determination to excel in his three-year course and bag the $180 and $230 fellowships for assiduous students.

Auto boom requires talent

Toyota has spent $5.6 million to set up the institute, which has a faculty of 21 permanent, on-contract, and part-time employees. Toyota execs emphasize that it makes good business sense to operate the centre in India. The country's automobile market is among the fastest-growing in the world at 1.5 million cars sold annually, a figure that is expected to double to 3 million by 2010. "For us to manufacture more cars, we must have good people. The institute is such a step toward that," says Toyota India managing director Atsushi Toyoshima.

Like most Indian and global auto players, Toyota - which has been selling its cars in India for a decade now - is also expanding its business in Karnataka. Toyota has utilised one-third of its 400-acre Bidadi plot for its plant and other facilities, with a capacity to make 60,000 cars a year for now.

The only models Toyota sells in India are the Corolla, Camry, and the popular multipurpose vehicle Innova - a far cry from competitor Honda, which is doing far better with a wider range that includes the Accord, Civic, City, and CRV.

Toyota has plans to launch a new Corolla model this year and, like other players, is also working on a new low-cost car for India, to be launched by 2010. By then, Toyota wants to expand its current 4 per cent market share to 10 per cent.

But expansion requires talent, and India is woefully short of such specialised technical talent and education. There are around 4,500 state-run technical institutes littered across India. At a time when manufacturing in India is booming, these institutes are considered outdated. There's talk of them being privatised, but nothing much has happened.

In 2005, when Toyoshima visited several of the state-run Indian Technical Institutes from which most auto companies hired, the curriculum was out of sync with industry needs.

Toyoshima decided drastic action was needed for the vital Indian market, and he convinced his bosses in Japan to set up TTTI in India. The institute's goal was to bridge the knowledge gap by training young people and equipping them with Toyota's best manufacturing practices. "Our school can expedite what needs to be taught," Toyoshima says.

Self-improvement part of the curriculum

Another, ulterior motive was ensuring labour loyalty. For the past five years Toyota India has suffered a series of strikes and a lockout, with labor unions protesting in support of better wages and against the dismissal of two of their members.

Training youth in-house helps build loyalty for Toyota on the assembly line. Toyota sends the best Indian engineers and technicians for specialised training in Japan, and upon their return they will be the new trainers for the students.

The institute has three laboratories displaying the various characteristics of the shop floor, like welding and assembly-line equipment. The students will spend two years in the classroom and labs before stepping onto the shop floor in their third year. The institute, including the dormitories with pink-colored walls and pink bedspreads, is squeaky clean.

The only evidence that there are students around is in the lobby, where an entire wall has colorful charts and boards that students have to fill out. Not only does it help supervisors keep tabs on their wards, there's scope for improvement at every stage.

The institute's coursework is based on Toyota's Japanese parent institute's curriculum, but adapted to India - offering more wholesome education for students who have lived modest, unexposed lives. "So 33 per cent of our curriculum is based on mind and body development," says V Ramamurthy, dean of TTTI.

For instance, along with automobile assembly, automobile paint, automobile welding, and mechatronics (integrated mechanical electrical control & software design), students take self-improvement courses such as home science and yoga, as well as regular subjects such as English and history.

The boys also receive lessons on personal grooming, cleanliness, and discipline. "The philosophy is to expose problems and take remedial action so that they don't occur," says the school's principal, T. Somanath, who was earlier the head of Nettur Training Institute, 248 miles away.

Corporate social responsibility

For many students, the institute provides a novel exposure that has changed their world. Rangaiyya Pandurangappa, a short, freckled 17-year-old, says he had not tucked his shirt into his shorts ever, nor had he worn shoes with laces before coming to TTTI.

The only son of a peanut farmer, he hadn't even heard of Toyota in his village of Sriya, 54 miles from Bangalore, until he saw the ad in the local paper. "After coming to the institute, I even wash my hands before meals," he says.

Toyota is viewing the first batch of students as a test case for the future. The company plans to employ the students once they have completed their three-year training, though they will have the option of leaving the company and working elsewhere. There is no bond to be signed, and students are free to join other automakers. "It is a corporate social responsibility initiative for us," says Somanath.

But Toyota also wants to make its investment pay off. When the boys go on vacation, Toyota encourages them to go home in their Toyota institute uniforms, which, together with the finger-pointing routine, is bound to leave an impression on the locals.

Harish's experience shows the strategy is working. When he was home, he was bombarded with questions from his friends. It made him immensely proud. "I have suddenly gained respect in my society," he says, beaming.
Nandini Lakshman, BusinessWeek