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“Slumdog Millionaires?”

Lessons on Job Training I Learned in the Slums of Mumbai

I recently spent some time touring India. We did the “northern route” (for those who know the terrain), and I was there on vacation, but learned important lessons about career training as well. Let me explain.

First, for the travelers among you, I started in Delhi, and moved on to Varanasi (Hindus make a pilgrimage there like Muslims might to Mecca), Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur and finished up in Mumbai (formerly Bombay).

It was a trip full of contrasts – from the busy streets of Old Delhi, to the Hindu priests and faithful on the banks of the Ganges, the Taj Mahal and opulent palaces of the Maharajas’, to the unspeakable condition of Mumbai’s slums. If you think there is a growing divide between the rich and poor in America (and there is), believe me, we have a long way to go to match the gap I saw in India.

But, I’ll focus on the slums of Mumbai, and my tour of the slum that was the real-life home of the child stars of the hit movie, Slumdog Millionaire.

We met our guide on the outskirts of the slum area, which is very much like a city within a city. A young, bright, professionally dressed twenty-something, our guide started by preparing us for what we were about to see.

This slum – one of many in and around Mumbai – was formed as most were. Workers who came from rural areas to find work in Bombay’s British factories, worked all day for low wages and did not have the time, money or means to commute. So, they literally created make-shift housing on open government land. More and more people came, and the slums were born. Our guide explained that people had pride and we should not take pictures during our tour – out of courtesy and respect for the residents. (The pictures here were from a website they offered as an alternative to “original” photos.)

He showed us the market – bustling with people buying vegetables and fruits (which looked delicious by the way), and we entered an alley filled with plastics. We saw all sizes and shapes of plastic – car parts, old bottles and other recyclables bundled on the back of trucks and being manually off-loaded by workers. As we walked down the alley, open rooms showed men sticking parts into shredders, and women, seated on stone floors, sorting plastic scraps according to size and color. They smiled and waved as we walked by.

I was witnessing a thriving cottage industry in plastic recycling deep in the heart of the slum! A bit further along our journey came another – this time it was pottery. Entire families create a full variety of items in large, community kilns arrayed between the housing units. Around another corner we saw the cardboard recycling “sector” busy with activity. These people work!

The housing units were shoddy. In America we have walk-in closets larger than some “houses” we saw, which are home to extended families. Housing units were one or two rooms, no furniture (there was the occasional plastic yard chair, but more frequently just a concrete floor) and no running water. A community latrine served – we were told – about 1500 people and water was available through spigots out in the alley.

The alleys were barely wide enough for one person to navigate at a time. They were un-lit and dirty. I have no idea how someone would be able to see to walk here a night. Electrical wires dangle loosely just overhead as we walk. We passed “doors” (curtains really) and saw family members seated on the floor and resting. One unit (exactly one) I saw had an old plastic, yard chair – otherwise I saw no furnishings at all. Believe me, what we call a slum in the U.S. would pass for a luxury condo here.

And yet, people smiled. Children played and high-fived me as we walked. People appeared to be happy. They worked, they played, they cooked – they lived.

Then it happened. Our guide took us upstairs (actually more like up a ladder) to a 2nd floor unit. He took out a set of keys and I wondered if he was taking us to his house. (Our guide, it turns out, also lived in a slum, and I was surprised to learn that up to 70% of Mumbai’s 20M+ people do so as well – still today!)

The door swung open and we entered a small room with a whiteboard, a few chairs and a small closet, which was secured closed with a padlock. We switched on the lights, but the power was turned off, so we observed by the natural light of a few small windows.

On the wall hung a poster depicting several bright, young people smiling as if to say … “I’m doing great and moving forward with my life!” It reminded me of something I might see in a school or in a guidance counselor’s office – even, I thought, like something we might have hanging in a Job Center.

What? Wait.

I was standing in a job training center in the middle of the slums of Mumbai! The small, padlocked closet, we were later told, was the “computer lab.”

The tour company (non-profit) we had used, sponsors the work here for the residents. They sponsor this real-life (if small) job training program, teaching residents the Microsoft Office suite of products. The size or condition of the “center” is not what’s important here.

Here, half-way around the world, in the most desperate of conditions, these people know we are all locked in a global race for talent. They realize that skilled workers will be the winners and they are in that race today, right now, and working for all they are worth to compete in the world economy.

We, here in the U.S., need to pay attention. As we deal with a growing divide between the well-to-do’s and those left behind, we will find no short cuts to getting people prepared for family-sustaining careers.

Talent is the new global currency. Only a renewed commitment to education and job training can keep jobs here and our families secure.

These folks in the slums of Mumbai “get it” and they are running their race with optimism and grit. For someone who has spent a big part of my adult life in talent development, it was inspiring to see.

Now folks, it’s our turn. All of us in education and workforce development have a responsibility to prepare an American workforce that can compete and win in the emerging economy. Others, with far less resources than us, are taking the challenge very seriously – we should too.

Let’s not blow it.


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