Franz Probst is Founder and Chairman of SkillSonics India Pvt Ltd, Bangalore, and SkillSonics International AG, founded in 2011, with the aim of expanding vocational education and training throughout India and taking it to other countries. Franz’s life has been influenced significantly by a three-year stay in India (1965 to 1968), where he went to school in the Nilgiris (South India). Strong professional and private ties with India grew out of this experience. In this interview to Ashok Tuteja, he was all praise for the Prime Minister’s Skill India Initiative and elaborated on his organisation’s plans to train Indians for maintaining international quality standards. Excerpts:

What is SkillSonics and how is it implementing Swiss skills in India?

SkillSonics is an international provider of vocational education and training (VET) solutions. The company is based in Zurich and in Bangalore. SkillSonics is a partner company of the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC).

The company is the result of the Swiss Vocational Education and Training Initiative India (SVETII). Co-funded by the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI), this initiative was launched on the occasion of the 60-year anniversary of the Indo-Swiss Friendship and Establishment Treaty in 2008 with the objective to establish Swiss-based VET training, tailored to the needs in India.

Today, SkillSonics offers over 100 courses to companies, training institutes and universities. Course duration ranges from one week to three years. They cover a broad range of engineering skills (production, maintenance and servicing) and are designed for up- and re-skilling as well as entry level training.

The programmes include deep technical training ~ where people are trained in well-equipped workshops. The trainees also gain strong competencies in soft skills. Graduates of SkillSonics’ long-term programmes are, for example, suited for roles in quality control, as group leaders and, generally, where multiple skills are required. They match international quality standards ~ some have already received awards.

How many Indians have you trained so far and where are they employed now?

During the five years of the project, the target was not to train a high number, but to ensure proof of concept in bringing Swiss-based standards and training methods to India. Scaling-up began in 2014 and, since then, SkillSonics has trained 5,000 people. Our target is to train 1 million in the technical, electrical and engineering fields to international standards in the years to come. All the trainees, who have been trained in SkillSonics courses, are employed, generally at the companies where they have been trained in India, or have been hired by other companies.

What are the opportunities and challenges you face in implementing Swiss skills in India?

When we started in 2008, we found that the regulatory framework was not conducive to apprenticeship training and skill development. However, India has made great progress since then, and under the Prime Minister’s Skill India Initiative, a strong effort is made to establish and align the framework and to create career pathways for those that first learn a trade. The successful creation of MSDE is an important further step in this direction. However, there are other subtler challenges which remain:

First, there is still a widespread perception that learning a trade is of less value than doing a degree. Countries like Switzerland or Germany show us that this is wrong for many reasons: the Swiss and German economies are among the strongest in the world and this is substantially because doing an apprenticeship and learning a trade is considered an excellent start to a career. It is encouraged and not looked down upon. Also, many young Indians do not have the opportunity to complete 12 years of school and get admitted to university. So, India urgently requires an alternative.

Second, vocational education and training is not a quick fix. Just looking at numbers and not at quality is misleading. India’s companies and organisations require high quality training to be able to compete in the local and the global market. High quality is not achieved with short programmes and by leaving the burden on the government. It requires long-term private sector engagement: The private sector has to engage in setting standards, offering training positions and ensuring a strong linkage to training institutions. In our experience, this is not yet sufficiently implemented in India.

Third, SkillSonics has faced situations, where a programme could not be rolled-out because of ongoing changes in the public administration. By the time we had a follow-up meeting, the persons we had interacted with had left and we had to start afresh. That said, we have also experienced fast and exemplary government action, for example the creation of the MSDE.

You recently held in New Delhi the successful closing of Quality Assurance Project of the Swiss Vocational Education and Training Initiative. Could you please tell us about it in terms of its success?

The Quality Assurance Project’s (QAP) core objective was to improve VET instructors’ technical, methodological and didactic skills in order to ensure SVETII’s quality and sustainability. It was a two-year project that took place from September 2015 to August 2017. In the first year, the focus was on developing occupational profiles for VET teachers and trainers, developing and validating courseware for training modules in accordance with Swiss standards. In the second year, all training modules were tested in India.

Together with Swissmem, SFIVET and the Mechatronics School Winterthur, SkillSonics trained small batches of instructors, assessors and master trainers, as well as company and institute staff in charge of technical training in Bangalore, Pune, Vadodra and Coimbatore. We have reached proof of concept of our training modules for the trainers, experts and other governance staff. SkillSonics is now scaling up and offers these courses and associated services throughout India.

Are you also in partnership with any Indian institution in implementing your skill training projects?

Yes. SkillSonics has multiple associations with important Indian organisations active in skill development:

Since 2013, SkillSonics India Pvt Ltd is a partner company of the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC). NSDC provides financial support and is a shareholder of this company. SkillSonics is also affiliated as an approved training provider with India’s Capital Goods Skill Council (CGSC) and the Automotive Sector Skill Development Council (ASDC). Also, SkillSonics partners with CII and FICCI. In Switzerland, SkillSonics is supported by key VET organisations and training providers.

Are you getting any assistance from the government of Switzerland or the government of India in this endeavour?

The State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) is the Swiss Federal government’s specialised agency for education, research and innovation policy. It is part of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research. The SERI was involved in launching and co-funding the pilot project of the SVETII, and it has again co-funded the Quality Assurance Project (QAP) from 2015 to 2017.

Another supporter is the Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (SFIVET). This government organisation provides expert advice on vocational education and training, namely in the area of curriculum development and trainer training as well as the promotion of international cooperation in VET.

In India, NSDC has taken equity in the company and provided other funding, namely, by way of a loan. SkillSonics is highly appreciative of having qualified as a partner of NSDC. It is wonderful that NSDC has positively responded to the Swiss initiative and is contributing to bringing it to fruition in India.