India's Skills Shortfall Challenges Modi's Manufacturing Vision

Employees work on the cabin of a Sikorsky S-92 at the Tata Advanced Systems facility at Adibatla in the south Indian city of Hyderabad. ENLARGE
Employees work on the cabin of a Sikorsky S-92 at the Tata Advanced Systems facility at Adibatla in the south Indian city of Hyderabad. Photo: Harsha Vadlamani for The Wall Street Journal

ADIBATLA, India—Having signed a string of multibillion-dollar orders from foreign firms to make parts for helicopters, aircraft and trains over the past couple of years, India is struggling to find people with the skills to build them.

In a $ 3.3 billion push, India is racing to equip 15 million people by 2020 with the skills necessary to realize Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aim to bring more high-grade manufacturing to the country.

The challenges are significant as foreign suppliers including Boeing Co. BA 0.35 % , Airbus Group SE and Alstom SA ALO 0.16 % often can’t find the employees with the training and experience to help fulfill Mr. Modi’s “Make in India” program.

More than 80% of engineers in India are “unemployable,” Aspiring Minds, an Indian employability assessment firm, said in a January report after a study of about 150,000 engineering students in around 650 engineering colleges in the country.

A lack of specialized courses mean companies have to train their own people from scratch.

At one training center outside Hyderabad in southern India, workers in their early 20s toil with high-precision hand tools as they are taught how to fix rivets on aircraft-grade aluminum sheets as part of a year-long training program.

The workers—a blend of graduate engineers and diploma holders from technical institutes—hope to earn the qualifications that could allow them to work in the factories of Tata Advanced Systems Ltd., the aerospace and defense flagship of India’s Tata Group.

Employees at the Tata Advanced Systems facility at Adibatla in the south Indian city of Hyderabad. ENLARGE
Employees at the Tata Advanced Systems facility at Adibatla in the south Indian city of Hyderabad. Photo: Harsha Vadlamani for The Wall Street Journal

Anubhab Dutta, a trained mechanical engineer, didn’t know how to rivet, or fix fasteners on aircraft-grade metal, when he joined Tata Advanced.

Mr. Dutta, 23 years old, is one of two fresh graduates hired through on-campus placement from an engineering college in Guwahati in northeast India’s Assam state. New hires undergo compulsory training for up to a year.

“During the engineering course, we were given the theoretical background. Here, we are doing the actual drilling,” said Mr. Dutta, who is training at the Advanced Craftsmanship Centre inside Tata’s sprawling factory complex.

Tata, which opened its first factory in 2010 to make fuselages for Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.’s S-92 helicopter, is among several Indian companies trying to capitalize on, and help realize, Mr. Modi’s vision.

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The Hyderabad complex also churns out aerospace parts for Lockheed Martin Corp. LMT -0.04 % , Rolls-Royce Holdings RYCEY -0.65 % PLC and General Electric Co. GE -0.03 % , among others.

Mr. Modi’s goals include modernizing the country’s military, railways and other infrastructure, while facilitating the takeoff of India’s industrial sector, long overshadowed by China. Each deal with a foreign company requires that some parts are made in India.

Analysts estimate that India will need about 90,000 aerospace and defense factory workers in the coming decade.

“India doesn’t have a labor shortage—it has a skilled labor shortage,” said Tom Captain, global aerospace and defense industry leader at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.

To help remedy India’s skills crunch, Mr. Modi’s government announced two skill development plans in July involving a total spending of 220 billion rupees ($ 3.29 billion) to train 15 million people by 2020.

Western companies, seeing the need for training, are stepping up with their own investments. Boeing completed training its first batch of 30 recruits in the basics of aircraft assembly this year, in partnership with India’s National Skill Development Corp.

All the graduates have been hired by an Indian supplier to Chicago-based Boeing, and Boeing is now in discussions with the Indian government to significantly scale up the program by starting a regular curriculum, said Pratyush Kumar, Boeing India’s president.

France’s Alstom, which recently secured a $ 3 billion order from India for 800 locomotives, sent 80 Indians for training in Brazil and schooled another 250 in India to work at Alstom’s first metro train manufacturing plant in the country.

While India has thousands of engineering and vocational schools, they aren’t producing the caliber of worker required, said Bharat Salhotra, managing director for Alstom India & South Asia.

An employee practices riveting during a training session at the Advanced Craftsmanship center on the Tata Advanced Systems campus in Hyderabad. ENLARGE
An employee practices riveting during a training session at the Advanced Craftsmanship center on the Tata Advanced Systems campus in Hyderabad. Photo: Harsha Vadlamani for The Wall Street Journal

“The quality of the manpower when they come out of engineering colleges is not A-grade,” he said.

GE has received billions of dollars in orders from India in recent years for everything from power turbines to aerospace equipment and railway locomotives.

The company does extensive in-house training to meet quality expectations at its factories. GE declined to comment.

State-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., the local joint-venture partner for many overseas defense and aeronautics firms, in 2015 spearheaded the launch of the Aerospace and Aviation Sector Skill Council to train hundreds of thousands of aerospace factory workers and 6,000 instructors over the next 10 years.

Tata Advanced, where Mr. Dutta is training, is now preparing for its next leap. The company wants to step up from making parts to fully assembling a helicopter or an aircraft, said Sukaran Singh, its chief executive and managing director.

Senior engineers have been sent overseas to learn full aircraft assembly, said Mr. Singh, as he surveyed a plot of land where Tata and Boeing broke ground in June on a factory for producing the fuselage for Boeing’s Apache helicopter.

“India has to move up the value chain. Otherwise, you will not get even the assembly work,” he said.

Write to Santanu Choudhury at [email protected]


WSJ.com: US Business

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