This is a story about how Thermax has welded hope and trust to the lives of workers at their Savli Plant in Gujarat to transform work culture.
My interest in it began with a discussion with Sharad Gangal when he casually referred to the transformation of work culture at Savli factory of Thermax. Trust Sharad Gangal, the Head of People Processes at Thermax for keeping a low profile. (Ask me, I know him for over four decades). It was nine years ago that the Savli factory of Thermax made news for a wrong reason – violence by contract workers. My curiosity about the transformation story grew multifold when I learnt that there was another narrative developing simultaneously; a group of eighteen female workers are trained and engaged on welding and CNC machine operations.
Soon I was in Manjusar GIDC near Vadodara. It is about 15 Kms from the airport. The factory is situated on 110 acres of land. Spacious. It does not have the cramped look of the factories in Mumbai and Pune.
“Soon after I joined, this factory had the violent incident. The workers population here was predominantly contract workers then” Sharad said. Several organisations employed only contract workers – some do even today – and the officers of a well-known steel company took pride in mentioning that they employ only contract workers to run the factory.
Rebuilding trust is never an easy task. It requires transparency of decisions, sensitivity to people issues. They decided to offer ‘permanent’ employment to workers in a phased manner; they decided to conduct assessment. Since then the number of permanent workers has grown to 250+.
The reality of the business, particularly when you are a capital goods manufacturer like Thermax, is that it is hit by business cycles strongly. So, they have to maintain some contingent workforce. Skilled contract workers are appointed as FTEs [Fixed Term Employees] for a period of two years, their performance is reviewed, their skills are assessed and then a batch of about 50 workers is absorbed in the permanent cadre.
The rules of the game are not secret, they are informed to all – that they should have completed ITI, IBR certification, that they must have attended 240 days of work in the two years, that they must have clean disciplinary record etc. That transparency helps build trust is well known, and such open declaration of standards and policies goes a long way in building it.
“Trust alone is not enough to rebuild culture,” Sharad said. “Employees come here with a hope; we must help them fulfil it. Hope and Trust are twin pillars of building any rewarding relationship”, he said.
The result? A ‘development’ program. Very generous one. ITI trained workers can enrol for training to earn Diploma in Engineering. This is specific to Savli. Thermax helps Diploma holders to enrol for qualifying as Degree holders – there is a tie up with BITS. (This scheme is available to employees at all their factories). There are qualifying criteria, like service for three years, but it is a reasonable condition, particularly when Thermax agrees to pick up 75% of the cost! The employees pay their share of 25% in easy instalments. The Diploma to Degree study costs Rs. 3.50 L so the investment is not small at all. A library is established for the learners and instruction room too at the factory where faculty from a reputed institute conducts training. They have sponsored to Doctoral scholars too!
The start, like all starts are, difficult. The response was poor initially for the ITI to Diploma Engg. program, and the managers had to explain the scheme in detail in the hope of getting a good response. Initially getting five ITI qualified employees seemed difficult task. “There was a fear of failure” Sharad said, “But once the first batch got going, there was almost a flood.” This scheme ‘Utkarsh’ is open all employees, including FTEs. Please remember that workers move from being contract workers to FTEs to permanent workers. So in a way it provides hope to all!
“Are they bound by any bond to serve for a certain period?”
“Thermax does not believe in tying down people through service bonds. The thrust is on creating a healthy psychological bonding which makes people stay on. We have focused on employability, not employment.”
Ajit is 46 years old ITI trained welder. He has opted for studying and earning his Diploma in Mechanical Engineering. He has school going children. He studies his subjects at home. A culture of continuous learning is developing there!
Kazi is a thirty-three-year-old welder who never wanted to spend his life as a welder. When he enrolled for the Diploma course, his family supported the move. Thermax offered counselling to the ‘trainees’ because they were opting for study after a long lapse of time. “When we appeared for our first examination, we were very nervous, but we did well, we did better than the boys at the college.”
“Padhai karne ki koi umar nahi hoti” Kazi said looking at Ajitbhai. “Ajitbhai is our idol. We are growing in confidence and I intend to earn my degree in engineering eventually.” If this signifies a typical response, Thermax has achieved what it set out to do. Employees have seen a ray of Hope at the end of the tunnel! And Trust is an add-on.
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“Development must not be seen narrowly. It is not a privilege of people higher up in the pyramid; be it a commercial organisation or our society” Sharad said as my discussion with him continued. “Why not focus at the bottom of the pyramid” he said, “I wondered if we can engage more female workforce. They are typically engaged in unskilled work, can we do it at the skilled level?”
Getting women for training at the factory was not the right approach he concluded, a neutral place would be trusted more easily by the families to allow training of a young woman. There were very few women employees at the factory.
After some trial and errors, Sharad’s HR team approached Shroff Foundation. With the support of Gujarat Government’s Tribal Development Department, a new and much-appreciated initiative of Shroff Foundation Trust is VIVEC (Vivekananda Institute of Vocational Training & Entrepreneurial Competence). “The training will be arranged by Thermax but they will get trained at Vivec” they said and an arrangement was worked out. Thus was born the ‘Urja’ scheme.
The tie up with Vivec was essential for another reason. Unless the skill of the women welders and CNC machine operators received a ‘certification’ it would have no ‘employability’ value. And that was precisely the focus of Thermax.
An advertisement was released asking women to apply for training in the trade of welders! This was surely an unusual step. This trade has been the bastion of men, it is seen as a hazardous and highly skilled job – not seen as a typical woman’s job. Twenty-two women were selected after application and screening. They were trained and then offered a job at Thermax. Some later qualified as CNC machine operator too.
I wanted to see them at work so I went to the shop floor. Thermax was kind to allow me to photograph them at work. In full safety gear, they were working alone at some work stations. It was an interesting site to see, because one would not have imagined women to perform welding out of all skilled jobs.
Prerana is a commerce graduate, but she wanted to work in industry and ‘do something different.’ She opted for learning welding. “We can do any kind of work” she told her parents who were reluctant to permit her to learn welding. It was with much persuasion that they finally relented. When the training commenced, she too was afraid of learning welding, but the counselling from Thermax’s HR team (Janki Thaker, Sachin Patel, Sachin Bhat & Vrishika Gilani) helped. After three months training at Vivec, they were learning welding at the training centre of Thermax.
When they were sent to shop floor the women welders were afraid how they will be received at the shop floor which is totally men’s world. But they found them very supportive. Obviously, there was some behind the scene work done by the HR team to ensure that their induction was smooth and supportive. Initially they worked as understudy, but soon were entrusted with specific independent work. They report in the first shift. Prerana’s parents are proud that she is doing skilled work.
Nidhi, the Business HR Head at Thermax, said, “Some of them are bread winners for the family. Two got married and left, and one is married to a welder! But we have retained almost all who joined us. And there are eighteen of them here.”
At the shop floor I also found some of the women recruits working on lathes and CNC Machines. I met Kajal Rathwa. She joined recently as Apprentice, about seven months ago. She said that the concept of ‘buddy’ helped her settle down quickly. Kajal works as CNC Machine Operator. And is looking forward to a long career here.
Diversity must also begin at the shop floor level. Typically, organizations are focusing on white collar jobs when they think of diversity, but here is a refreshing change. Development is also focused on white collar jobs, then blue collar jobs (and the focus is on change of attitudes!) followed by skills training. All these popular mindsets were discarded in one stroke with this initiative of ‘Urja’ in which women receive training, and several of them belong to Adivasi community. This has given them a sense of pride; it has given the same to Thermax too.
These initiatives of Utkarsh and Urja have effectively ‘welded’ pride to the lives of these men and women. An excellent piece of pioneering work!
As I was leaving somebody told me that Kajal is a state level archery champion. No wonder she has hit the bull’s eye! And with her Thermax has done it too!!
Vivek S Patwardhan
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”