Thursday, October 20, 2011

Learning & Earning: Pharma firms match research needs with aspirations of class 12 pass outs

Foot soldiers in the war against disease can come from unexpected places. In 2008, when the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) launched its 'open source drug discovery' (OSDD) movement, it invited stakeholders - scientists, researchers, industry representatives - to participate in formulating new drugs to combat ailments like TB. The most surprising contribution came from students, mostly graduates.

Today, of the 4,000-odd people registered with OSDD, a little over half are students, engaged in activities from advocacy to lab work. "It has been a big discovery for us," says OSDD Project Director Zakir Thomas. "We thought we [at OSDD] were dealing with sophisticated problems that required input from sophisticated sources, like established institutes," he says. "But the students really surprised us." They did not just come from the metros. Having worked closely with scores of youngsters, Thomas has some advice for pharma companies. "If you are looking for new, innovative solutions, reach out to students, especially those in rural India," he says. "There's a huge talent base out there."

For pharma giants Lupin Pharmaceuticals and Dr Reddy's Laboratories, this merely confirms what they already know. Both companies run work-cum-education programmes for fresh-out-of-school youngsters from rural and small town India. Essentially, class XII graduates join the company as interns; alongside, they also study for a BSc degree in industrial drug sciences, offered by the companies through tie-ups with universities. The students attend classes over the weekend, while working at regular jobs in the companies' plants through the week.

Company closes a talent gap ...
Divakar Kaza, President (HR) at Lupin, says his company's Learn-and-Earn programme is a two-way street. It gives youngsters from economically-depressed families the chance to study further and skill themselves - and take home a stipend of Rs. 7,000 per month. It helps Lupin close a crucial talent gap: finding capable people to take care of some basic, but key, tasks. "The BSc and MSc graduates who join us prefer to become researchers or move to high-end lab work," says Kaza. "We find it difficult to source people as lab assistants, backroom staff and/or teams to carry out quality control. These are less glamorous, but crucial, jobs that keep the plant working smoothly."

Ganesh Nikam, Director of Biojobz, a bio-pharma staffing company , says that many pharma companies are struggling with this talent gap. "The BSc and MSc graduates who come in at the entry-level think of themselves as scientists, who would rather work from the comfort of the lab and do production," he says. "They feel regulatory tasks like quality control are beneath them."

Vijay Kothiwale, Vice-President (Works) at Lupin, says: "Finding people and making them employable is a challenge. With the Learners [the youngsters enrolled with Learn-and-Earn], we can train them up and create our own talent base, and also be sure of a high calibre of employees." Farooq M Shaikh, Deputy General Manager (HR) at Lupin's Tarapur plant, adds that in some cases the youngsters, with minimal training, handle certain divisions on their own, like the solvent recovery unit. "About 70% of our Learners function as back-up staff. When someone is absent, they step in," Shaikh adds. In their first two years, the Learners are rotated through every department.

Eventually, says Kothiwale, this kind of captive talent brings stability to the organisation. In the last six months, Lupin has recruited more than 300 youngsters for its plants in Tarapur, Goa and Indore; next year, it plans to extend this programme to plants its Mandideep (near Bhopal) and Aurangabad. A few months ago, the company organised its first recruitment drive for Learn-and-Earn, and invited applicants to walk-in interviews at a central location - Sholapur town for the Tarapur plant; Kolhapur for Goa.

... And students chart a career
Lupin believes in spreading the net wide. "There is talent in every corner of the country," says Kaza. "If we limit ourselves to metros, we will lose out on good people." One criterion for selection, however, is that the candidate should live within a 500-km radius of the plant, and never be more than a six-hour journey from home. That way, the youngsters will feel close enough to their families, and be persuaded to return to work when they go on leave.

Jobs are harder to come by in the hinterland, which is why Lupin's recruitment team has to sift through 10-15 times the number of applicants per position. For the 108 jobs in Tarapur, the team screened over 3,000 applications. Youngsters who live in the catchment areas of these plants are mostly children of poor farmers, factory workers and labourers who can only dream of a career, given their financial situation.

Like brothers Sanjay and Ashok Kholya, who moved to Tarapur from Uttarakhand two years ago when a strike shut down their father's factory. Last year, they scored in the high eighties in their Class XII finals. "Between our father losing his job and our mother sick with diabetes, there was no way we could have continued with our studies," says Sanjay, 18. So when they heard about Learnand-Earn, they jumped at the chance. Today, Sanjay works in the quality assurance department, while Ashok helps with research on new drugs. Every month, they take home almost Rs. 12,000 between them. At the end of three years, they will not only have a permanent position at Lupin, but also a BSc degree. "We see ourselves building a talent pipeline for all pharma companies with this initiative," says Kaza. "If, after being trained, some youngsters want to join another company, that's ok."

Rohit Pandit, 21, sees Learn-and-Earn as his shot at becoming a microbiologist. Pandit's mother has asthma, his aunt and uncle have high blood pressure and diabetes. So, while he spends his days at Tarapur culturing bacteria, Pandit dreams of finding alternative cures. His colleague, Aarti Dadmani, 19, sees her Lupin stint as an escape. Her parents wanted her to marry and pulled her out of college. "I wanted to study further, and make a career for myself," she says. "But my parents have no source of income. Now, besides studying, I also send money home."

Empowering youngsters
At Dr Reddy's, the self-managed team (SMT) is a multi-skilled entity of mainly high-school graduates which, with some handholding by a group of mentors, runs the plant with minimal supervision. The youngsters, aged 17-19 years, take their own decisions - whether about plant operations, or how they would like to juggle work and classes.

"The idea is to increase efficiency in manufacturing by reducing the number of layers [of hierarchy in the organisation," says Atul Dhavle, senior director, HR. "Your success in the marketplace depends on how swiftly you respond to the customer. Having a lean organisation helps reduce delivery time." It also helped cut the workforce by a third - from 120 to 40 - and reduce overheads in the company's plant at Baddi, Himachal Pradesh. The company first started an SMT in the Yanam plant (near Pondicherry) in 2002, and later at Baddi. Both have been setting new productivity records. Dhavle says a good production target is 240 people producing 100 million tablets a month.

A year after it was set up, the Yanam plant produced 160 million tablets a month, with a 40-50 member SMT. Baddi recently reported a 10% drop in overheads and a zero-accident year. Now, Dr Reddy's plans to introduce SMTs in all its new plants, starting with Vizag later this year. Like Lupin, Dr Reddy's focuses on creating local employment as well. Youngsters for the SMTs are drawn from places within a 100-km radius of the plant. They spend the first two years understanding the pharmacy business, both through weekend classes and stints with every department at the plant.

Typically, they handle packaging, warehousing, quality control and assurance functions, besides helping with technology transfer. "After two years of training, they are absorbed into the company as regular employees," adds Dhavle. Some become mentors for the next batches of youngsters coming in. "The idea of the SMT appealed to us because it empowers first-level people," says KB Sankara Rao, head of Integrated Product Development Organisation at Dr Reddy's "When there are four or five layers, people don't feel ownership. With the SMTs, the youngsters feel responsible, accountable and, therefore, a sense of ownership."

Source: The Economic Times, October 20, 2011

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