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Neha Bahl, Director, IC3 Institute

Neha Bahl is director of the IC3 Institute, part of the IC3 movement based in India. She spoke to The PIE about the importance of career guidance and how the organisation is progressing its campaign globally.


"The idea is to really have schools collaborate with higher education institutions, as well as industry"

The PIE: What is the IC3 Institute?

Neha Bahl: The IC3 Institute is the nerve centre of the larger IC3 movement that started in 2016. The movement, started primarily in India, is now making a global footprint with presence across 93 countries, and is dedicated to bringing the much needed attention to career guidance.

We believe career guidance is as critical, if not more, to the long-term success of a child as teaching good maths and English. It must not sit at the periphery.

“We really want to build a culture of career guidance within schools”

Our work really ties in to the Sustainable Development Goals where we talk about 85% of the workforce being disengaged. In the words of our founder Mr Ganesh Kohli, the movement really started from us wanting to know why grumpy 35-year olds are grumpy on Monday morning and what leads to overall disengagement at work. A lot has to do with choices that went wrong very early on in life, choices made in school, which had a cascading effect on choices in higher education and later for work. And that’s what we really want to fix, and build a culture of career guidance within schools.

Where the IC3 Institute really sits in the entire scheme of things is training. The IC3 Institute is a non-profit public charity, registered in the US, and we train counsellors and we train teachers to become counsellors in school through our cost-free core flagship one-year program.

Our first cohort began with 23 teachers in the year 2018, and as of today we are training over 700 teachers. The scale of growth is reflective of not just how the work is being received and accepted globally, but also the need. Participants come from the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Europe, Southeast Asia, and it’s growing.

The PIE: How is it all funded?

NB: A lot was self funded and we functioned on founders equity to begin with. Over a period of time we have drawn a lot of contributions from universities that are a part of a global consortium of 13 institutions that supports our work. They really want to showcase themselves as thought leaders and are investing through annual contributions as well as through their expertise. Institutions include Imperial College London, St Andrew’s, and there are several out of the US, Australia, Canada and IE Spain as well.

Other than that, we’re also trying to fundraise through CSR donations. We’re looking at high net worth individuals. We’re looking at really expanding the fundraising function through the Diaspora model. The idea is not to charge for services, but to raise funds to be able to offer good services.

The PIE: Are some countries more aware of career guidance that others? Is it a common service at schools in India?

NB: Well, you’d be surprised. The counsellor to student ratio is one to 250 in a school. It varies from region to region, but it’s not a developing versus a developed country issue. India, in fact, is home to the world’s largest population, but the penetration of counselling is only 1% in schools. We are a far cry from where the US or the UK may be.

“India is home to the world’s largest population, but the penetration of counselling is only 1% in schools”

Our approach is not just bottom up. We’re not going school to school to build awareness. To give you an example, we have the US Embassy in Kazakhstan, which has just given us a grant of $20,000 to train 100 high school counsellors.

In India, the Central Board of Secondary Education has about 24,000 schools, and has released circulars inviting its schools networks to attend this one-year program. It’s getting attention from the right stakeholders in the education ecosystem.

The PIE: Does career counselling in schools mean young people are having to make career decisions earlier on in their life?

NB: It would be unfair to expect an 18-year-old to make a decision that is going to impact the rest of their lives, especially in the current gig economy where youngsters are changing careers every two to three years. The idea isn’t to get them married to a certain career, but giving them the science behind career exploration helps them understand their abilities, interests and how they can really navigate subject choices, career pathways and so on and so forth.

They need to be educated on what exists and be able to really widen their horizons and what the future holds for them. We know that about 60% of the jobs that exist today will cease to exist tomorrow. There’s a dire need to equip children with guidance that will help them to take decisions not just in the next two years, but years to come in the future as well.

The PIE: How can you prepare students for a new world of work given we don’t really know what it will look like in 10, 20 years time? 

NB: I think the answer to that is collaboration. Often educational institutions, specifically schools, have been working in silos. They work in a very limited way with a focus of just children getting good grades.

The idea is to really have them collaborate with higher education institutions, as well as industry, because the insights are actually going to come from the industry that is continuously evolving. Through interventions like internships, projects, job shadowing while children are at school, we can really create opportunities for career exploration.

The PIE: Is vocational work and training viewed as being inferior to higher education?

NB: There are regional challenges but I have to say the new world order is changing that perception very, very quickly. A lot of our work is also now spreading out in the African regions, and if you look at the challenges that those regions face, the students are not focused on higher education. The counsellors don’t need to know what higher educational options exist, they need to know what technical and vocational opportunities exist because the need is for children to find employment after school.

We want to encourage children to finish education, but at the same time, if the need is to find employment, you’ve got to really equip them with technical and vocational knowledge and skills. Also, regions in India, there is a lot of focus now within schools also to build skills as a part of the curriculum while children are in school and to focus on technical and vocational education.

The PIE: Coming back to the point about SDGs and widening participation. Does IC3 primarily reach private and independent schools, or do you reach other providers too?

NB: In the first couple of cohorts, 90% of those enrolled in the program were coming from high-end private schools. About 10% were coming in from schools that were marginalised or underserved. As of today that percentage has changed to 60%-40%.

We signed up with the government of Telangana, the state in India, to work with their social and tribal welfare departments which have over 400 schools which educate children from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. These are children who cannot manage even basic meals in the day. Even the teachers on this program in those schools are mostly voluntary.

“40% now being represented are really the schools where the need is the most”

We have a school out of Chhattisgarh in India where they charge 180 rupees a month, that’s about two dollars a month, as their tuition fee. So those are the kind of schools that we have in the mix. And we also have the likes of Dubai International and the pathways of the world. But I’m really happy to report that about 40% now being represented are really the schools where the need is the most.

The PIE: Can you talk a bit about the Rebuild Program you launched last year?

NB: With Covid-19 hitting, we wanted to see how we could play a role in supporting what’s going on.

While there was a lot of international and domestic support to providing immediate relief for Covid-19, there was very little attention paid towards mitigating the risks that would arise from stage two of the pandemic.

We received within three weeks of announcing this project over 1,000 applications from women that had lost their husbands to Covid-19, and the only breadwinner for the family. The project aims to train women as counsellors. So it’s really serving two purposes. One, we are giving them means of sustenance. But we’re also staying true to our mission.

We launched the four-month training program in September to help women become career counsellors. We had over 130 women that eventually started the program, and a lot of them either found jobs on the way. Over 60 women have completed this program successfully.

When you look at it, you only think of a number 60, but you’re actually talking about 60 families that have been positively impacted. We had schools that were donating laptops to these women because some of them came with technology issues. A lot of industry professionals, some university representatives as well, came in and volunteered their time to mentor these women. We now have a record of about 60 women that have completed the program successfully and are going to be placed in schools.

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