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Home sick

Poorly skilled construction workers and world-class home fitting brands make for an odd match in India.

Shalini S. Dagar | Print Edition: September 19, 2010

Aman Kathuria would probably agree with American labour leader George Meany, who famously said: "Anybody who has any doubt about the ingenuity or the resourcefulness of a plumber never got a bill from one." Well, for Kathuria, the Managing Director of BG Steels, a company from Bhiwadi, Rajasthan, substitute the plumber for the electrician or mason. He is caught in the middle of building his second home.

Caught is the right word. Since February 2009, he has been remodelling two 3,000 square feet penthouses into one in the posh Heritage City enclave of Gurgaon. He was hoping to move in last Diwali, but after a year and a half and with his renovation budget already double, he is now pinning hopes on moving into the reworked apartment this Diwali. Not just cost and time overruns, Kathuria has had to deal with shockers, too. For instance, he got a jolt when the masons forgot to leave room for wiring in a steam room. "Now that wall is clad in stone. We need to break it down and again rework it," he trails off.

If this sounds like regular construction site folklore, then consider this: Delhi-based architect Sandeep Uppal recounts how one rushed night the absence of the foreman and the supervisor meant that the elevator at one of his construction sites was fixed upside down. "It cost us a bomb, and not to forget the delays. The whole thing had to be torn down," says Uppal.

BUILDING FACTS

  • With 35 million persons employed in the construction industry, it is the second-largest employer in India after agriculture
  • The construction industry has been growing at 10-12% every year
  • Most tradesmen acquire basic knowledge on the job and so remain largely unskilled
  • No effective institutional set-up for training construction workers
  • Proper execution of work involves good design, adhering to standards and codes, proper supervision of construction works and employment of skilled workers

Source: Construction Industry Development Council

It is such lack of ordinary skills in plumbers, carpenters, masons, electricians and other construction workers in India that has house owners and construction companies alike blowing a fuse. With urbanisation slated to double in the next 20 years and the construction industry expected to grow at over 30 per cent over the next 10 years, this gap in skills is going to hurt even more.

To be sure, the construction business has always been characterised by a low level of professional, but this has only become worse. According to estimates by Construction Industry Development Council (CIDC), a joint effort of the industry and the Planning Commission, the percentage of unskilled persons rose from 73 per cent in 1995 to 82 per cent in 2005. The trend, reckon experts, has not improved much since 2005.

That can be grim. Sudhakar Nair, President of Indian Plumbers Association, or IPA, says that of all the plumbing projects in the country, "hardly 10-16 per cent work is handled by professionals compared to 75-80 per cent in the developed world". Most of the nation's plumbers are casual labourers, who have learned the trade on their own or through working with experienced plumbers, he reckons.

Uppal, who has now spent over two decades as an architect, says the quality of people working in the industry fell during the last decade, as overseas opportunities in the Gulf countries and elsewhere caused a flight of skilled labour from India. "Now in the past two years, one can see an 'upcurve' again," Uppal says, with some relief.

That relief is echoing in an emerging quarter in the Indian construction business - that of topend home fitting brands which count demand for some three million middle class and rich homes as a lucrative market. Top brands such as Kohler, Lingel and Cata have had a presence in India over the past few years, selling wares like taps, windows and exhaust fans. But they grapple with the possibilities of brand erosion due to poor installation. "We struggle day in and out to ensure a good customer experience," says a senior executive of a leading brand, insisting he or his employer not be named.

Many of the home fittings companies have then simply got into the trenches. For instance, German sanitaryware brand Grohe, which is present across 100 cities in India and expects revenues of over Rs 500 crore by 2012, ensures that those installing its products are trained well. Vice President and Managing Director Mathew Job says that as part of its "pre installation guidance" in India, Grohe deputes a technician to the customer premises. "This sort of guidance is not needed in every country," says Job. The company last year collaborated with Don Bosco Institute of Technology to start the Grohe Jal Academy at Kurla in central Mumbai for imparting such training.

Fenesta, the Indian brand for unplasticised PVC, or UPVC windows, does the same. "We impart both technical and behavioural training. This training to European standards also creates an incentive for these workers to remain with us, as they end up upgrading themselves professionally," says Sandeep Mathur, the company's Business Head for UPVC Doors and Windows Systems. Such initiatives, he believes, will help organised players corner a bigger share of the home fittings market.

Häfele, another German home fittings brand that looks to clock Rs 100 crore revenues in India this year, has two training centres in Bangalore and Mumbai and will invest in another two in Delhi and Bangalore by the end of the year to reach out to more carpenters. "This is a slow and systematic process that will have to continue for many years to be truly effective in spreading the muchneeded know-how," says Jurgen Wolf, Managing Director of Häfele India, adding that his company is using interactive software in such training. Architect Uppal says that such training even for a couple of days helps workers do a better job, and is worth the effort and money spent.

Whether it is global brands such as Hettich or Indian ones such as Somany Tiles, they are all making the effort to ensure that anyone who uses their products gets an idea how best to use them.

Most of these efforts, for now, are at the top end of the market. Mukesh Sharma, owner of MLS & Co., a Gurgaon-based dealer of high-end bathroom fittings who provides add-on services to his clients, has been toying with the idea of extending such services to the value conscious consumer.

But he has not taken that leap of faith yet because the numbers do not as yet make economic sense. "Perhaps, a year down the line," says Sharma. He believes that it is also the case of consumers not willing to pay for the cost of, say, the electrical, masonry and the carpentry for the refurbishment of a room in addition to the cost of fittings. Indian consumers want the details of the works separately, which becomes too much of a hassle.

Elsewhere, industry organisations such as CIDC or IPA are attempting to put in place some overarching industry standards - like the Uniform Plumbing Code of India - in a bid to close the skill gap in the construction market. But the design of some of the government-aided schemes is inherently flawed due to the lack of sufficient industry participation. These ongoing programmes, says Gayathri Vasudevan, advisor with Bangalore's LabourNet, which connects blue collar workers with customers, "need a mechanism for market signals to flow back to the workers. Industry standards change very fast. Workers need to know what is expected of them, and how these new practices can benefit them".

Vasudevan believes there is demonstrable positive impact on the workers's earnings after training; they are smart enough to take that extra effort. LabourNet chalked up some success with training some 180 masons and plumbers for rainwater harvesting, which was recently mandated by the government in Bangalore. Another successful scheme has been training carpenters with the help of power tools manufacturer Bosch. After such training, many carpenters have taken bank loans, which are part of the scheme, to buy these tools. These changes are welcome, but until they scale up and seep into large parts of urban India, many like Kathuria will be kept away from their dream homes - perhaps even this Diwali.

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