Food wholesalers and their retail customers within Britain might take their knowledge and skills for granted, but it is a different story in emerging market countries such as India. There, big wholesale and retail chains need trained staff and may have to recruit employees with little or no experience of modern food distribution networks. As a result, one of India’s largest food retail chains, Bharti Walmart – a joint venture including the American shopping giant – has set up its own training centres to fill the skills gap. It now operates 18, having launched the initiative in 2008.

One is in Pusa Road, Delhi, a busy thoroughfare just one mile from the capital’s main government quarter. It was visited by Better Wholesaling, who spoke to trainees, graduates and trainers. A typical student was Waseem Akram, 22, who grew up in Delhi’s second oldest neighbourhood Shahdara with his father (a small-time businessman selling spare automotive parts), homemaker mother and five siblings. Shahdara reflects the changes occurring in India. Some of the old, ram-shackled dwellings have given way to modern concrete structures with glazed glass and steel exteriors that shut out the noise and squalor. The majority of the population, however, lives in small homes cheek-by-jowl along narrow lanes. But India’s economy is booming and in time, many youths from these slums may switch from gawking at shop windows to becoming skilled retailers.

And the Bharti Walmart Training Centre network is here to help that process. Two years ago, Akram was pursuing a Bachelor of Commerce degree hoping to help his father in his business. But a chance meeting with a Bharti Walmart centre volunteer in 2010 changed that.

He enrolled for a two-week-long, part-time course to become a floor-based shop assistant. For Mr Akram, coming from an impoverished background, the offer of a free training course with the assurance of a job in the retail sector afterwards seemed too good to be true. But that is what is offered by the training centre – jobs with Bharti Walmart.

Also, other retailers offer graduates jobs too and Mr Akram now works at a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) outlet at the fashionable Connaught Place district in New Delhi. He is a valued employee, representing and winning accolades for his unit at the KFC’s inter-outlet competitions. “I interact with educated and sophisticated people now. I learn much more than I would have had I joined my father’s business,” Mr Akram told Better Wholesaling. He is also continuing his education as he pursues an MBA course, specialising in hotel management. He said, smiling with pride, that would be the first MBA from his family’s ancestral village of Budaun, in Uttar Pradesh, when he finishes his studies.

As India opens its doors to foreign direct investments in the retail sector, albeit amidst political opposition, major chains such as Walmart are preparing for the future. Bharti Walmart, a joint venture with Indian conglomerate Bharti Enterprises, provides free training to unemployed youths at its centres, equipping them with skills required to gain employment in the retail sector. Anyone over 18 with at least 12 years of school education is eligible to enroll in a course. “To date, over 16,000 students have been certified and more than 5,400 have been placed in jobs with various prestigious organisations including in Bharti Walmart’s Best Price Modern Wholesale stores and Bharti Retail Limited’s Easyday and Easyday Market stores. We also focus on enhancing women employability in the retail sector and enable them to have a fulfilling and sustainable career. More than 36% of the students that are certified from the centres are women,” Arti Singh, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Walmart India, told Better Wholesaling.

The initiative has not come a day too soon: the Indian industry body, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), has forecast that India’s retail sector will become a US dollar USD1.3 trillion market by 2020, up from about the current value of USD500 billion.

Some training centres are run as public private partnerships with the with the help and support of state governments, such as Punjab, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi to enable local youths, particularly those lacking higher education, to go take a two- to three-week training programme that will prepare them for their first jobs.

“Our mission for inclusive growth is in keeping with the goals of the state governments. The retail market is one of the fastest growing [markets] in India today and the lack of a skilled workforce makes our training centres a compelling proposition,” said Ms Singh.

Bharti Walmart is responsible for setting the curriculum, (which has been developed from Walmart’s best practices), sourcing students, training teachers and issuing certificates to successful candidates. Meanwhile, the state governments provide infrastructure such as classrooms and furniture.

Students can take advantage of the company’s global knowledge and expertise in the retail business during the course’s 48 hours of instruction, which imparts basic retailing skills, such as the history of retail, customer service, sale, basic grooming and communications skills. An additional week of training is also offered – with 24 hours of instruction, which trains candidates for supervisory roles, imparting managerial skills.

In the Pusa Road centre, 20-year-old Sonu Kumar from the lower middle class Delhi neighbourhood of Sagarpur, told Better Wholesaling that before joining these classes, he did not know how to talk to a potential customer. Using Walmart’s ‘see-hear-act’ method of training, Mr Kumar, along with his 20 classmates, learned how to smile and engage a customer. Piyush Bhushan, 18, who had travelled 65 kilometres from the small city of Meerut for the course, added: “There is much to learn here in addition to retail.”

This commute signals a wider change because organised retail is no longer just the preserve of larger cities in India and is instead spreading to smaller so-called ‘tier II’ and ‘tier III’ cities such as Meerut. So, young men like Mr Bhushan will no longer need to migrate to urban areas to find employment.

Meanwhile, the Bharti Walmart training centres are gaining a solid reputation. This is unlike their launch year 2008, when the first centre opened in Amritsar, Punjab, when there was widespread scepticism that such a free initiative could deliver employment. Getting girls to enrol was even more difficult given opposition amongst some families. “Counselling parents was also a part of our job,” said one counsellor at the centre. But she says this has yielded results because so many female graduates are now employed in showrooms and retail outlets, many opening in the past two years.

Anupam Kumari is one. Growing up in Mangolpuri, a Delhi slum, today, she works at a showroom for Titan, the world’s fifth largest watch manufacturer, linked to India’s huge Tata group. Ms Kumari has also been sent by her employer to the training centre for advanced training.

Another male trainee, Umesh Kumar, 19, wants to be a Walmart manager: “Two months ago, I did not know the ABC of retail. Now, I realise the potential in this field.”

And stressing India’s growing retail sector presents an important opportunity improve life for underprivileged Indians, Ms Singh added: “We believe that these training centres are a great way of mainstreaming under-privileged youth into the country’s economic growth. The model would hold good anywhere in the world.”