Sanjeev Singh, IEC brand ambassador and CEO of Silk Education and Training speaks to Tanu Kallivayalil about the important role education plays in a modern economy.
CEO of Silk Education and Training and Brand Ambassador for the IEC Awards Sanjeev Singh is a veteran dreamer. From a very young age he had been dreaming of becoming successful in life. And every time a door closed on this dreamer he found that another one always opened.
That is how he went from being one of the world’s top power-lifters to washing dishes at Hungry Jacks in Perth and from there to the head of a thriving business in the education sector. When he realised the first path would not get him far in life, he quickly looked for another way.
As one of the best power-lifters in the world – the fifth to be precise – he asked his coach what his chances were once he had reached the very best in this game, and the answer he got was a bit of a shock and very much a game changer. “You could become a security guard,” his coach said.
When he realised what his prospects would be if he continued on the path power-lifting, he told his father that he wanted to go overseas. “Where?” asked his father. “I don’t know,” said Sanjeev. After he convinced his mother, which was harder than convincing his father, the three of them shortlisted the USA, Switzerland and Australia. “We ruled out America because my mother was worried about the spate of gun violence there at the time. Switzerland was ruled out because it was too expensive for my dad, and Australia was chosen because it was multicultural and we liked it,” he said, explaining how the biggest decision in his life was taken.
At the time the rules were very different. “Any 18-year-old could come here and go to uni, there was no requirement for homestay and so on,” he adds.
That was how he reached Australia. He spent the first night sleeping at the airport because he had nowhere to go and was kicked out in the morning by security. “I could not speak English too well and I showed the brochure of my college to a taxi driver, who took me to the college. It was there that I was set up with a home to stay at, and within 20 days I got a job – washing dishes at Hungry Jacks,” says the owner of SILK education whose clientele include Crown Casino and McDonalds.
What is the driving force behind this continued success? “I’m not sure. That’s the way I am and have been. The confidence I see from my family, I just wanted to show them that I had done the right thing. I’m a self-driven person. I’m sick of some people who tarnish the image of the whole community and I just want to achieve more so that we can merge into the mainstream. I want to open a skill centre that will be free for the community here and overseas. I think education is the main driver or the main backbone for making lives better. It makes you employable, you work instead of doing stupid things and this improves your lifestyle. My best satisfaction comes from helping others. I can’t explain it,” he says.
“There are times when I have taken loans from a bank to support someone. It’s funny how God works – when you do that, you get more back. I’m lucky to have a supportive wife and my two boys,” he adds.
“It’s something inside me. It just drives me. I feel more energy everyday. I grew up in a house where I never had to step inside the kitchen. To go from there to washing dishes was not easy but it’s been satisfying. I have never taken money from my parents except for the first time when I came here,” he adds.
SILK Education and Training is a nationally recognised training centre for the hospitality, business, management and retail sectors. In 2012, Sanjeev was awarded the Young Executive of the Year award due to his commitment and excellence within the Vocational Education and Training VET sector. In 2012, he was also awarded the young executive award of the year by the Indian Executive Club.
SILK trains staff to industry requirements and the company’s success lies in their close association with employers and SILK’s on-site training programs.
Recognition of their work came when they were one of only a handful of private companies that was invited to travel with the Premier for the Super Trade Mission to India. That really opened a lot of doors for the company. “Once we have the Indian and Australian government arranging a meeting, it’s useful. We had meetings with local government, corporates and local training providers who wanted to work with us. We have also been invited to the Global Skills Summit in Delhi for 3 days. We are the only private company going for the event,” says Sanjeev.
He says that SILK stands out because the executive team is very different. Between him and his partner Rocco Guarnaccia, they have about 30 years’ experience in some of the top institutes of the country. They are both Melbourne Uni graduates who have held many executive roles. As such, they have a key understanding of the education sector as well as the needs of the industry. They have put their experience and knowledge to good use by bridging the gap between the two. “We have an in-depth understanding of the system,” he says.
“Our model is very customised for the client. We have over 19 qualifications. I talk to the owner or the personnel manager on what they want to achieve. We then make sure the right electives are taken and we deliver it onsite. For example, if it is about OH&S, instead of discussing it in the classroom, we take the trainees to the site so they can see and judge for themselves,” he says.
While they are keen to expand, and there is scope to do so, they are aware of the need to do it gradually.
“The company I used to work for was in debt. A minor change in policy changed the scene. It was valued at $85 million and when it came to selling it they struggled to sell it for a fraction of that amount,” he says, and adds that governments tend to take the easy way out instead of thinking through a problem.
He admits that there was a time when many organisations made it easy for students to arrive here on a student visa and then convert that into PR.
“There should not be a link between education and migration,” he says. He feels that there is a need to open up the market but with the right checks in place. He feels the system should allow students to gain that valuable international experience and become good employees so that the employers offer sponsorship. “They should not open up the market for PR but definitely for the right markets.”
He is in favour of the post study visa, which allows students to undertake study for two to four years after completing their bachelor’s degree. The Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne made this announcement recently. However, this applies only to specific universities.
Sanjeev would like to see this extended to vocational courses and private institutions as well.
While his company focuses on the domestic market, he has one foot in India as part of a creative strategy. One is that he offers courses in his institute in Delhi. Credits accumulated here will count should the student choose to study further in Australia. Secondly, the government has recently announced a plan to spend about $A300 on graduates who are willing to upskill.
A large percentage of the graduates is unemployable in India. Quality and curriculum is an issue. “Now is a good time for us to be in India when skilled development is at the top of the agenda, so we provide knowledge of an international standard. Personally, I am also involved in Dr Bedi’s Navjoti foundation. I have sponsored about five kids from the streets, who will now be placed in gainful employment,” he says.
Sanjeev says the industry he is in is very rewarding as well as exciting. “They are fresh and creative – in about 8 weeks they are very different people. It’s a totally different conversation at that point,” he says, speaking about the new employees.
He speaks very passionately about his role as brand ambassador for the IEC Awards. “I came to this country when I was 17 without any family or connections. I had a clear vision about where I wanted to be. I was the first generation here. It was very important to see a platform that supports people like us and it’s great to see that platform in the IEC. It gives you a bit more encouragement tokeep on and do better. After 15 years of working hard, I feel it’s not wasted. It also gives you a link to the community.”
“The only drawback being brand ambassador is that I cannot nominate myself again this year! I would have loved to enter again and win again. But I understand the reasoning behind it. It would have looked very strange if the brand ambassador had won an award. I appreciate that there are processes in place.”
Sanjeev feels very strongly that the government needs to work towards cutting red tape for businesses. “We need more encouragement for small businesses to hire staff. They are cutting funding for education when times are tough. People who lose jobs should have a chance to re-skill. This year, the government took $240 million off apprenticeship and training,” he says.
“Skilled workers or lack of them is another issue that businesses face in Australia. Hospitalityhas always been a problem. This sector can never have enough chefs. But there are other areas as well. Administration work and so on are also suffering. Because of this short supply, the salary goes up and it comes to a stage where businesses cannot operate. That’s what we face,” he adds.